Terry Richardson and ‘Playboy’ Can Have Each Other

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Who the hell reads Playboy these days? The answer, perhaps inevitably, appears to be: Terry Richardson. As reported widely over the weekend, Uncle Terry has shot a 100-page special edition of the antediluvian porn mag, which comes out on Valentine’s Day next year. Richardson has posted some of the pictures on his blog (yes, of course they’re NSFW). Clearly, the idea of letting Richardson loose on a bunch of girls will have people asking what Playboy was thinking, and rightly so. But the abiding impression is that it’s all so… so lame.

In answer to the “what were they thinking?” question, it’s easy enough to see why Playboy has done this — it’s hard to sell porn in the 21st century, when anyone with an Internet connection has access to endless porn of any and every imaginable variety. Getting a famous photographer to shoot your smut is as good a strategy as any other, and if that photographer happens to be “edgy,” all the better — after all, look at all the publicity this shoot has already gotten. Using Richardson is a cynical and morally questionable endeavor given the nature of the accusations against him, but it makes perfect commercial sense. (And you can see what’s in it for Richardson, too: a decent amount of cash, presumably, and a whole lot of girls who have presumably already agreed to be naked.)

But beyond the simple commercial imperative, Richardson and Playboy have a lot in common: they’re relics of a view of sexuality that feels more obsolete by the day, and thankfully so. Playboy‘s success stemmed from having a large share of the market at a time when porn was both taboo and often hard to lay one’s hands on, an era when finding a “jazz mag” and passing it around amongst your adolescent friend group felt like a thrillingly transgressive thing to do. These days, for better or worse, porn is ubiquitous and inescapable. Exactly what this means for society is a topic that you can debate until the cows come home, but one thing it has done is rendered paying for pictures of naked ladies entirely obsolete.

Curiously, though, the other thing it’s done is emphasize how little both Playboy and Richardson’s work have to do with real-world sex. Of course, your average PornHub “amateur” video isn’t exactly a realistic depiction of sex either, but for whatever else the flood of Internet porn has done to us, it’s certainly demystified sex. And in a world where sex is a fact of life rather than a source of mystery, Playboy is robbed of its power to titillate, while Richardson is robbed of his power to shock.

Before you argue with the latter point, go and have another look at Richardson’s work. There are a gazillion other photographers who’ve shot similarly explicit work, and generally done it better. It’s not the photos themselves that shock — everyone has seen a dick in this day and age — it’s the abiding suspicion that perhaps the models were coerced into doing things they didn’t want to. (In fact, one suspects Richardson’s antics wouldn’t be tolerated on many professional porn sets — not in the US, anyway.)

In the 21st century, both the Playboy Mansion and Terryworld exist in a sort of sexual fantasy land, a place where having sex is still somehow a Naughty Thing to Do, as opposed to just something that people do because, well, it feels good and they like one another. Playboy‘s aesthetic has always been a sort of unattainable airbrushed 36-24-36 ideal, a strangely stylized view of femininity that belongs to the era when people watched Baywatch and salivated over Pamela Anderson. And Richardson, of course, has created Terryworld, a place where he is some sort of artistic sex shaman and everyone has a great time and the accusations of sexual assault are all a nasty lie dreamed up by people who just don’t know how to Have Fun.

Terryworld doesn’t really exist, of course — in the real world, nubile girls don’t just charge around dispensing blowjobs to pervy-looking old dudes in silly glasses. Nor, for that matter, do they wander around in bunny ears waiting hand and foot on lascivious octogenarians, unless those octogenarians happen to own the Playboy Mansion and have more money than god. In the real world, Hugh Hefner is more (unintentional) satire than satyr, and Richardson would be worthy of a similar mild disdain if he weren’t so damaging.

As our own Judy Berman argued here a couple of weeks back, there’s nothing remotely subversive or transgressive about Terry Richardson’s work — it reinforces the most conventional, hackneyed view of sex there is, viz. a well-hung but rather unattractive dude (or dudes) having pneumatic sex with unfeasibly proportioned blonde women. The Playboy view of sex, in other words. In this respect, you might argue that Richardson and Playboy deserve one another: two icons of the most hackneyed and clichéd views of sex available in 2014. Or maybe it’s that Playboy is Richardson’s ultimate retirement home. You can just see him at 80, shambling around his own version of the Playboy mansion, throwing a superannuated thumbs up to the world. Try not to shudder.