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Sarah McDaniel in Playboy
Sarah McDaniel on the cover of the new PlayboyPhotography Theo Wenner

Is Playboy’s new SFW cover more problematic than its nude?

The men’s mag unveiled its new cover this week, featuring a Snapchat-like selfie of a 20-year-old model, shot by a male photographer

Playboy released its first non-nude magazine cover since 1972 this week following an announcement in October that the brand is gunning for a millennial readership. Having already made its website SFW last year, the print magazine over at Playboy Empires have decided to follow suit. According to Cory Jones, Playboy’s chief content officer, after relaunching Playboy.com as a work-friendly site ‘traffic skyrocketed 400 percent’ and the ‘average use of visitors dropped from 47-years-old to 30.’ This is by no stretch the only publication which has had to revamp its image to stay relevant in a social media-savvy digital era, but the Playboy we all know (and some love) is perhaps changing beyond recognition. Large brands such as Playboy continue to co-opt movements like feminism to keep consumers buying, barely scratching the surface and often reinforcing traditional norms. The March edition has tapped into this trend as it attempts to emulate social media stars like Arvida Bystrom and Audrey Wollen, but – even though its cover model is an Insta-star herself – it falls short for a few too many reasons.

Nudity, and an unabashed endorsement of sex as commodity, has marked Hef’s label from its inception and has given it the ‘sticky pages’ reputation we associate with finding someone’s secret stash. Men’s mags have taken a serious hit in the past few years, with other large names such as FHM and Zoo closing their doors forever. While an optimistic person may say our culture no longer demands scantily clad women next to a copy of Private Eye on our newsstand, I’m not so convinced. Newspapers, magazines, even clothing lines, have had to proclaim their love of diversity and ‘come out’ as feminist to tune in to shifting cultural ideology. It’s no longer cool to be misogynist; feminism is now sellable, so if you’re not chiming in, you’ll be left behind. The failure to rope in millennial readers is perhaps the biggest failure of print magazines today, and with pornography and nudity at every turn on the internet, why sign up for that 12-month subscription of Playboy?

The cover of March’s Playboy featuring Sarah McDaniel, an Instagram model, is a homage to social media with its Snapchat-themed, selfie-style photograph – McDaniel has even allowed Playboy to stitch together a series of her Snapchat videos to publish on its .com. Holding her arm out of shot, the impression we get is that this picture is taken by the model herself, with the infamous text overlay reading ‘heyyy ;)’. The cover is about as subtle as a heart attack in its plea to be digitally marketable, and unsettling in its blatant appropriation of youth as synonymous with sex. Snapchat is unarguably a platform made for millennials – its figures show that 45 per cent of its users are between 18 and 25 – and Playboy is invading. The model leans into shot with a dour and innocent expression, her slumber/gym clothes falling off her like a teenager sending naughty pics in the bathroom. McDaniel claimed ‘the idea was to look at me from a boyfriend’s perspective,’ and this is why I feel so uneasy – the photograph feels like a Snapchat gone wrong. Playboy has tapped into millennial obsession with self-documenting our bodies on social platforms, but has thrown off any kind of ownership and re-established the male gaze in a more insidious way.

As The Telegraph points out, Playboy’s final nude edition featuring 48-year-old Pamela Anderson is less uncomfortable because she is in control of her body. Who is in control in the new cover? While the photograph is framed as a selfie, it is not – it is a carefully constructed scene with skilful lighting and a high res camera. To add insult to objectification, the photographer is Theo Wenner, an active Instagrammer with a penchant for shooting beautiful models – surely a female photographer would have been more wise? A re-appropriation of the selfie is infuriating because it is so archaic at the same time as seeming incredibly modern, a guise for large brands to repackage, rename and resell the same stuff to us. The era of reinvention is an unrelenting manipulation of out-dated values rebranded as something different, and it is more harmful than we give it credit.

Playboy has tapped into millennial obsession with self-documenting our bodies on social platforms, but has thrown off any kind of ownership and re-established the male gaze in a more insidious way”

Playboy was once the go-to for defining ‘sexy,’ a barometer for cultural conceptions of female sexuality and physicality. Kicking off its first edition in 1953 with a centrefold of Marilyn Monroe, the magazine has played host to the hottest stars in the world. The unapologetic sex that exuded from every page has now been replaced with a problematic subtlety – and an obsession with youth. Big breasts have been swapped for a modest figure, nudity for near-nudity, and woman for teenager. The fresh-faced, girl-next-door looking Sarah McDaniel is a perpetuation of our fascination with teen sexuality, one where girls are demanded to be sexually available whilst retaining their virtue. McDaniel’s proverbial ‘come hither’ is shrouded in mystery and unattainability as she signals the death of celebrated female sexual desire. Social media has altered the landscape for almost everything, and nowhere is this more relevant than in the relationship of women with their bodies. Empowering, bewildering, confusing are all ways to describe how I feel about it – are we reinventing the wheel or are we still trying to be valued as sexual beings? McDaniel, an Instagrammer herself, is an example of the power that comes with digital success, but is she powerful on the Playboy cover?

Perhaps if Playboy had just kept right in its wheelhouse it would be less offensive: explicit material is not a crime, in fact it’s a necessary part of our stunted dialogue about sexuality.  However, their new PG-13 rating, faux-feminist friendly slant and lack of nudity questions why it exists at all, and what road it is going to lead to. Unlike Page Three of The Sun, which assimilates news with female objectification, Playboy is a magazine which was never disguised as anything other than a saucy handbook for the modern man to discuss by the water cooler. We knew what we were getting, and that made us comfortable. Hef’s headquarters began as a fuck-you to conservative USA and stood as an endorsement of emerging sexual liberties, but now it seems to be flapping in the wind. Following special access to the March edition, the New York Times reports photographs are no longer retouched, there is more artwork and a female columnist will be featured every month, all lovely stuff. However, is this Playboy? How far do brands now have to go to not seem passé? Without a core identity, will it survive? I guess the proof is in the purchase, so let’s see if Playboy mania returns…