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Playboy makes perversion woke

A young woman walks towards a stage to be photographed while applying for a job as a Playboy bunny during a casting in Monterrey August 7, 2013.
A young woman walks towards a stage to be photographed while applying for a job as a Playboy bunny during a casting in Monterrey August 7, 2013. | (Photo: REUTERS/Daniel Becerril)

Some years ago Playboy declared that it would no longer feature photographs of nude women. While this may sound like progress, it was unfortunately less a sign of morality than a sign of the times — an indication that the static and (by later standards) tame photographic fodder that the magazine promoted was incapable of competing with internet pornography.

And of course, Playboy's new policy was short-lived. It did not last even two years, for Playboy without nudes would be rather like Model Train Monthly without pictures of diminutive toy trains. Playboy exists to profit from making it socially tolerable, if not exactly respectable, to gawp at pictures of nude women. Only a fool would believe otherwise. The interviews and articles offer nothing more than a pretext for purchasing a copy.

Well, it seems that Playboy is once again trying to clean up its image and, in the process, contradict its own reasons for existence. This time the move comes in advance of an A&E documentary series that will reveal in detail the perversions and sleaze of its founder, Hugh Hefner. In an open letter last week, the organization variously declared itself to be “a brand with sex positivity at its core,” a workforce that is 80% female, and a company that continues to “fight harassment and discrimination in all its forms, support healing and education, redefine tired and sexist definitions of beauty and advocate for inclusivity across gender, sexuality, race, age, ability and zip codes.”   

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It is hard to see how a magazine that helped make pornography mainstream through its combination of titillating photographs of starlets and interviews with serious cultural figures should do anything but voluntarily close itself down at this point. Perhaps more than any other media outlet, it is responsible for the paradoxical equation of “sex positivity” with a trivialized notion of sex and indeed what it means to be a woman. And the fact its workforce is 80% female is surely irrelevant. When I was a postgraduate student and lived next to the docks in Aberdeen, 100% of the “workforce” standing under the streetlights that I passed on my way back from college each day were women. That was no sign of their liberation.

Emily Hill offers a devastating critique of Playboy’s new stance in the Spectator that is blunt and compelling. As she indicates, its executives are merely doing what the executives of so many other companies are doing today, albeit Playboy is having to do so with singularly unpromising raw material: It is reciting the Liturgy of the Woke in a bid to retain its customer base and its profit margins. It remains to be seen, however, to what extent those who buy Playboy do so out of a deep desire to “redefine tired and sexist definitions of beauty and advocate for inclusivity across gender, sexuality, race, age, ability and zip codes.” 

But such criticism of Playboy’s rapid onset wokeness is easy. Perhaps it has always been a serious opinion journal trapped inside the body of a skin magazine? More disturbing than the cynical public handwringing is the fact that Hugh Hefner’s sleazy exploitation of women was well-known in his own lifetime. That he now stands accused of degrading perversions, rape, and much worse surely shocks nobody. Yet this is the man who was a spokesman for Carl’s Jr., the family-friendly burger chain. When Hef was cool, his perversions were ignored (even indulged), invitations to his mansion were coveted, and his commercial imprimatur was keenly sought. And of course, conservative critics who dared to point out who he was and what he stood for could expect to be decried as puritanical killjoys, lacking, as they did, “sex positivity.”

This brings us to the true significance of corporate wokeism: It is a sign of the morally vacuous nature of our times. In modern America, morality is nothing more than the sum total of the tastes of the moment. When free love and throwing off the sexual restraints of earlier generations was hip, Hef was a godlike figure who was the public face of a family restaurant chain. Now that the human cost of this revolution has become clear, Hef is a demon, denounced even by those who owe their livelihoods to him and to the capital acquired by his peddling of sleaze.

The fate of Hefner’s reputation, like the success of his career, speaks eloquently about the state of America and perhaps the West as a whole. Self-indulgent to a tee, the only morality it knows is that which chimes with whatever the tastes of the moment happen to be, whatever works, whatever makes money. Promiscuity yesterday, wokeness, and inclusivity today. And the tragedy is that such amoral morality, always driven by market forces rather than a true understanding of what it means to be human, must inevitably come with a hefty price tag, as the A&E documentary on Hefner will no doubt reveal in graphic and painful detail. Still, at least the new woke Playboy will now make sure that its profit margins are built on moral chaos that is inclusive of all, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, age, ability, or zip code.

Originally published in First Things. 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern SelfThe Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.

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