by Harvey Cox
Dr. Cox is Victor S. Thomas professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of such books as The Secular City, The Feast of Fools, The Seduction of the Spirit and Turning East. This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, April 17, 1961.
Sometime this month over one million American young men will place sixty cents on a counter somewhere and walk away with a copy of Playboy, one of the most spectacular successes in the entire history of American journalism. When one remembers that every copy will probably be seen by several other people in college dormitories and suburban rumpus rooms, the total readership in any one month easily exceeds that of all the independent religious magazines, serious political and cultural journals, and literary periodicals put together.
What accounts for this uncanny reception? What factors in American life have combined to allowPlayboy’s ambitious young publisher, Hugh Hefner, to pyramid his jackpot into a chain of night clubs, TV spectaculars, bachelor tours to Europe and special discount cards? What impact does Playboy really have?
Clearly Playboy’s astonishing popularity is not attributable solely to pin-up girls. For sheer nudity, its pictorial art cannot compete with such would-be competitors as Dude and Escapade. Rather, Playboyappeals to a highly mobile, increasingly affluent group of young readers, mostly between eighteen and thirty, who want much more from their drugstore reading than bosoms and thighs. They need a total image of what it means to be a man. And Mr. Hefner’s Playboy has no hesitancy about telling them.
Why should such a need arise? David Riesman has argued that the responsibility for character formation in our society has shifted from the family to the peer group and to the mass media peer group surrogates. Things are changing so rapidly that one who is equipped by his family with inflexible, highly internalized values becomes unable to deal with the accelerated pace of change and with the varying contexts in which he is called upon to function. This is especially true in the area of consumer values toward which the “other-directed person” is increasingly oriented.
Within the confusing plethora of mass media signals and peer group values, Playboy fills a special need. For the insecure young man with newly acquired time and money on his hands who still feels uncertain about his consumer skills, Playboy supplies a comprehensive and authoritative guidebook to this foreboding new world to which he now has access. It tells him not only who to be; it tells him how to be it, and even provides consolation outlets for those who secretly feel that they have not quite made it.
In supplying for the other-directed consumer of leisure both the normative identity image and the means for achieving it, Playboy relies on a careful integration of copy and advertising material. The comic book that appeals to a younger generation with an analogous problem skillfully intersperses illustrations of incredibly muscled men and excessively mammalian women with advertisements for body-building gimmicks and foam rubber brassiere supplements. Thus the thin-chested comic book readers of both sexes are thoughtfully supplied with both the ends and the means for attaining a spurious brand of maturity. Playboy merely continues the comic book tactic for the next age group. Since within every identity crisis, whether in ‘teens or twenties, there is usually a sexual identity problem, Playboy speaks to those who desperately want to know what it means to be a man, and more specifically a male, in today’s world.
Both the image of man and the means for its attainment exhibit a remarkable consistency in Playboy.The skilled consumer is cool and unruffled. He savors sports cars, liquor, high fidelity and book club selections with a casual, unhurried aplomb. Though he must certainly have and use the latest consumption item, he must not permit himself to get too attached to it. The style will change and he must always be ready to adjust. His persistent anxiety that he may mix a drink incorrectly, enjoy a jazz group that is passé, or wear last year’s necktie style is comforted by an authoritative tone in Playboybeside which papal encyclicals sound irresolute.
“Don’t hesitate,” he is told; “this assertive, self-assured weskit is what every man of taste wants for the fall season.” Lingering doubts about his masculinity are extirpated by the firm assurance that “real men demand this ruggedly masculine smoke” (cigar ad). Though “the ladies will swoon for you, no matter what they promise, don’t give them a puff. This cigar is for men only.” A fur-lined canvas field jacket is described as “the most masculine thing since the cave man.” What to be and how to be it are both made unambiguously clear.
But since being a male necessitates some kind of relationship to females, Playboy fearlessly confronts this problem too, and solves it by the consistent application of the same formula. Sex becomes one of the items of leisure activity that the knowledgeable consumer of leisure handles with his characteristic skill and detachment. The girl becomes a desirable, indeed an indispensable “Playboy accessory.”
In a question-answering column entitled: “The Playboy Advisor,” queries about smoking equipment (how to break in a meerschaum pipe), cocktail preparation (how to mix a “Yellow Fever”) and whether or not to wear suspenders with a vest, alternate with questions about what to do with girls who complicate the cardinal principle of casualness, either by suggesting marriage or by some other impulsive gesture toward permanent relationship. The infallible answer from the oracle never varies: sex must be contained, at all cost, within the entertainment-recreation area. Don’t let her get “serious.”
After all, the most famous feature of the magazine is its monthly fold-out photo of a playmate. She is the symbol par excellence of recreational sex. When play time is over, the playmate’s function ceases, so she must be made to understand the rules of the game. As the crew-cut young man in a Playboy cartoon says to the rumpled and disarrayed girl he is passionately embracing, “Why speak of love at a time like this?”
The magazine’s fiction purveys the same kind of severely departmentalized sex. Although the editors have recently dressed up the contents of Playboy with contributions by Hemingway, Bemelmans and even a Chekhov translation, the regular run of stories relies on a repetitious and predictable formula. A successful young man, either single or somewhat less than ideally married—a figure with whom readers have no difficulty identifying—encounters a gorgeous and seductive woman who makes no demands on him except sex. She is the prose duplication of the cool-eyed but hot-blooded playmate of the foldout page.
Drawing heavily on the phantasy life of all young Americans, the writers utilize for their stereotyped heroines the hero’s school teacher, his secretary, an old girl friend, or the girl who brings her car into the garage where he works. The happy issue is always a casual but satisfying sexual experience with no entangling alliances whatever. Unlike the women he knows in real life, the Playboy reader’s fictional girl friends know their place and ask for nothing more. They present no danger of permanent involvement. Like any good accessory, they are detachable and disposable.
Many of the advertisements reinforce the sex-accessory identification in another way by attributing female characteristics to the items they sell. Thus a full page ad for the MG assures us that this car is not only “the smoothest pleasure machine” on the road and that having one is a “love-affair,” but most importantly, “you drive it—it doesn’t drive you.” The ad ends with the equivocal question, “Is it a date?”
Playboy insists that its message is one of liberation. Its gospel frees us from captivity to the puritanical “hat-pin brigade.” It solemnly crusades for “frankness” and publishes scores of letters congratulating it for its unblushing “candor.” Yet the whole phenomenon of which Playboy is only a part vividly illustrates the awful fact of a new kind of tyranny.
Those liberated by technology and increased prosperity to new worlds of leisure now become the anxious slaves of dictatorial taste-makers. Obsequiously waiting for the latest signal on what is cool and what is awkward, they are paralyzed by the fear that they may hear pronounced on them that dread sentence occasionally intoned by “The Playboy Advisor”: “you goofed!” Leisure is thus swallowed up in apprehensive competitiveness, its liberating potential transformed into a self-destructive compulsion to consume only what is au courant. Playboy mediates the World of the most high into one section of the consumer world, but to me it is a world of bondage, not of freedom.
Nor will Playboy’s synthetic doctrine of man stand the test of scrutiny. Psychoanalysts constantly remind us how deeply seated sexuality is in the human self. But if they didn’t remind us, we would soon discover it anyway in our own experience. As much as the human male might like to terminate his relationship with a woman as he snaps off the stereo, or store her for special purposes like a camel’s hair jacket, it really can’t be done. And anyone with a modicum of experience with women knows it can t be done. Perhaps this is the reason why Playboy’s readership drops off so sharply after the age of thirty.
Playboy really feeds on the presence of a repressed fear of involvement with women, which for various reasons is still present in many otherwise adult Americans. So Playboy’s version of sexuality grows increasingly irrelevant as authentic sexual maturity is achieved.
The male identity crisis to which Playboy speaks has at its roots a deep-set fear of sex, a fear that is uncomfortably combined with fascination. Playboy strives to resolve this antinomy by reducing the terrible proportions of sexuality, its power and its passion, to a packageable consumption item. Thus inPlayboy’s iconography, the nude woman symbolizes total sexual accessibility, but demands nothing from the observer. “You drive it—it doesn’t drive you.” The terror of sex, which cannot be separated from its ecstasy, is dissolved. But this futile attempt to reduce the mysterium tremendum of the sexual fails to solve the problem of being a man. For sexuality is the basic form of all human relationship, and therein lies its terror and its power.
Karl Barth has called this basic relational form of man’s life Mitmensch, co-humanity. It means to me that becoming fully human, in my case a human male, necessitates not having the other totally exposed to me and my purposes—while I remain uncommitted—but exposing myself to the risk of encounter with the other by reciprocal self-exposure. The story of man’s refusal to be so exposed goes back to the story of Eden and is expressed by man’s desire to control the other rather than to be with the other. It is basically the fear to be ones self, a lack of the “courage to be.”
Thus any theological critique of Playboy that focuses on its “lewdness” will misfire completely. Playboyand its less successful imitators are not “sex magazines” at all. They are basically anti-sexual. They dilute and dissipate authentic sexuality by reducing it to an accessory, by keeping it at a safe distance.
It is precisely because these magazines are anti-sexual that they deserve the most searching kind of theological criticism. They foster a heretical doctrine of man, one at radical variance with the biblical view. For Playboy’s man, others—especially women—are for him. They are his leisure accessories, his playthings. For the Bible, man only becomes fully man by being for the other.
Moralistic criticisms of Playboy fail because its anti-moralism is one of the few places in which Playboyis right. But if Christians bear the name of One who was truly man because he was totally for the other, and if it is in him that we know who God is and what human life is for, then we must see in Playboy the latest and slickest episode in man’s continuing refusal to be fully human.