OPINION: Dirty pictures that recall a more innocent time
The announcement last week that, beginning with its March issue, Playboy magazine will be clothing its nudes unleashed a raft of valedictories for the publication itself. I suspect that Playboy, for which, in full disclosure, I am a contributing editor, will survive, if only because it is a loss leader for one of the world's most recognizable and monetisable brands. But if the expulsion of the nude isn't fatal for the magazine - Maxim, GQ, Esquire and Details do just fine appealing to the same young male readers without nudity - it does end one of the great traditions of American life and signals the close of a certain kind of American innocence.
As for the tradition, several generations of American men, including my own, had their first brush with sexuality in Playboy's pages. Smuggling your father's issues from his stash (or from the stash of a friend's father), surreptitiously perusing the magazine as you waited for a haircut, or sneaking looks at it on the newsstand, before the magazine was exiled to the adult ghetto - these were all rites of passage for any tween or teenage male. So was hiding the issue in your sock drawer, only to snatch it once the bedroom light went out, and reading it under the covers with a flashlight. And so, later, was taking a favourite centerfold and taping it to your dorm wall, making public what had heretofore been private.
Nor was it just the sense of transgression that made those nudes so irresistible. It was the girls themselves. Playmates were so airbrushingly perfect, so open and inviting, so comfortable that they might as well have belonged to a different race. Theirs was sanitised sexuality, clean and healthy, as opposed to the brutish mechanics one saw in hardcore pornography or one suspected was practiced by the sluttish girls in Penthouse and Hustler. As odd as it is to say it, Playmates were almost chaste by comparison, which is the reason they could serve as a bridge between our inchoate desires and our more reified fantasies. These were girls made not just for lust but for partnership.
Indeed, they often said, in the little write-ups on the back of their centerfolds, that they liked men with a sense of humour, men who weren't stuck-up, men who were smart. Weren't we young testosterone-fueled geeks funny, humble and brainy? We didn't need to be muscular gods to get these girls.
The Playmate was where biology merged with hope. We all had our favourite Playmates, girls we imagined ourselves with. For me, it was Donna Michelle, 1964's Playmate of the Year, who, I remember, posed on the cover bent at the waist, balanced on her rump with her legs straight. I have no idea where I got the magazine, but I know I perused it thousands of times, staring at the pouty, tousle-haired Donna, who basically introduced me to female anatomy. I was one of millions of teenage boys doing the same with their own Playmates, caught in their own sexual reveries.
But if the Playmates initiated us into sexual longing and filled our loins with desire, they also wound up filling our heads with mush. As every Playmate-trained boy learned to his everlasting disappointment, those girls really didn't exist outside of Playboy, and even if they did, they certainly didn't want guys whose biggest recommendation was a good sense of humour, any more than most guys wanted girls whose biggest recommendation was their sense of humour. And this was a rite of passage too: The great illusion of sexuality inevitably led to the great disillusion, to which every man had to surrender, however reluctantly. The dream was as burnished as the girls.
If this was hard on the guys, one can only imagine how hard it was on the girls. No woman could live up to Playboy's version of her, not even the Playmates themselves. And so two generations of young American men were frustrated at having to face sexual reality, and two generations of young American women were forced to stack up against the impossible and the unreal. For decades, Playmates turned us all into victims of perfection.
Clearly, this generation of teenage men is also spending hours staring and dreaming, nearly all of them now in front of a computer screen rather than a magazine page. That is one reason why Playboy said it was dispensing with its nudes. Nudity was no longer contraband. Any kid could find it on the Internet, and it would be far more graphic than anything Playboy would dare publish. But somehow, nostalgist that I am, Internet porn isn't quite the same thing.
Playboy founder Hugh Hefner gave us a world of sexual sophistication - of dry martinis, jazz, convertibles, and languor. He provided us with an urban dream world with dream girls. When you thought of them, you thought of the process of seduction, which was another way in which_ Playboy_ became a primer; the magazine was dedicated to delineating that process. This wasn't just sex we imagined when we saw those nude women. It was fulfillment.
Still, the forbiddeness of it, the secretiveness of it, the way in which Playboy was a portal into the taboo was an excitement in every boy's life. By closing it, Playboy has acknowledged not only that no one, not even teenage boys, needs a portal now, but also that the nudes and the whole fantasy that went with them are an anachronism at a time when kids hook up rather than seduce. Those Playmates belong to a more innocent time when sex was mysterious, even romantic - a time when boys knew virtually nothing about girls. We are long past that age now, and many of us will think of those Playmates with nostalgia and regret while future generations will never know the guilty thrill they gave us.
Neal Gabler is the author of 'An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood' and 'Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality'. He's working on a biography of Senator Ted Kennedy.