I have to admit that my first thought upon hearing that the current issue of Playgirl magazine will be its last was: "Is it still around?" The response was only reinforced by a quick poll of my smart, liberated lady friends, none of whom had come across one in years.
This admission was then almost universally followed by nostalgia for the "witty," "hairy," "iconic seventies" centrefold of a cigarillo-smoking Burt Reynolds naked on a bearskin rug - a cheering image to be sure, although it never appeared in Playgirl. Burt bared all but the family jewels for Helen Gurley Brown's Cosmopolitan in April, 1972, a full year before Playgirl's debut.
None of us could recall anybody who ever became famous after posing in Playgirl, the way Playboy centrefolds did. In our dim recollection of Playgirl as a rather "limp" effort, the news that the magazine had been featuring naked erections since 1980 came as a surprise. Truth be told, none of us thought about it much, let alone pored over it in the privacy of our boudoirs.
Playgirl was founded in 1973 as a feminist response to men's magazines like Penthouse and Playboy. The idea was to fight women's objectification and empower women's sexual liberation with a little objectification of our own - a key notion to our "Free to Be You and Me" generation, and one that fuelled the hardly insignificant career of another smart, liberated woman of our time named Madonna. So why didn't Playgirl matter to us?
First, there was always the suspicion that Playgirl was a gay men's magazine in disguise. As a healthy, red-blooded straight female, I fancy men, but I have to admit that the photographs of fully erect hard-bodied "Campus Hunks 2008" sproinging off the pages of Playgirl's swan song print issue (it will continue online) are more of a turnoff than an enticement. From the casting to the lighting and decor, the atmosphere is just as cheesy as men's mags. And the amateur snapshots submitted by readers of their hairy selves tumescent and naked but for their tube socks are more one-night-stand nightmare than desirable fantasy.
But more important, pictures of naked men hanging out on full display speak more of engineering than intimacy. As one friend noted, "they aren't sexy without a backstory." Apparently just looking at a picture of a naked man out of context isn't "hot" for most women. I actually find ads for Calvin Klein perfume with beautiful couples entwined on a windswept cliff more erotic.
Of course, it turns out that Playgirl did have a robust gay male readership. Toronto-born Scott Merritt, who posed for Playgirl in 2003 and was chosen by readers as Playgirl's 30th Anniversary Man, told The Advocate that, before he came out, Playgirl was just what he needed. "I got to look at non-threatening, clean-cut guys," Merritt said. "I could imagine that the Playgirl model was my boyfriend and he was there just for me. ... It was romantic and erotic at the same time."
In short, a precise description of what Playgirl never managed to mean to me and my girlfriends. And one, thanks to recent strides in research into gender differences in cognitive function, that can now be explained.
According to a recent study published by the Center for Behavioural Neuroscience at Emory University, the male brain seems to react more strongly to visual stimulation. First, the amygdala, which has long been known to play a role in sexual behaviour, is significantly larger in men's brains. Second, "when viewing the same sexually arousing visual stimuli, the amygdala and hypothalamus exhibited substantially more activation in men than in women," author Stephen Hamann writes.
What's more, we are wired differently. A study at Northwestern University found that, while men's sexual arousal patterns are obvious (i.e., gay men are aroused by images of men and heterosexual men by images of women), both gay and straight women can be aroused by both male and female erotica and thus "have a bisexual arousal pattern."
No wonder the poor editors of Playgirl didn't know how to turn us on. Even neuroscience is stumped. Saddened as we might be to think of it as the last nail in the feminist coffin, Playgirl died because it was never what we wanted. Looking around at the blow-up doll aesthetic of today's young girls, who rip each other's eyes out in films like the new Bride Wars (let alone that, given the wrong outfit and a couple glasses too many, I might now qualify as the sisterly derogative "cougar"), I am not feeling optimistic about the state of the cause.
But then again, maybe we really have come a long way, baby. We used to pretend that achieving equality meant something like a pure, unisex universe. Perhaps now, in a moment infused with political hope where we appear to be moving beyond racial differences, the simple recognition of our essential differences can signal a way forward into a future that is truly liberated.