[14 September 2011]
Should Playboy, the first media entity to bring female nudity into the households of the average American, be considered a feminist magazine? That’s the premise of Carrie Pitzulo’s extremely well-researched book Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy.
Thanks to the cooperation of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, Pitzulo marshals a huge amount of data to support her claim, from articles to staff memos and letters to the editor. The meticulous documentation is impressive, but at times, her scholarly writing style makes the book feel more like a PhD dissertation than an accessible piece of non-fiction.
Hefner launched Playboy in 1953, amidst a period of sweeping societal change. Women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, challenging the traditionally male role of the family breadwinner.
An urbane and slightly effeminate writer who re-invented himself to attract women, Hefner’s persona had an immediate cultural resonance. Pitzulo writes that “a part of Hefner’s genius was in understanding that millions of American men were questioning their lives and identities in the same way.” He represented the magazine’s challenge to traditional masculinity, a sophisticated and intellectual consumer rather than the strong and silent outdoorsman popularized by actors like John Wayne.
While Pitzulo convincingly demonstrates how the magazine pushed the image of Hefner’s lifestyle on its male readership, she’s on shakier ground when she credits it for redefining societal views on femininity as well.
For her, its insistence on tasteful nudity, in comparison to competitors like Hustler and Penthouse, was an attempt to bridge the Madonna/whore dichotomy of female sexuality. The centerfolds represented “good girls” who still enjoyed sex: “By sexualizing the girl-next-door in his centerfolds, Hefner granted the same sexuality to the women Playboy represented—the secretaries, neighbors, girlfriends and colleagues that Hefner told readers could be found all around them.”
Yet the boundaries of taste continually changed at the magazine, with Playboy responding to society rather than shaping it. Full-frontal nudity became commonplace in its pages by the ‘70s, while the company diversified into hard-core pornography in its pay-per-view divisions in the ‘90s.
Hefner dismisses concerns that the magazine objectifies its centerfolds by arguing that the many biographical details it provides humanizes them. Contrary to the popular joke of the man who claims to subscribe to Playboy for its articles, Hefner would have us believe that his readers devoured bits of trivia about the women whose images they masturbated to.
Pitzulo never really comments on this claim, seemingly a price to pay for the unprecedented amount of access she got. Also conspicuously absent in her discussion of the objectification debate are any mention of breast implants and the unnatural standards of beauty Playboy helped to create in the American psyche.
But despite its many critics, the magazine does have legitimate feminist credentials, which Pitzulo spends most of the book outlining. Playboy was on the forefront of the abortion rights movement, and its non-profit foundation has consistently given large sums of money to pro-choice and women’s rights groups. Its current CEO is a woman: Hefner’s daughter Christie, who is widely credited with shepherding the magazine into the digital age.
Society has changed drastically from when Hefner first launched the magazine, and while Pitzulo’s desire to keep the focus of her book narrow is understandable, it leaves the reader with a lot of unanswered questions. Was there any downside to Playboy being a feminist ally in the sexual revolution of the ‘60s? What’s been the effect of the widespread proliferation of hardcore pornography and premarital sex that Playboy helped to launch in society?
In the conclusion, Pitzulo makes note of the Playboy bunny medallion that Sex and the City protagonist Carrie Bradshaw wears: “The show itself might be the evidence of the extent to which American culture has embraced the type of femininity that Playboy promoted years ago. The program’s characters… resembled manifestations of Hefner’s ideal—beautiful, feminine, financially stable career women who were highly invested in exploring both their sexuality and consumer society.”
That’s certainly not the only way they’ve been described, as what those characters represent has been a topic of many spirited debates. If the Sex and the City characters represent Hefner’s feminine ideal, it raises all types of questions involving the magazine, society and feminism itself. Bachelors and Bunnies would be a more compelling read if it tried to answer them.