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Playgirl's Queer Canard by Judy Cole

This coming year, with its June 1998 issue, Playgirl magazine will have survived twenty-five years as the only major magazine (apart from a few pale European competitors like the British periodical, For Women) to showcase the beefy bodies of beautiful, nude men for the pleasure of a purportedly female audience. However, since its inception, there have been murmurs that at its heart, Playgirl was not really a women's magazine at all, but rather an undercover gay title, tricked out in high-gloss, hetero duds. The truth? Well, that's not quite so simple.
     I spent nearly five years at the magazine, from June of 1992 to March of 1997, moving up from associate editor to senior editor, managing editor, and finally editor-in-chief. Like my four predecessors, I was eventually shown the door (assuming the title of editor-in-chief at Playgirl is a lot like marrying Henry the Eighth). During this period I received an intimate education in the intricacies of the singular animal that is Playgirl.
     From the time the first issue hit the stands a quarter of a century ago, Playgirl has been a creature both contradictory and divided. The magazine was created in the swinging '70s, not by the so-called liberated women of the times, but by a savvy man who saw a niche and thought he could profit from it -- and profit from it he did, along with several subsequent owners.
     The current keepers of the flame -- the company president, vice president and Playgirl's editorial director -- are male as well, and it is they who dictate the magazine's content. Don't let anyone kid you: Though there may well be a female editor on the masthead, and though it has always been more than a figure-head title, no woman wipes her own ass in that house without first getting permission in triplicate from above.
     The result is a magazine for women filtered through a decidedly non-female set of sensibilities, which is grounds enough for sexual disorientation. At Playgirl, the situation is compounded by a further twist: The captains who plot the magazine's course and navigate her destiny happen to be longtime, hardcore men's market pornographers, who churn out such "skin-tillating" titles, as they say in the industry, as High Society, Cheri, Celebrity Skin and Hawk simultaneously with Playgirl. The irony of electing men who objectify women for a living as arbiters and executors of female desire is Playgirl's day to day reality.
     Who really reads Playgirl? Every few years the magazine conducts a rather unscientific reader survey, and, drawing also from subscriber data, they tally demographic statistics and make their pronouncements. The official conclusion is that men account for somewhere between 18 and 25 percent of Playgirl's total readership. Of course statistics are pliable. During my tenure, I was told that Playgirl's statisticians routinely counted all subscribers who entered an initial in place of a first name (as in "F. Imaman") as women. When you consider this, as well the likelihood that some men respond to surveys under female aliases, the figures begin to shift.
     Based on the information I had, and the sampling of readers I heard from over the years, I would estimate that 40 percent of Playgirl's readers are men. I know that might sound low to residents of metropolitan areas like New York, L.A. and San Francisco, where the concentration of gay readers is heavy, but I believe that across the country and in Canada, Playgirl's core audience is still primarily female.
     One of the questions I was most often asked by members of that female readership was whether the models who pose for the magazine are gay. The answer, unsurprisingly, is that some are, some aren't.
     I remember quite vividly a conversation I had with one livid reader who somehow bypassed the switchboard operator, got my direct line and chewed me out for about fifteen minutes because she'd discovered her favorite man of the month was batting for the other team. After dutifully weathering a salvo of flaming invectives, I was eventually able to get a word in edgewise, and told her, "Choosing the models who pose for Playgirl is like hiring someone for a job. To consider their sexual orientation when making the selection would be not only illegal, but morally repugnant to me. The men who pose for Playgirl represent an ideal, a fantasy. What they do behind closed doors in the privacy of their homes is their business, and frankly Madam, I don't give a damn."
     This is not to say that we didn't avoid what we considered to be certain gay content when we put the magazine together. We did. It was, after all, supposed to be a woman's magazine. As a matter of course, Playgirl policy makers, myself included, staunchly adhered to the party line that was spoon-fed to new hires: "While we do not deny that we have gay readers, all of Playgirl's editorial content is created, with no exceptions, for a female audience."
     There was reason for this: many of the poses, facial expressions and costuming common in gay titles function as cement overshoes to the feminine libido. Homo-erotic archetypes like otherwise starkers swains sporting black leather chaps or the male equivalents to Daisy Dukes, are not sexually evocative to women, they're laughable. And laughter wasn't our objective.
     Though Playgirl goes to great lengths to camouflage its gay demographic, there are market forces at work making that task increasingly difficult. Whether it's due to the resurgence of the far right or the glut of explicit sexual eye-candy available on the Internet, in the past few years the adult magazine market has begun drying up like a small puddle on a hot sidewalk. Fewer and fewer adult titles make it to the shelves of retail chains every month, leaving owners and investors scrambling to remain viable fish in a shrinking pond.
     Dwindling circulation creates a vicious cycle. Magazines stop getting their circulation rated, and with no way to tell how much bang they're getting for their buck, real advertisers -- the liquor, cigarette, cosmetic and car accounts -- pull out. Publishers then turn to new sources of revenue, negotiating lucrative deals with 1-900 companies and creating fee-based web sites. Magazines become less about content and more about warehousing phone ads, which are increasingly created in-house by the art and editorial staffs. Celebrities who used to be their meat and potatoes run scared. (After all, would you want your face next to an ad whose headline proclaims "I'll fuck you!" over a picture of some guy who looks like he would with or without your permission?)
     Playgirl's revenue renaissance, whether the management will cop to it or not, is powered by the gay dollar. As borne out by market research, it is the gay audience that has disposable income, and more importantly, is willing to spend it on the 1-900 phone calls and the credit-card-fed "exclusive, private memberships" in Playgirl's website.
     In order to continue to look like a women's magazine, Playgirl refuses ads from third parties that feature man-on-man graphics or patently gay copy. Most consumers seem to understand, however, that Playgirl's phone lines are for men who want to talk to other men. The straight design of the ads rarely fools anyone, except for the occasional bewildered woman who calls in only to suffer the frustrations of trying to find someone -- or anyone -- to discuss her fantasies.
     So, if lining their coffers is Playgirl's only raison d'?tre, why not jettison the femme facade altogether and lobby for the gay market out in the open? Because when gay readers want a gay book, they go out and buy one from the scads and scads there are to choose from. Playgirl gives its gay readership something that they can't get from magazines geared directly at their demographic, which is precisely why so many of them want it in the first place. Time and again, gay men have told me that they actually enjoy the illusion that the Playgirl models are straight, since it enhances the fantasy of persuading the meaty objects of their desire to defect to the other side.
     Secondly, according to many men I've spoken with, they don't want Playgirl to be a "gay" magazine, they want it to be a "coffee-table" magazine. Since the content is a lot softer and more broad-based than most men's porn -- gay or straight -- it's as close to being "legitimate" as a publication with naked men in it can be. It has the appeal of being a stroke book that isn't necessarily a stroke book. And, while Playgirl's spokespeople, myself included, have appeared regularly on shows like Entertainment Tonight, Jenny Jones and Hard Copy -- the same cannot be said for the head honchos of Honcho, Colt or Blue Boy. Many Americans still believe the Playgirl name -- like Playboy and Penthouse -- maintains a certain cach? of mainstream acceptability.
     But perhaps Playgirl's most compelling appeal to gay readers -- aside from the naked men -- may be part and parcel of the same yearning that leads cross-dressers and drag queens to haunt exclusive women's designer boutiques, rather than stores that carry merchandise specifically for them. The allure is inherent in the taboo, and the fantasy of gender-crossing. For better or worse, Playgirl survives and thrives in the gay marketplace, not in spite of the fact it is a woman's magazine, but because it is a woman's magazine. Ignoring the gay audience may turn out to be the most savvy marketing strategy of all.
     So what kind of magazine is Playgirl, finally? To paraphrase Victor/Victoria, it's kind of like a women's magazine, pretending to be a men's magazine, pretending to be a women's magazine. Its sexual identity is really in the eye of the beholder. Playgirl is about the fantasy of buff, virile, naked men, and at the end of the day, it doesn't matter who consumes it -- only that it's consumed.

©1997 Judy Cole and
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