Playboy magazine is 50 years old this month. Hugh Hefner is a lot older than that, and looks it. A chicken neck and thick crow's feet around the eyes testify to every one of his 76 years, but Playboy's centerfolds haven't aged with either a single wrinkle or rusty staple in the navels. The bunnies at the Playboy mansion are young enough to be Hef's grandchildren.
Hef, mainlining Viagra, concedes that he's not the man he used to be, and neither is his magazine. Older and maybe even wiser, he wants to reduce the sexual content of Playboy. He thinks it's time for a magazine with more adult ideas - adult as in mature and sophisticated, not pornographic.
"We live in a completely different world now in terms of the acceptance of sexuality," he tells the New York Observer. "We need to find ways to do things with style and taste. Quite frankly, what I'm looking for is a contemporary version of what Playboy meant in the '60s and '70s."
That's a tall order. It was Playboy, after all, that ignited the feminist revolution, not that anyone noticed at the time. In the first issue, Playboy identified its philosophy as anti-marriage. "Playboy loved women and hated wives," observed Barbara Ehrenreich in "The Hearts of Men." Playboy attacked women as gold-diggers who bartered sex for a marriage license, and described alimony as paying interest on an investment that had gone bad.
When the Pill gave women the freedom to join men in their sexual rebellion, cultural attitudes shifted radically. Junk sex was no better than junk food, but millions of men and women greedily devoured the empty calories. "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" was the title that told it all.
Soon women, disenchanted with their dependency on men, began to mine gold for themselves. Those who had criticized their overworked fathers for neglecting them became the workaholics they had railed against. Men and women found themselves moaning over the superficiality of the single life, but marriage had changed, too, and made unprecedented financial demands on both husband and wife, often leaving children starved for time with their parents.
The pendulum swung wildly back and forth in a wide arc for four decades, as female biological clocks began to sound alarms and men became ever more mystified, looking for answers to Freud's famous question: What do women want? Now both sexes seek companionship, often in an Internet "chat room" where everyone sits alone fantasizing that the object of affection is as perfect as an airbrushed centerfold. Sex is once more unsexy.
Playboy seemed radical to adolescent boys raised in a more puritanical time, what Time magazine in 1967 called "a Midwestern Methodist's vision of sin." The airbrushed nudes have been upstaged by real live nudity on film, television and on the Internet. Pornography with all of its heavy breathing and obscene sexuality is so readily accessible that a Playboy centerfold today seems but a paper doll, literally child's play.
The readers of laddie magazines like "Maxim" and "FHM," guys between 18 and 34 - the market every advertiser lusts to cultivate - seek a more robust woman whose scanty lingerie joins mystery with lust. By comparison, Playboy seems muddled and middle-aged. Hip requires hips with boobs, as at a Hooter's restaurant.
Thirty years ago, Playboy sold 7 million copies a month. Today it sells less than half that. The magazine has suffered the consequences of the de-moralization of the culture that it set in motion. It has lots of competition.
Coinciding with that competition, however, is a revival of cultural conservatism that demands something better for the next generation. Playboy made male fantasies public and the public culture embraced those fantasies in real life. It vulgarized what most men and women in their deepest sentiments hold dear - an appreciation of intimacy through trust, the basis for every good relationship and every good marriage.
The sexual revolution delivered a sexual interaction on an arc that alternated at its extremes between heated abrasiveness and an impersonal remoteness, a rush of passion that quickly dissipates and disappoints. It turned courtship away from the patient pleasures of a gourmet meal with many courses and replaced it with a cheesy burger.
We've come a long way from the days when a glimpse of stocking was shocking (and delicious), but if Hugh Hefner wants to create a contemporary version of Playboy of the '60s and '70s, that's not a bad place to begin. Every generation needs a starting place for suggestive temptation and a way to enjoy the chase with dignity and excitement. Passion excites what the intelligence must direct. Can a magazine do that?