Opinion

Why the ‘Playboy’ Nude Is Passé in the Digital Age

Left: a 'Playboy' cover from March 1984 (photo by Ben and Asho/Flickr); right: detail of Sandro Boticelli's "The Birth of Venus" (c. 1486) (image via Wikimedia)
Left: Donna Speir striking a “modest Venus” post on the cover of ‘Playboy’ in March 1984 (photo by Ben and Asho/Flickr); right: detail of Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (c. 1486) (image via Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

Last week, Playboy announced it will forgo naked ladies on its pages come March 2016. The overwhelming media consensus is that the magazine is unable compete with internet porn as a masturbatory aid and, rather than ratchet up the triple-x factor on its pages, it’s chosen to bow out of the race entirely. Yet, as the old “I read it for the articles” adage suggests, Playboy has never been a purely pornographic pursuit, and so its no-nudity decree can’t be explained away by a site like beeg.com.

Ever since Praxiteles carved the first life-sized female nude back in 4th century BCE Greece, Western culture has been keen on presenting women in a state of undress. The nude persisted through centuries as an ideal, an unrealistic representation of perfected proportions, like the deific beauty by whom it was first inspired: Venus. Although female artistic nudes were often based on live models or specific, real women, the resulting image was frequently named “Venus” (see Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” etc.) The realness of the nude wasn’t up for discussion because the Venus title said it all: this is not real life, this is a goddess.

The female nude became a visual shorthand for the uniquely human ability to recognize the difference between real and ideal through reason and intellect. As Lynda Nead says in her acclaimed book The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality: “It symbolizes the transformation of the base matter of nature into the elevated forms of culture and the spirit.” For all intents and purposes, the aesthetic appreciation of the nude proved our masterful intelligence as a species.

Playboy held a similar philosophy, namely that humans of the straight male variety desire more than just sex. Thus, the articles. The photos relied on the same art historical principles of idealized nude figures arranged in expertly curated, balanced compositions — the March 1984 cover even features Dona Speir in the traditional “modest Venus” pose. The perceived raunchiness of the Playmates is due in part to the fact that they have real names other than Venus. The brilliance of Playboy, according to Hugh Heffner, is that the nude is no longer a goddess, she’s the proverbial girl next door (which is how the E! reality series about Heff and his housemates got its name). The line between real and fake became blurred by the suggestion that the woman in the picture might actually exist.

Thanks to the internet, the line between real and fake has all but dissolved as our virtual and analogue lives continue to integrate. A new form of nudity abounds online, and it’s more easily available than porn. Within the past year, we’ve been inundated with hacked photos from myriad celebrity phones, proving that they, too, are just people who Snapchat. Recently, Vanity Fair pleaded with us to click on a link to a purportedly spontaneous, makeup-less, nude photo shoot with Demi Lovato. Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of opportunities to post your own lascivious selfies or videos. Regardless of how closely these images align with reality or not, their appeal is their candidness in a world filled with staged sets and photoshopped ideals.

If Playboy’s nudes are now irrelevant, perhaps it’s because our drive to gaze upon the female body is no longer purely rooted in erotica or even aesthetics. The new nude calls for authenticity and participation.

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