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Work / Publication

Sarah Vadé’s new book, Boy, reflects on masculinity through 40 years of Playboy ads

In her book, Boy, Paris-based artist Sarah Vadé has collected and curated over forty years of advertisements from 1960 to 2003 that have featured in Playboy. The publication skilfully distils the recurrent messages that these images communicate through the popular men’s magazine.

“I was researching Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and looking at how book covers have built a certain image of the 19th-century countryside bourgeoisie when I came across a chapter from Flaubert’s novel in Playboy, " Sarah tells It’s Nice That. Puzzled by Madame Bovary’s unexpected appearance, Sarah decided to dig deeper into the iconic magazine’s history. During her research, she found that someone had uploaded all of the magazine’s issues from 1950 to the early 2000s onto the internet for anyone to access. It was the advertisements, she explains, that struck her most.

The development of Playboy’s advertisements reflect the evolution of consumer capitalism and trace the increasing dominance of advertising in the 1960s and 1970s. “During the 1960s, Playboy’s pages gave room for more and more ads. By the mid-1970s, ads took up almost half of the magazine,” Sarah says. In other words, Playboy contains just as much material to analyse its adverts as there is scope to reflect on the editorial content.

Boy can be classified as a piece of visual sociology, shining a light on masculinity through the decades. But instead of looking at surveys and statistics, Sarah studies society through cultural artefacts and representations of consumerism: “The various ads I collected became a set of visual signs. So I observed the pictures in front of me, arranged them and rearranged them. The visual language of the ads really is a subject in itself.” By compiling the images side-by-side, Sarah forces the reader to draw comparisons between pictures and to form unexpected links between seemingly unrelated images of beer and belts.

Sarah’s book provides an insight into the advertising industry’s inconspicuous portrayals of desirable masculinity. “The ads show a combination of stereotypes: cigarettes, music, cars and motorbikes. On the one hand, it is sold as a magazine of naked women. On the other hand, Playboy contains beautiful male models in images that can be seen as homoerotic. Perhaps this sells the magazine to a demographic beyond heterosexual readers,” Sarah muses. Her book challenges Playboy as the ultimate symbol of heterosexual male pleasure. She explains that it is also about men and their relationships to each other: Cars, motorbikes and alcohol have more to do with male identity than with men’s relationships to women. Boy sheds light on the fact that erotic fantasy is only half of the magazine. The other half is about male bonding, consumption and success. As her book’s title suggests, Playboy magazine is just as much “boy” as it is “play”.     

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