The Complete Centerfolds is a coffee-table book compiling every Playboy centerfold published from the magazine’s inception in 1953 until 2007. Six short essays preface the decades, but there is no other text. As you might expect, the pleasures of the book are instant and visual. My favorite Playboy centerfold is Miss September 1983, dressed for a college football game in striped socks and a tartan scarf. She has a flask, a fuzzy wool cap, and a team pennant. Her neo-Gothic surroundings are meant, I think, to evoke Yale. A single branch of ivy cascades next to her, and a textbook lies abandoned at her feet. She is naked. It sounds funny in writing, but somehow there’s nothing funny about the photograph, or about any of the photographs in The Complete Centerfolds. Is laughter an anti-aphrodisiac?
The first thing that strike the casual reader is the anatomical variety among bunnies. Nipples, for one thing. Some are as big as cupcakes, others are the size of a penny. They are occasionally erect and come in a range of colors as varied as drugstore lipsticks. Pubic hair is another delight to behold, appearing first in 1971 and thriving until 1997. Gauzy coronas of pubic hair, technicolor dreampubes of every shade. You forget how assertive a healthy growth of hair can look. It comes as a pleasant shock in the midst of a creamy-smooth expanse.
Pubic hair diminishes as the nineties draw to a close. Neat triangles turn to Band Aid-sized strips, which become little Hitler mustaches or nothing at all. The modern crotch is a bit prim, a bit less forthright. You’d think that depilation would lend a youthful look to the genitals but it has the opposite effect instead, making the girls look older and slightly jaded. (Intimate grooming signals forethought.) The youthful quality of the early centerfolds disappears.
A 1956 memo to Playboy photographers listed Hefner’s criteria for the centerfolds. The model must be in a natural setting engaged in some activity “like reading, writing, mixing a drink.” She should have a “healthy, intelligent, American lookâ€šÃ„Ã®a young lady that looks like she might be a very efficient secretary or an undergrad at Vassar.” Many centerfolds feature the implied presence of a man: a flash of trouser leg in the corner, a pipe left on a table. These props transform the pinups into seduction scenarios. Their premise is simple: by identifying with the absent man, a viewer can enter the scene.
The centerfold’s signature is what we might call the “Playboy aesthetic”â€šÃ„Ã®something responsible both for Playboy’s long run of success and its schmaltziness. As Hefner put it in a letter to Russ Meyer (director of Faster, Pussycat! Kill Kill!), the ideal centerfold is one in which “a situation is suggested, the presence of someone not in the picture.” The goal was to transform “a straight pinup into an intimate interlude, something personal and special.” Playboy readers are meant to be participants, not voyeurs. Hefner’s vision of American sexuality was a distinctly pasteurized oneâ€šÃ„Ã®sex cleansed of its ugly (and often exciting) power plays. “Clean sex,” he insisted, “has greater appeal than tawdry sex.” Strippers, threesomes and S&M had no place in his magazine. The Playboy centerfold was a world away from the European ideal of a sexually-sophisticated temptress. Hefner’s girls were always girls, first of all, or bunniesâ€šÃ„Ã® not women. There was no knowing gleam in a centerfold’s eye.
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Molly Young – N+1