The sexual revolution was in full swing in 1973 when Playboy magazine got a female-focused spinoff: Playgirl. Its initial mission was “similar to its long-standing counterpart: to feature nude centerfolds alongside hard-hitting features by and for women.” But as Playgirl shifted hands and companies, the powers-that-be never really seemed to get a handle on what it was supposed to be about. As Esquire points out in Matthew Rettenmund’s oral history, “A Penis On Every Page: The Rise And Fall Of Playgirl,” the skewed vision of the men behind the scenes hampered Playgirl’s intended success.
Even though Playgirl was likely as popular among gay men as it was among women, especially in its earliest stages, for many years execs failed to acknowledge that considerable portion of the magazine’s audience. Designer Randy Dunbar explained: “I think a lot of guys who were probably still in the closet could go to the supermarket and say, ‘It’s for my girlfriend.’” The early photographers also couldn’t agree on what level of hard-on was acceptable for the magazine’s lauded centerfolds: April 1978 centerfold Brian Dawson remembered: “They didn’t want a full-on erection, so the photographer shot pictures as I went down… giving them the opportunity to select the degree of erection.”
Most of the magazine’s mission conflict seemed to erupt between the male executives maintaining that women didn’t want nude pictorials the way Playboy’s male readers did, even as Playgirl’s female employees told them they were wrong. Editor Nicole Caldwell described: “We would sit in the conference room with the [men] and they’d be saying, ‘Women don’t watch porn.’ We would be raising our hands, ‘Actually… we do.’” Playgirl even veered into a tamer, celebrity cover route in the ’80s, then returned to its previous pinup status. Most recently, the magazine had a revamp in 2010 with Levi Johnston, the father of one of Sarah Palin’s grandchildren, which went about as well as you would expect. Playgirl is currently in a kind of publishing limbo, publishing quarterly or less every year since 2011.
Still, the history of Playgirl offers a fascinating look at publishing, sexuality, and societal constraints. Read more at Esquire.