Thanks to hydrogen fusion and chemo-synthesis, it will be possible by 1984, or soon after, to make food from rocks. Thanks to other technological advances, it will cost less to fly to the Moon, than to Australia. Human body styles will change with fashion, as genetic couturiers go in and out of style. Soviet socialism will bury American capitalism. Medical science will allow people to live for about two hundred years. …
Robots will take over simple manual tasks, and render the lower grades of humanity obsolete. Unnatural sex practices will become ethical, legal, and even socially accepted. The arbitrary barriers between men and women will dissolve, along with the arbitrary bonds of marriage. Universally available contraceptives and antibiotics will remove the fear of pregnancy and venereal disease. And meanwhile, we will be able to watch “the same old small-screen slop” on giant, high-resolution television screens. …
These predictions came from a panel of twelve celebrated science fiction writers, in Playboy magazine, in their July number of 1963. And thanks to the Internet (which none of them predicted), I was able to find the article in Flickr somewhere, by entering a few search terms.
I remembered it well, from childhood. My father bought a copy of this number from the Rexall Drug Store on Main Street, Georgetown, Ontario. He was spotted doing so, and as a consequence I was ragged by a nasty little mob of schoolboys, telling me that my dad was a “prevert” — a term they had apparently just acquired from their own parents. I furiously denied that my father would ever buy a pornographic magazine — and told him about the heinous accusation when I got home. Papa calmly said the allegation was true, and asked if I would like to see the magazine — after my mother, who was currently reading it. He mentioned the scientifictional panel, which he thought might appeal to me.
Robert Heinlein: “What will our children accomplish? Take the wildest speculation, square it, cube the result, and the answer still won’t be big enough to match the truth.”
Yes, the predictions were as fatuous as that, except, as gentle reader will observe, some of them came true. On revisiting that Playboy number, however, I was struck by a quote from William Tenn, the pseudonym of the expatriate British author, Philip Klass (1920–2010), a notorious Roman Catholic:
“I can think of no potentially great advance in technology or human relations which man won’t find a way to subvert into a historic step backward.”
This elitist writer is among the few “futurists” I can endure. (Walter M. Miller, Jr., and C.S. Lewis, probably complete the list.) His lovingly acid, high satirical humour turns the cheap genre into something resembling literature; his familiarity with human nature distinguishes him from the mere technophiles. Though as gentle reader may speculate, I have not read widely in the science fiction genre.
From the news this morning, I see that Playboy magazine still exists, that Hugh Hefner is still alive, and that he founded it in 1953, the year of my birth, not in the early ’sixties as I had supposed. Since pictures of naked women (in poses much crasser than Playboy ever dared) — are now available instantly for free, across the Internet, the magazine has changed its photographic policy. Henceforth, its models will be more generously clothed. With a paid circulation only a small fraction of what it had at peak in the ’seventies, it will try to retrieve its old reputation for faux sophistication.
A pop culture theoretician of my acquaintance is of the view that Playboy always offered “soft” pornography. From its first centrefold of Marilyn Monroe, apparently lifted from a contemporary gas-station calendar, its models were more “nude” than “naked”; it left the pervert’s obsession with lingerie until late in the day. Hefner’s babes all looked milk-fed and freshly bathed, as opposed to, say, weird, dirty, French, and too easily available. She was the girl next door in the American male’s fantastical imagination. This corresponded to the international idea of the American girl, and Playboy Clubs with the tuxedo rabbit logo — a mark of faux sophistication — sprang up all over the planet. Add in the interviews with famous people, background lavish interiors, and mildly naughty cartoons, and everyone could find an excuse for buying it.
The great secret of Playboy — and I tell this at considerable personal risk — is that women read it as often as men. For women are more interested than men in the female body (witness the contents of women’s magazines), and more curious about what makes the other sex tick (ditto). Men rule the world because we are much less competitive, more cooperative therefore (“teamwork”), and more interested in rule-based things like football and engineering. Too, our adolescent fascination with undressed women is more biological than cosmetic; more pneumatic than analytical. It does not consume scarce brainpower.
But that leads us towards another topic — the battle of the sexes in which the man’s superior size and strength have seldom proved a match for the woman’s psychological dexterity.
Instead, I wanted to address, this morning, the conventional view that Playboy was the flip side of second-wave feminism. The enterprising periodical, which would have been called Stag Party, had it not been for an early lawsuit from the publishers of a similarly-named men’s hunting magazine, gave its name in turn to a fashionable type of male “swinger.” Pierre Trudeau, for instance, was able to sweep to power in Canada in 1968, on the strength of his “playboy” charisma. His son, little Justin Trudeau, threatens to become prime minister next week, thanks to the same mastery of the women’s vote.
The popular belief that women are repelled by promiscuous male behaviour is false. Or rather, it is true only of a small minority of the unpleasant. Many women are scandalized by gratuitous male advances, but that is another thing. And the loss of that feminine self-possession is a feature only of the later, fin de siècle depravity. The women of my own youth — the “hippie chicks” I fondly remember — were still at least capable of situational chastity.
No: I deny that women (except a few of the shriekie sisters) hate to be loved or desired by men. What they do not want is for the men to diminish them by being jackasses about it, or otherwise to inconvenience them by their extravagant attentions. Most women I have met would not mind being quietly adored by innumerable men. This can even become a source of corruption.
A better argument for the morally degenerative effect of Playboy, on the female sex, would be that it presented the new “playboy” male, not as a “male chauvinist pig,” but instead as androgynous. The politics were always liberal, and where context required, consistently “sensitive.” These were men who cared a great deal about fashion and self-presentation; men who were successful in a rather feminine or feline way, striking poses and expecting to get things both ways. They could play at being smart polished “gentlemen” in one moment, and voyeurs in the next; and really they were both, and a few other incompatible things (always fake) in the same package.
James Bond was the ultimate exemplar. I think he got the tuxedo from the Playboy bunny, and not vice versa. He could be four years old, or forty, simultaneously; he could indulge childish wishes, and make them pay. And women would accommodate him, because he was so impossibly “attractive.” He knew all about women, in a way his male ancestors would have concealed. And he put what he knew shamelessly to work.
The notion that what is good for the goose, may also be good for the gander, takes hold from there. As we know from Chaucer, the female desire for “the soveraineté” is not new; it is a staple of literature in all times and places. The question has ever been, not whether they want it, but whether they can get it. The answer, not only in Western Civ, but in all the other higher civilizations, has been resistance, on grounds that when women do rule — not subtly behind the scenes, but overtly without restriction — the world goes promptly to Hell. As Doctor Johnson put it, “Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little.”
So-called “second wave feminism” did not begin with the sick ravings of Betty Friedan, but with the existential hallucinations of Simone de Beauvoir. (Her 1940s book, The Second Sex, was translated into American in 1953, and published just as Playboy was first appearing.) Ms Friedan’s derivative bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, appeared a decade later, just as The Pill was arriving on the mass pharmaceutical market.
The idea that pregnancy, lactation, and menstruation should not deprive women of “equal rights” (invariably code for the soveraineté) was not the new thing at all. Instead it was the sudden collocation of ends and means. The Pill could “make women equal.” They could henceforth become androgynous themselves, and as it were, Playgirls, no longer constrained by the fear of maternity, nor the taint of prostitution.
Like the kind of man promoted by Playboy, they would never have to grow up. Everything in life would now become “an option,” and in the future, the options could only grow; science would guarantee that, and solve any of the technical problems along the way.
In this sense, the Sexual Revolution was not thesis and antithesis (feminism in reaction to masculine excess), but a synthesis from the start. What began “underground” in the 1950s, with such as Hefner and de Beauvoir, appeared overground in the Swinging Sixties. It was an explosive development, so that by 1968 — the year of Humanae Vitae — the whole idea of returning to the “traditional” order of civilization and human decency had become, for the young in body or in mental attributes, inconceivable. The outcry against that document, in America, was extraordinary. (There would have been none, ten years before.) Pope Paul was simply not James Bond, and that was sufficient ground to condemn him. “Civilization” and “repression” were now, as for Freud, interchangeable terms.
While the scientifictionists interviewed by Playboy may have been stunningly obtuse in considering the consequences of what they were predicting — as well as ludicrously optimistic on much of the “science” — I think they captured more exactly than the contemporary “social scientists” the tenor of that age. With the singular exception of Mr Glass, they were prophets of the new “liberation,” in which everyone could have everything all ways. And indeed, it was the very shallowness — its moral, intellectual, and spiritual vacuity — that made Playboy such a powerful instrument of the Sexual Revolution.