The first time I walked into the Hotel Inter-Continental's fabulous Renaissance Room was for the truly beautiful wedding and reception of some close friends, Neil and Edie. That's probably why it was so weird to go back there for a reception for a pornography magazine.
Specifically, it was a breakfast meeting sponsored by Playboy "for advertisers, marketers, and journalists" to present "Man Track," a study done by the Roper Organization "to measure the pulse of the 1990s male." The Renaissance Room's transformation from wedding hall to pornography-magazine media event was complete. Where a table had stood in the lobby with tasteful cards listing seating assignments for Neil and Edie's reception, a new table held stacks of folders with press releases and Playboys (the March 1991 issue, featuring the cover blurb "Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Stephanie Seymour Takes Off Her Swimsuit"). Replacing Neil and Edie's family in the receiving line were Playboy publisher Michael Perlis, Roper senior vice president Thomas Miller, and various Playboy public relations people. I had about the same conversation with Perlis as I'd had with Edie's family. "Hi, nice to meet you," "Glad you could make it," "Thanks for inviting me," that sort of thing. He seemed nice enough.
I'd come to hear whatever insights Man Track might offer on modern men, and while I waited I leafed through the March issue and pondered the Stephanie Seymour pictures. Seymour had indeed taken off her swimsuit, replacing it variously with a see-through mermaid outfit, seaweed, torn fishnet, and several small dead fish. The way I was brought up, my mom wouldn't let me pick up dead fish at the beach, much less string them around my neck. As for posing nude with dead fish strung around my neck, I wouldn't need my mother to nix that.
Without the benefit of a costly Roper national survey, this insight came to me: whatever other trends Man Track might reveal, the pulses of lots of 1990s males still race for pornography. I decided that after considering what Man Track had to say about 1990s men, it would be instructive to see what Playboy itself had to say about them. But first the survey, which I will supplement here with a smaller poll I conducted personally. I called my cousin Carly to see what she thought.
"Playboy's doing this series of surveys to put their finger on the pulse of men--"
"Oh please," Carly snorted.
"--in the 90s."
"PLEASE!" she sneered. "You want your finger on the pulse of men in the 90s? Bunch of pricks who just can't get enough of themselves. That's the pulse of men in the 90s. Hate to commit, demand that a woman run the house, raise the children. And make money."
I should mention here that Roper's Man Track was a series of ten surveys done over a year using samples of 1,000 men and 1,000 women, randomly picked. My Carly Track was done over the phone in about ten minutes, and I purposely picked the single respondent for her reliably trenchant opinions. Also, Man Track is demographically representative of the general population, while Carly Track is demographically representative of 27-year-old Italian Irish Chicago women who are related to me. On the other hand, while Man Track has a statistical error of plus or minus 3 percent, Carly Track has no statistical error whatsoever.
The event started with a series of film and TV clips that evidently say a lot about men: Ralph Kramden arguing with Alice, Maureen O'Hara slapping John Wayne in The Quiet Man, Kevin Costner's "I believe" speech from Bull Durham, the last scene from Casablanca. The movie screen stood where Neil and Edie's chuppah had been. Afterward, publisher Michael Perlis gave a short introduction from a podium, right where Edie's sister had blocked my view videotaping the wedding.
"What is our continuing fascination with Jackie Gleason?" Perlis asked. "What follows preppie, yuppie, hippie? The last several decades have been quiet ones for men, while men took a backseat to the women's movement." (This men-in-the-backseat thing wasn't technically a Man Track question, but I checked it with Carly anyway. "Arrrrrrrggghhhh," she said.)
Perlis noted that numerous new men's magazines started in the last few years, and most failed. He said these magazines hadn't done their homework, so Playboy hooked up with Roper "toward the end of achieving a greater understanding and definition of men and opportunities that exist for men in the marketplace." Perlis said he hoped sharing that information with the gathered advertising executives would help them seek out the men's market, whether they did that "through newspapers, broadcasts, direct mail, or hopefully through magazines." His hope seemed reasonable. The tables of chewing ad executives looked gastronomically satisfied and happy to blow off work for the morning. Happy enough, quite possibly, to buy an ad in Playboy.
Roper senior vice president Thomas Miller took the podium. "This will be a decade when men's behavior finally catches up with their attitudes," he declared. "When the gap between what men think and what they do narrows substantially." Miller proposed to examine this gap-narrowing in several key areas, including relations between the sexes; two key age groups, thirty-somethings and twenty-somethings; and "what might well be the most dramatic change in men's attitude in recent decades--their new Leisure Ethic. Indeed, a new Pleasure Principle."
Man Track drew on past Roper surveys to find that "men's respect for women grew enormously" between 1970 and 1990. In 1970, 40 percent said women were more respected than in previous decades, rising to 53 percent in 1980 and 62 percent in 1990. "This is a phenomenal positive change," said Miller, but Carly Track results didn't back him up. "No way," Carly countered. "If anything, I think men respect women less because they feel more threatened by them. For some reason, men feel more free to make lewd remarks, and they're more quick to act like 'Who the hell are you' when women give an opinion."
On the next point, however, Carly Track mirrored Man Track. Miller reported that, compared to men's growing respect for women, women's attitudes toward men "have headed in exactly the opposite direction. Their top characterizations of men today are, first, that men think that only their opinions are important [see Carly Track response in previous paragraph]; second, that men find it necessary to keep women down. . . . And even more surprisingly," he added, though the preceding had not surprised me at all, "a lot of men say this poor picture of themselves is basically accurate. Forty percent or more--that's about 35 million men--agree with these negative statements." And 100 percent of Carly Track respondents agreed with the 35 million men who agreed.
Miller put an optimistic spin on these dispiriting numbers. "But things are changing for the better," he insisted. "The transition in men's behavior is now under way." While women still do the overwhelming majority of daily housework--working a second shift at home after their day at the office--Miller said Man Track shows that "today's 'chore gap' is much smaller than it was 15 years ago. . . . For virtually every day-in, day-out household task, men's participation is up, and it's up substantially."
"I completely disagree," Carly hooted. "I don't think that's true, and I think that in addition to that, when a child is sick it's not the father who stays home from work, it's the mother. I don't think men do anything more around the house than they used to. I think that they get around it by pretending to do more by being more willing to run to the store and bullshit like that."
Miller moved from housework to romance, asserting that twenty-something men are "the New Romantics," conjuring up the image of yet another group of poets for literature majors to study before collecting unemployment. More men 18 to 29 consider themselves romantic than women of all ages, said Miller, and they're more likely to say they've had a romantic experience recently. "Now this may be because men have different standards for what constitutes a romantic experience," he admitted, pausing for the predictable round of laughter.
Carly Track responses were ambivalent on the alleged twenty-something male romantics. "I don't know about that," said Carly. "I mean, I'm not going to state an opinion because I wouldn't know. And maybe that, in and of itself, is an opinion," she snickered. "I wouldn't know."
Finally Miller got to his Pleasure Principle theory. "It is no exaggeration to say that there is a new leisure ethic, indeed a new Pleasure Principle, in America today," he announced, "and American men have embraced it wholeheartedly." I repeated that to Carly. "Oh, you want me to comment on that?" she snarled. "When didn't men embrace a pleasure principle? Oh, God."
After the presentation, I had a technical question for Miller about Man Track. These huge increases in men who say they respect women more and do more housework: how reliable are they? Don't people often answer survey questions the way they think they should? "Well, as professionals we try to take that into account," said Miller. "But people are pretty frank. They don't have anything to win or lose by lying to us." I must have looked skeptical, because he added, "Maybe they were lying before and they're lying today, but it's still going in that direction."
I found Perlis shrugging into his coat, but graciously ready to answer anything. How did he see Man Track results affecting Playboy's editorial content? "People think of Playboy as being the same over the years," he said. "It isn't. If you look in the 60s and 70s, it's changed dramatically. There's a new focus on new kinds of things. We have a column on women, an emphasis on relationships. But we're not changing because of the survey; we're incorporating the research into the magazine."
I made a note to check on Playboy's dramatic editorial change, and how many times the words "dramatic" and "change" had been used that morning. (Answer: "dramatic," 3 times during the presentation alone; "change," at least 12.)
I also wondered how the change in men's attitudes toward women has changed men's attitude toward pictures of women in Playboy.
"Well, there's a lot less pressure to be a woman for a man than in the 70s and 80s. Now, both men and women are interested in a man being a man and a woman being a woman. It's not better, it's just different," went Perlis's confusing preamble to an answer. "That has changed the representation of women in the magazine through the years. The number and the uh, uh, uh, tone of the photography has changed as attitudes and society has changed. But it's a very important part of the magazine that I certainly won't run away from," he said, though he was beginning to look like maybe he wanted to. "If you put GQ, Esquire, all the other men's magazines together, they don't equal Playboy's circulation. That's because it's a mix of fiction, nonfiction, interviews, and beautiful women. And it's that element of beautiful women that continues to be an important part of completing men's interests."
I made another note to check on the number and, uh, tone of the pictures. Meanwhile, I translated Perlis's answer to myself and enjoyed the fact that he had basically said men buy Playboy for the pictures.
My analysis of Playboy began with my boyfriend, with whom I have lived for seven years and who knows better than to bring one into the house. But men keep up with these things through some sort of male osmosis. "Has Playboy changed dramatically over the years?" I asked him. "Sure," he said. "It's gotten a lot pinker."
Meaning that in his estimation, the magazine has become increasingly explicit. Or, as Mr. Perlis might put it, the, uh, tone has changed dramatically.
I moseyed over to the Nostalgia Shop on Clark Street for some firsthand research. The Nostalgia Shop has racks of various old magazines, including an aisle devoted to Playboy on one side and Penthouse, Oui, etcetera on the other. Publisher Perlis had smugly noted that Esquire has a much smaller circulation than Playboy, but Esquire publisher Randall Jones could smugly answer that the Nostalgia Shop doesn't have to post a sign over the old Esquires with the curt order "Read at Home."
There was one other patron in the shop, already browsing the Playboy aisle. For some reason my presence made him uncomfortable. He soon left. I flipped through the magazines and picked the oldest issue they had--March 1968. I wanted to compare March '68 with my complimentary March '91 issue, looking at editorial content and the three points raised by Perlis: the number of pictures; the, uh, tone of the pictures; and representation of women. The findings:
Editorial content: No change.
The '68 interview was Truman Capote, the '91 interview was "America's best-seller therapist," M. Scott Peck. Both talked a lot about psychiatrists, Peck because he is one, Capote because he claimed he never went to one and worked out all his problems in his writing. Biggest difference: Capote was described as "orchidaceous," Peck wasn't.
Bad puns for fashion-section titles just as annoying in '91 as '68. "Right as Rain" for a '68 bit on raincoats, "Fore Play" for a '91 spread on golf clothes.
The 1968 obligatory-serious-article-to-give-men-feeble-excuse-for-buying-Playboy focused on the then-fashionable topic of college with "Spies on Campus"; in '91, it focused on the now-fashionable topic of rain forests with "The Killing of Jose Menendez." Both too long to bother reading, even for the rare Playboy reader like myself with no interest in the pictures.
Playboy's Party Jokes showed amazing continuity. Sample lame joke, '68: "My sex life has improved immeasurably since my wife and I got twin beds," the business executive confided to an associate. "How can that be?" the associate asked. "Well," replied the exec, "hers is in Connecticut and mine's in Manhattan." Sample lame joke, '91: "Why were men given larger brains than dogs? So they wouldn't hump women's legs at cocktail parties." Oh, one thing did change: lame joke contributors now receive $100, up from $50 in '68.
Number of pictures: No change.
March 1968 had 25 pages of naked or mostly naked women in pictorials like "The Bizarre Beauties of Barbarella." That's 13.1 percent of the 190-page issue (including cover). March 1991 had 22.5 pages of naked or mostly naked women out of 174 pages (including cover), which comes to 12.9 percent. The negligible 0.2 percent difference was noticeable only because I used a calculator.
The, uh, tone of pictures: Dramatic change.
Perlis was certainly right on this count. It is best, perhaps, to compare the March Playmates--1968's Michelle Hamilton and 1991's Julie Clarke. On my boyfriend's color scale, 1968 is shell pink. 1991 is more like purple.
In 1968, out of 14 pictures including the centerfold, Miss March is fully clothed in seven--exactly half. When Miss March is not fully clothed, her exposure quotient is so low due to strategic bedsheets and bath bubbles that today she could appear on a highway billboard. Scratch that: she'd be too tame for a highway billboard. She wouldn't even sell cigarettes anymore. And the centerfold is remarkably discreet. Probably the only person offended was Miss March's father, and even he might not have gotten too upset.
Not so Julie Clarke's 1991 exposure quotient. Put it this way: I wouldn't want to be around when Mr. Clarke gets a load of this. Of 12 pictures, including the centerfold, this Miss March is never fully clothed. In fact, she can be called partially clothed in only one, unless you count the saddle shoes and red socks that she wears throughout the photos, set in a fake 1950s diner. We are treated to Clarke's pubic hair in four shots. (Hamilton, for all Playboy readers know, may not have pubic hair at all.) And Clarke's centerfold will not be seen on highways anytime soon.
Representation of women: Dramatic change.
Again, let us consider our two Miss Marches.
Hamilton is billed as "Globe-Trotting, Music-Loving, Multilingual," while Julie Clarke is simply "Priceless Jules." The text accompanying the '68 pictures describes Hamilton's hectic schedule majoring in language at Pasadena City College, her German classes at Berlitz, and the fact that she's "an accomplished musician and writes her own songs in the folk tradition." The 1991 text describes Clarke's hectic schedule working on her tan at Playboy Mansion West and "plotting an assault on Los Angeles night spots."
The ambitions of both Miss Marches are examined. For Hamilton, Playboy reported that "Miss March thinks she'd rather combine her love of travel with her linguistic bent and become a United Nations interpreter." Clarke is quoted thus on her goals: "Plans? Well, I think I might go skinny-dipping in the ocean--I've always wanted to do that."
Many of the 1968 pictures follow Hamilton fully clothed through her day, walking on campus with friends, singing folk songs with her boyfriend and others, visiting her boyfriend's newborn twin brother and sister in a maternity ward, attending German class. The 1991 pictures chronicle Clarke's day dancing naked in front of a jukebox, lying in one of the 50s diner booths with a pair of white cotton panties around her ankles, and doing Chinese splits across two chairs.
Hamilton said she liked haiku, sometimes writing poetry of her own ("It helps me understand myself better"). Clarke said she liked massages. "When I meet a guy, I look at his hands. Big, strong hands are best. A great massage can hurt a little at first, but when all the kinks are out--that's when I feel like snuggling."
The stark difference between the Miss Marches suggests two competing hypotheses: 1. Playboy has dramatically changed from presenting its Playmates as intelligent, well-rounded people to presenting them as air-headed, one-dimensional sex objects. 2. Julie Clarke really is an air-headed, one-dimensional sex object, so it's not Playboy's fault she came across that way.
To resolve the controversy, I checked with Clarke. She spoke with me from her job at a Florida health club. She is not, as the saying goes, a rocket scientist. That's probably because she's only 19. However, she seemed as intelligent as any other 19-year-old I know, and her thoughts do extend beyond skinny-dipping. She plans to finish her bachelor's degree, and she is majoring in business. I told her that I thought the text accompanying her pictures made her look like an airhead, and asked for her opinion.
"It wasn't what I would have written if I was writing the article," Clarke acknowledged. "In the interview that I had with the writer, he asked me everything. My life story, everything about me. So I had no idea what things he had picked out. But it seemed to me the things they did pick out were insignificant. It just seemed like they made a big deal out of things like the massage, and looking at a guy's hands."
I'm going with hypothesis number one.
Something Julie Clarke said got me thinking again about the men who "read" Playboy. She mentioned in passing that her boyfriend subscribes. Julie Clarke's boyfriend, who dates a Playmate in real life, still blows $29.97 a year on a subscription--money he could spend taking Miss March out next weekend. Men. Go figure.
It's not that I think pornography should be against the law, or censored in any way. I believe completely in the First Amendment and everyone's basic, if constitutionally unenumerated, right to wallow in whatever kind of filth they choose. From my own careful reading of the Constitution, however, I don't see anything that says I have to respect it too.
Oh sure--we women enjoy a good male specimen. I myself have an affinity for Mel Gibson. If I were dating Mel Gibson, though, I wouldn't also require a monthly magazine featuring nude pictures of him. Heck, I'm not dating Mel Gibson and I don't require a monthly magazine featuring nude pictures of him. And I didn't pretend I went to see Lethal Weapon 2 for its serious social statement about apartheid. When I go to a movie because the star is a babe, I say so. The opposite is true of Playboy readers. If it wasn't, the phrase "I just buy it for the articles" wouldn't have become the useful, all-purpose punch line it is today.
It is difficult for many women to comprehend why an adult man with any kind of regular sex life would also need something like Playboy. A grandmother working in a Florida 7-Eleven was recently arrested for selling Playboy to two 16-year-old boys. These guys, to my way of thinking, are exactly who should be buying it. These guys and fertility clinics. Yet about 3.5 million men buy Playboy every month. Why? My friend Nell came up with a plausible explanation:
"I think men have these really cherished memories of Playboy," said Nell. "You should hear my boss talk about Playboy and how he wants to go out and buy all the issues from 1972 to 1977 to relive his puberty."
It would be unfair, however, to imply that all men are accurately described by Carly Track results, or that they all buy pornographic magazines. In fact, I was impressed by a recent New York Times article about the pinup girl favored by soldiers in the Persian Gulf. She is Jacqueline Phillips Guibord, a narcotics officer in Provo, Utah, who posed for a Wrangler jeans ad. In the ad, Guibord is leaning against a patrol car in Wrangler jeans, a shirt buttoned nearly to her chin, holding a rifle. The ad includes the headline "A Western original wears a Western original." Granted, it might not be so popular if gulf soldiers were allowed to have nude pinups, but the picture is in every American military-police and criminal-investigation office in Saudi Arabia, and a Navy spokesman said every marine is familiar with it.
Guibord is hardly the usual pinup type. She's certainly attractive, but she's also 30 years old, a mother, and she wouldn't fill out a Playmate Data Sheet with the words "I hope to do some modeling and acting." Yet her mail now includes letters such as the following from Staff Sergeant Brett A. McKee and Sergeant Scott E. Orsborn:
"We are in a country where women are treated different than in the United States, and are not near as beautiful; your picture is a constant reminder why we are here." Now that I can respect.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.