January 6, 2020

What can brands learn from Playboy about talking to men?

Shane Michael Singh // WTF GENDER

In his Twitter profile, Shane Michael Singh wonders if “celibate gay Playboy editor” is enough of a pitch to get him a book deal.

It’s definitely not the expected profile of a man in his position. But he and a team of young Millennials are reinventing the iconic brand and may be shifting the idea of a certain kind of masculinity along with it. When he asks What the Future, he’s wondering if men feel like they’re part of the conversation about the future of gender.

WTF: What was Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s idea of masculinity, and what is yours?

Shane Michael Singh: If we were going to define Hugh Hefner’s version of masculinity, it was the idea that you could be intellectual and also enjoy stimulating content around sex. That means that you could talk about sex and sexuality, but also talk about politics and read the best fiction by Ian Fleming, Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates.

If I were to diagnose or prescribe any quality to masculinity, I think there’s a stoicism. There’s a certain kind of strength with it. But there has to be vulnerability attached to that masculinity. If you were to take stoicism, strength and vulnerability, that informs the way we speak to each other. That informs how we interact with each other and that informs creating a culture in which we are respectful of each other. We need to have an open and progressive society in which everybody is free to pursue pleasure.

WTF: Is it fair to say that Playboy is targeted to men?

Singh: Are the majority of our subscribers men? Absolutely. I don’t take a gendered approach to our editorial. I have an LGBT site and Civil Liberties site on Playboy.com. These are not gendered verticals.

WTF: In the WTF survey, we see “traditional” male traits that are still viewed positively – things like strength and protection and being a provider. That would seem to indicate that as we’re having this conversation about what masculinity means, we don’t necessarily need to start from scratch going forward.

Singh: We don’t need to start from scratch because masculinity and femininity both have qualities and traits that are evolving. Look in the arts, look at fashion. Look at male heartthrobs … their viewpoints on masculinity are shifting with the culture. That’s why there is unisex clothing. That’s why Harry Styles is kind of a modern-day David Bowie in terms of his expression of what masculinity is and looks like.

My personal relationship with both of those is that they are both energies that everybody has a certain ratio of. On certain days you might be feeling a little bit more masculine. On certain days you might be feeling a little bit more feminine. Right now, culture isn’t thirsty for a rulebook. Actually, the rules are being tossed out.

WTF: In the data, we see traits that are considered positive for men, like sensitivity or rationality or decisiveness, that aren’t necessarily currently associated with men. If men adopted those, would that lead to a sort of “safe, nontoxic” masculinity?

Singh: I think that nontoxic masculinity is a misnomer. Nontoxic masculinity should just be masculinity. Toxic is the qualifier there.

WTF: How long can this kind of traditional image of the “manly man” survive in today’s world?

Singh: I think that we probably are about one generation away from an entire shift. I think the iGen (demographic is) working toward a culture that we Millennials – I am a Millennial – probably won’t necessarily recognize by the time they get into their 30s and 40s. Today’s climate is so different than it was 30 or 40 years ago. I’m excited to see what the next generation pulls out in terms of their relationship with gender identity and sexuality.

WTF: Playboy has hosted several events on the topic of the future of masculinity. What are some of your takeaways from those events?

Singh: Masculinity is not one thing. It is a hybrid of many ideas and many thoughts that is reinforced by representations of it in media. Media is still important in how we digest and understand masculinity. My biggest learning is that when it comes to masculinity, men themselves have so much to say about it. I think we need more spaces to have an open conversation. It’s a conversation that I think everybody can be involved in, and that there are people who want to be involved.

WTF: How do we do that?

Singh: We evolve through education, conversation, debate and then personal experience. Masculinity isn’t a lecture. It has to be an ongoing conversation.

WTF: And yet in our data, we see that 40% of men, not an insignificant number, feel they’ll be attacked if they try to speak up in the gender-equity conversation and one in four feel excluded entirely. Some would argue that men have had their say for eons. So do they need to be included in that conversation?

Singh: I don’t think that you can change culture by only involving 50% of the population.

WTF: What can other brands learn from Playboy?

Singh: You have to have conversations. You have to know who you are. Early last year, Playboy did a lot of introspection. We as a company did a lot of work and figured out what parts of our history we are super proud of because they are quite relevant today. That’s how we came out with our four brand values related to equality, freedom of speech, gender and sexuality, and the pursuit of pleasure (both sexual and nonsexual).

Because without any of those, a Playboy would not exist. We have 66 years of history of advocating for free speech, for racial equality, for sexual equality, for LGBT rights, for cannabis reform and decriminalization. We’re lucky that we had a great founder and great people before us who paved the way and allow us to continue this work.

Shane Michael Singh
Executive editor
He, him, his


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What makes a man?

Many traditionally "manly" traits are still considered a plus, but rounding them out with senstivity and rationality might lead to a more modern defintion of "men." Percents represent those who associate a trait with men, and consider it postive for men.

Associated with men (Agree net) Considered positive for men (Agree net)

Masculine Masculine 75% 67%

Strong Strong 53% 79%

Protective Protective 51% 83%

Provider Provider 43% 79%

Head of household Head of household 41% 57%

Aggressive Aggressive 38% 15%

Leader Leader 35% 75%

Assertive Assertive 33% 50%

Decisive Decisive 24% 67%

Makes the first move Makes the first move 20% 37%

Temperamental Temperamental 20% 10%

Rational Rational 19% 71%

Sensitive Sensitive 10% 49%

Vain Vain 10% 5%

Emotional Emotional 7% 30%

(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between Oct. 17 and 18, 2019 among 1,005 U.S. adults.)

More men feel excluded by the conversation around gender as a spectrum, but most feel men have a role to play in the discussion.

There is a national discussion going on about whether there are not just two genders (male and female) but if there are a spectrum of genders in between.

Strongly agree Somewhat agree Neither agree nor disagree Somewhat disagree Strongly disagree
Strongly disagree 15% Somewhat disagree 19% Neither agree nor disagree 39% Somewhat agree 18% Strongly agree 9%

I feel included in that conversation.

Strongly disagree 12% Somewhat disagree 14% Neither agree nor disagree 43% Somewhat agree 18% Strongly agree 13%

I feel excluded from that conversation.

Strongly disagree 13% Somewhat disagree 15% Neither agree nor disagree 36% Somewhat agree 24% Strongly agree 12%

I have learned a lot from that conversation.

Strongly disagree 35% Somewhat disagree 13% Neither agree nor disagree 21% Somewhat agree 15% Strongly agree 16%

I feel this goes against my religious beliefs.

Strongly disagree 20% Somewhat disagree 15% Neither agree nor disagree 25% Somewhat agree 25% Strongly agree 15%

Hearing the conversation usually makes me annoyed or angry.

Strongly disagree 4% Somewhat disagree 4% Neither agree nor disagree 28% Somewhat agree 37% Strongly agree 27%

I feel men have an important role to play in this conversation.

Strongly disagree 20% Somewhat disagree 14% Neither agree nor disagree 22% Somewhat agree 25% Strongly agree 19%

I worry that if I say what I'm thinking, I will be attacked.

Strongly disagree 29% Somewhat disagree 19% Neither agree nor disagree 23% Somewhat agree 17% Strongly agree 12%

I worry that my rights are being taken away.

Strongly disagree 25% Somewhat disagree 15% Neither agree nor disagree 26% Somewhat agree 18% Strongly agree 16%

I feel like my values are being threatened.

(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between Oct. 17 and 18, 2019 among 414 male U.S. adults.)


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, Executive editor, Playboy

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