The Demise Of The Modern Playboy

The Demise Of The Modern Playboy

No, not the magazine. The original playboy was too busy reading lines to write them.
James Poulos
By

“Dad, what’s a playboy?” A question I’ll probably never be asked.

No, not the magazine. The person. The persona. The creature the magazine was named after.

I guess Playboy the magazine’s non-nude reinvention is news, as is the declining circulation to “blame.” But I find it hard to care about either, in spite of the stories, anecdotes, and colleagues I could summon to free-associate my way toward this take or that. The fate of Playboy does not make me want to try and be interesting.

But I do care about the fate of playboy the character, because its disappearance seems to be responsible for the void of inconsequentiality that looms above the magazine’s gritless reboot. It also somehow seems implicated in the doom I feel when catching up on the stock takes trotted out around the story. Even the ones I guess I agree with feel rote. Writer after writer, weighing in on the reality of terminal nudity in Playboy—why? Playboy the character would never write about the fate of Playboy the magazine.

The original playboy was too busy reading lines to write them. Yes, he was a play boy, an actor, and in the nineteenth century, actors first seized the modern imagination as an ideal type. In fact—and I’m just going to invite you to believe this and pursue the idea if you want, because no amount of “argument” will “make” you agree—you could say that the advent of the actor as an ideal character type defined the modern imagination.

The Actor We Should but Can’t Resist

Herein lies a problem. I don’t mean a “problem” in either of today’s dominant senses. It’s not something to be solved or condemned. If anything, it’s something to be avoided, which I take to be the lesson of “Hamlet.” Something in the character of the actor tricks us into thinking we can control it. But it ends up controlling us. Or, really, making a mockery of our pretenses to control, simply destroying us, not to mention those around us. “Hamlet” tells us the character of the actor is a monster, a minotaur to be avoided, above all by not going into the labyrinth.

‘Hamlet’ tells us the character of the actor is a monster, a minotaur to be avoided, above all by not going into the labyrinth.

But there is something captivating about Hamlet that makes us root for him, identify with him, and enter the maze with him. He’s a sad, frustrated, good-looking college student… the ideal type of the twenty-first century? What Hamlet ends up saying about his madness, that it’s only real when the wind blows a certain way, is more true about his moral compass, which plainly registers his uncle’s heinous crimes but not Hamlet’s own duty to put them to rights.

Which came first: Hamlet’s calculating determination that he can’t just waltz up to Claudius and slay him, or Hamlet’s darkly self-gratifying desire to use an actor’s assassination of character to literally assassinate the man who killed his father and bedded his mother? Into the labyrinth we go, all too willingly.

Why? The alternative is even more repulsive. Hamlet is invited to become a playboy in the sense more familiar to Oscar Wilde’s contemporaries than Shakespeare’s. Easing into permissive complicity with the new regime in Denmark is the easiest thing in the world. Feels-addled college student becomes wealthy, irresponsible sybarite—what’s not to like? Hamlet wouldn’t even have to do Claudius’s dirty work with Polonius always on hand.

The Playboy’s Obsession with Death

The first and ultimate actor, as Plato and Machiavelli alike would attest, may well be the tyrant. Released from any political obligations or opportunities, as Hamlet could be if only he’d chill, the tyrant becomes a mere playboy—no matter how often, as Wilde described his own debauchery, he feasts with panthers.

The orgy is a tyrant of its own, drawing you into a labyrinth of diabolical simplicity: there’s no exit.

Spend enough time around the “right” literature and the “right” people and you pick up on the way that orgies always exist within a sense of the terminal. In “The Courier’s Tragedy,” the take on “Hamlet’s” play-within-a-play that Thomas Pynchon put in “The Crying of Lot 49,” orgies are the courtiers’ tragedy—the thing that happens when the tyrant realizes he’s got about three ejaculations’ worth of life left before he’s murdered. Made safe from politics, orgies are the natural final destination for the Wilde-style playboy and his inevitably plural sexual personae.

But, as Hamlet would have learned, some things must happen behind closed doors even in the most corrupt of courts. Those of you salivating to see the long-delayed film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s “High Rise”—a grown-up “Lord of the Flies” in a fancy condo building—know where this is going. The orgy is a tyrant of its own, drawing you into a labyrinth of diabolical simplicity: there’s no exit. (Disagree? Get back to me after you’ve barricaded yourself in a hotel room with enough drugs to kill the prostitutes you and your friends have brought up.)

We all know the scripts to be read when these situations send moral compasses spinning. But who has written Hugh Hefner’s script for his part as the kind of playboy Hamlet could have become if only he’d been born a few centuries late? Despite decades boarded up in the world’s best-functioning tyrant-free court, he still hasn’t reached terminal velocity. Like the varsity dudes who have been Playboy’s ideal readers, Hefner is still far too American, and too middle class, to follow the character type of the actor all the way to labyrinth’s end.

From Playboy to Workboy

As Tocqueville observed, gone in the New World are the days when vile aristocrats seek to outdo one another with extravagances of cruel perversity. Why bother with all that when there’s money to be made? To Hefner’s twentieth-century playboy, Hamlet and Wilde are casualties of an obsolete Old World tragedy—of the insane psychic pressure produced when honor and leisure collide.

The twentieth-century playboy has little use for honor or leisure. In their place are their opposites, well-being and work.

The twentieth-century playboy has little use for honor or leisure, at least as an aristocrat (and not just the Marquis de Sade) would imagine them. In their place are their opposites, well-being and work. It is the opposite of a coincidence that Playboy hopes to salvage its brand by making it Safe For Work. At his age, Hefner is now an all-but-retired businessman-slash-orgiast. But orgies are not a brand identity, no matter how much the Playboy Mansion has become the sexual version of the Vegas decried at the end of “Casino.” Hef’s fantasyland was just that—a fantasy used to sell customers, who knew it would always remain a fantasy for them, a character type better known as Workboy.

You never needed big boobs and soft muffs to sell Workboy his own identity. Just ask SFW Playboy’s new brand competitors. As luck would have it, they, too, have revealing naming “problems” of their own. Esquire? What could be more Workboy than that? Writing about the fate of Playboy, I suppose.

Then there’s GQ, which brings us to the heart of the matter. The Old World playboy, lost in the labyrinth, is no gentleman. Neither is the minotaur that lurks behind him—first portrayed in Tirso de Molina’s original “Don Juan,” where the star is a seductive tyrant of all sexual personae. Wilde himself said a gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally. That is a joke by and for someone so emancipated from labor he can make his life into a play—not, in other words, for Workboy. I suspect, but will not bother trying to “prove,” that Workboy cannot be a gentleman. After all, a boy is not a man, and only a man can be a gentleman.

Gentlemen Are Too Real for Us

One way to describe the American Dream is the hope that, here, it’s possible for more people than ever to act as if they’ve benefited from more privileges than they have. Here, the gentleman is a character type to rival the playboy, because the gentleman is more universal but also more demanding. There’s more pride in being a gentleman. There’s more sustain. But today, that’s less and less so. Gentlemanliness doesn’t carry the cachet it used to. In the absence of reciprocation and appreciation, it’s harder to maintain. Even a gentleman is sometimes forced to look into the mirror after a long day of being a gentleman and ask, why bother?

Even a gentleman is sometimes forced to look into the mirror after a long day of being a gentleman and ask, why bother?

The increasing bifurcation of society into a winner class and a loser class is bad news for the gentleman as a character type. The triumph of casual wear in public bums the hell out of the gentleman. The idea that you have to read a magazine—or, worse, should want to—to figure out what things to buy in order to present as a gentleman bums the hell out of him, too. The winners and the losers alike are both way more actorly than the gentleman wants to be. Yet the kind of authenticity given off by the winners and losers alike is far too crass and vain for the gentleman. Truth be told, when he’s trying to fall asleep at night without the aid of legal or illegal drugs, the gentleman silently wonders whether he’d be better off just quietly slipping away.

To an island. Real or figurative. Maybe to a place hiding in plain sight. Somewhere… else. Where the rules are different. Where even ordinary guys can hold things luxuriously in reserve. The upper classes used to keep themselves out of the papers. There’s an aspirational notion. Drop out, turn off, and tune in. You lost the world: it’s okay. It’s better “here.” Never tweet. Never brand. Never care. Gentle, man.

It would make a nice, clean finish to say this is what terminal Playboy is up against. But these are boom times for Workboy—so much so that all the world’s workboys are “happy” to spend their lives competing full-out to conform to the type. That goes for workgirls too. Hype follows type. The new generation of workboys and workgirls are an easy score for Playboy, Esquire, GQ and the rest.

But maybe they’re the only score. Maybe somewhere else, the real fun is being had, out there in hidden space. Maybe some phantom twenty-first-century anti-Hefner is already sending out invites, calling in caterers for the big Halloween party at the Gentleman Mansion.

James Poulos is the author of "The Art of Being Free, out January 17 from St. Martin's.

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