4
New Playboy Pop-Up Puts Spotlight on Social Change, Not SexEXPAND
Jarod Harris/Getty Images for Freedom Is Key

New Playboy Pop-Up Puts Spotlight on Social Change, Not Sex

When Hugh Hefner died in September of 2017, it was one of the most polarizing passings in recent pop culture history. While his accomplishments in the world of publishing had not gone unnoticed, his lascivious lifestyle was always at the forefront — via tabloids, hedonistic soirees and events, and eventually a weekly TV show.

The Girls Next Door, which showed the media giant and his three girlfriends in a "reality" format, was definitely a precursor to E!’s Keeping Up With The Kardashians' cutesy, contrived situational set-up, as well as the aspirational aspects (swank surroundings, paid for physiques, glamorous red carpet events) that currently drive most television of this ilk today. It's no coincidence that the K gals and women on the Real Housewives franchise, for example, all seem to strive for the same exaggerated, fake look; Hef set that standard for them, and for all of us really.

And while we can hate that standard and the objectification that comes with it, I don't think it’s right to hate the man himself. He simply did too much good during his lifetime and, yes, that includes the nudity he showcased in Playboy, too. The magazine was the first major publication to acknowledge women as sexual beings and, despite what some might say, more than playthings. It elevated the female form on its pages and made it something to marvel at and even worship. By making sure the images were beautifully shot, and that they ran alongside only the very best journalism and noted writers, he took away the shame that shrouded sex in previous decades and transformed art, media and culture in the process.

Continue Reading
New Playboy Pop-Up Puts Spotlight on Social Change, Not SexEXPAND
Jarod Harris/Getty Images for Freedom Is Key

With a focus on Playboy's most important contributions to pop culture, the pop-up "Freedom Is Key: A Playboy Exhibition," currently at the Beverly Center, aims to remind us all of Hefner's visionary accomplishments, which, of course, go way beyond the magazine. The 5,000-square-foot immersive exhibit takes visitors through 65 years of Playboy history. Running through the end of May, the presentation is as informative as a well-curated museum exhibit and as colorful and selfie-ready as any trendy photo-op pop-up out there. Showcasing the Playboy empire's massive archives, the focus here isn’t on titillation or lusty displays, but on history. They tout the exhibit as a PG experience, but there’s virtually no nudity showcased here, so if not for the subject matter itself, I’d say it’s practically rated G.

The pop-up focuses on Hefner's advocacy for free speech, gender equality and, maybe most prominently, civil rights. You enter through a door marked "Employees Only" and see what looks like a kitchen before coming upon a recreated version of the Playboy Club, where Hefner showcased African-American artists more than anyone else dared to. A graphic explains that in the '50s and '60s, artists of color were forced to enter establishments this way, but at the Playboy Clubs they entered through the front door because the venues insisted on a fully integrated, non-segregated environment, thereby making them models of acceptance and tolerance and showing other businesses "how to line up on the right side of history."

From there, we see a drum kit photo op and the iconic bunny suit worn by Playboy Club employees, with variations on mannequins in glass cases. There's a blown up version of Gloria Steinem's infamous undercover Show magazine article about working at the clubs, which unflinchingly lists her feminist critique of the experience. The exhibit explains that it started a dialogue between the writer and Hef, leading the publisher to change certain practices for his female employees (such as mandatory physical exams).

A mock set-up of Hefner's desk followed by large scale visuals featuring the revered "Playboy Interview" celebrates contributors such as Roots author Alex Haley, who interviewed the likes of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X and Miles Davis in Playboy's pages. This section of the exhibit highlights the mag's impressive list of bylines from Ray Bradbury and Jack Kerouac to Stephen King and Lenny Bruce to Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates. It also illustrates Playboy's passionate fight against censorship. The pub sued the postmaster general (who sought to keep the magazine out of U.S. mail circulation) and won, as well as fought the arrest of Hefner after he published a semi-nude pictorial of Jayne Mansfield.

In addition to the historical themes and the magazine's significance within the media sphere, the Playboy lifestyle and brand is celebrated throughout the exhibit with a recreation of Hefner’s living room and game room, a section dedicated to his short-lived record label and the still- thriving Playboy Jazz Festival, the Playboy airplane, the mag’s racy cartoons, and art. The gallery section features works by Keith Haring, Patrick Nagel, Andy Warhol and Alberto Vargas, though curiously pin-up artist Olivia de Berardinis is mentioned but not shown. Video screens showing various Playboy models talking about sexual freedom and self-expression give the experience a modern feel, especially since some of the footage features current Playboy subjects.

For those who haven't been following the publication since its founder’s death, it was Cooper Hefner, Hugh’s son, who wisely brought back nudity to the mag a couple of years ago after a year-long experiment to remove it. "I'll be the first to admit that the way in which the magazine portrayed nudity was dated," he tweeted back in February 2017. "But removing it entirely was a mistake."

Since then, the mag, which puts out a print edition twice a year these days, has shifted its focus (as many publications have) to the web. [Disclosure: I’ve written for playboy.com in the past]. The site’s content has a younger, fresher feel, and has been segmented online, with subscribers getting to see the nude stuff via two tiers — free subscribers (limited content) and Playboy Plus (everything, including video). Cooper’s input has seen the magazine feature a more diverse array of women on its covers and in its pictorials, with more (real) girl next door types shot in artier and less predictable ways. Some have likened the new aesthetic to a naked Nylon magazine–style hipster vibe, but there's no denying that replacing the old school, overly re-touched Barbie doll looks of the past was a smart move.

Though some may still find the magazine’s celebration of beauty ideals and sexuality distasteful or exploitative — and maybe even harmful to the fight for equality, especially in the post-#MeToo world — these same naysayers must acknowledge that fashion magazines, tabloids, reality TV and pop culture in general present the same challenges, now more than ever. At least Playboy — which removed the "Entertainment for Men" subhead under Cooper’s helm — seeks to break down barriers (as it always has), creating a world that very intentionally encourages females (and the males who admire and love them) to be sexual if they so desire, and not be slut-shamed for their choices — a very modern mindset that proves it was way ahead of its time.

Freedom is Key is open to the public at the newly renovated Beverly Center, 8500 Beverly Blvd., Beverly Grove. Through May 26; $15. circleexhibits.com/pages/buy-tickets-for-freedom-is-key-a-playboy-exhibition

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >