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Hugh Hefner launched Playboy Magazine 70 years ago this year. The first issue included a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe, which he bought and published without her knowledge or consent.
Hefner went on to build the Playboy brand off the back of countless women featured in its pages, whose beauty and display of heightened feminine sexuality have entertained its readers for generations.
Coming up on its 70th anniversary in December, Playboy has radically changed. With the magazine out of print, the Playboy Mansion sold to a developer and the last remaining Playboy Club in London closing in 2021, what is the future of Playboy? The brand is changing to keep up with the post-#MeToo world.
Hefner died a month before allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein surfaced in 2017 that fueled the #MeToo movement (which saw survivors of sexual assault and harassment speak out against their abusers).
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In recent years, many have re-examined Hefner’s legacy and relationship with women. The 2022 docuseries “The Secrets of Playboy” (which aired on Channel 4 in the UK) detailed accusations of sexual misconduct against Hefner from several ex-girlfriends, including model Sondra Theodore and TV personality Holly Madison.
Hefner and Playboy’s relationship with women was complicated. Playboy was an early supporter of abortion rights, helped fund the first rape kit and was sometimes an early advocate of inclusivity (for example featuring transgender model, Caroline “Tula” Cossey, in its June 1981 issue) . But most of the women featured in Playboy fit a narrow standard of beauty – thin, white, strong and blonde.
Meanwhile Hefner’s personal relationships with his younger girlfriends reportedly followed patterns of control and emotional abuse. Ex-girlfriend Holly Madison described Hefner treating her “like a glorified pet” in her 2015 memoir, “Down the Rabbit Hole.”
Hefner’s death means he avoids reckoning with the #MeToo movement. Playboy, however, responded, releasing a statement in which it confirmed the support for women shown in “The Secrets of Playboy” and called Hefner’s actions “outrageous.”
The statement stated that the brand is no longer associated with the Hefner family and will focus on aspects of the company’s heritage that are consistent with the values of sex positivity and free expression.
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Today, Playboy is a very different company from the one Hefner launched nearly 70 years ago. Approximately 80% of Playboy’s staff identify as women, according to the company, and its motto has changed from “Fun for Men” to “Happiness for All.” The company’s shares are publicly traded and 40% of its board and management are women.
The company is also moving into more creator-led content through its app, Playboy Centerfold. Like the subscription content service OnlyFans, Playboy Centerfold allows subscribers to view content from and interact with its creators, which it calls “bunnies.”
In the app, creators – or rabbits – can describe their own bodies however they want, putting the power back in their hands. Perhaps the future of Playboy is no longer in the service of the male gaze, but the very audience that Hefner rejected in his first letter from the editor:
“If you are a man between the ages of 18 and 80 Playboy for you … If you are a sister, wife or mother-in-law and mistakenly took us, please pass us to the man in your life and back to your Ladies Home Companion.”
The stars of Playboy’s mid-2000s reality series, Holly Madison and Bridget Marquardt, are also enjoying a resurgence of fans.
“The Girls Next Door” launched in 2004. The show focuses on the lives of Hefner’s three girlfriends, Madison, Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson. It became the best show on E and cultivated a new female audience for Playboy.
“The Girls Next Door” is a story of complex empowerment despite patriarchal interference. The three female protagonists go from being known only as some of Hefner’s many blonde girlfriends, to celebrities in their own right.
Each of them eventually parted ways with Hefner, left the Mansion and went on to lead successful careers.
The show’s portrayal of Madison, Marquardt and Wilkinson as empowered, fun-loving and complex individuals, who find joy and agency through expressing their sexuality is perhaps what attracted many female fans to the show. show. But, amid the women’s fight for agency, Hefner retaliated.
The series shows him maintaining the final say over every Playboy photo of the women, as well as imposing strict curfews and spending allowances.
In Madison and Wilkinson’s memoirs, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” and “Sliding into Home,” they admit that the production often took a toll on them. They refused to pay them for the first season, they were not credited until the fourth season and aired their uncensored naked bodies on foreign broadcasts and DVD releases without permission.
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Fan interest in “The Girls Next Door” remains strong. In August 2022, Madison and Marquardt launched their podcast “Girls Next Level,” where they interviewed past players and interacted with fans. They also recap the episodes from their own points of view, opening up about their experiences working on the show.
Reaching 10 million downloads in February 2023, the success of the podcast – 14 years after the last episode of “The Girls Next Door” – speaks to the cultural heritage of the Playboy brand. It also shows that despite Hefner’s original editor’s note, Playboy was controversial with some women.
Playboy is now in the post-Hefner era, where images of women found inside old Playboy issues can serve as inspiration for others to enjoy their own sexuality. Whatever the future holds for the company, the concept of Playboy has become public property – whether it’s the appearance of Playboy bunny costumes every Halloween, the popularity of cheeky Playboy logo tattoos or branded lingerie and clothing.
In a post-#MeToo era, the women of Playboy are speaking out and taking over. As the gates of the mansion close, the rabbits finally reclaim the brand that is theirs.
Top Image: Hugh Hefner with the Playboy “bunnies” in London in 1966.