In an age when all manner of pornography can be accessed freely, Playboy takes on the stodgy air of an institution. The women in its pages seem more like human-shaped diagrams than actual people, charting an imagined path toward a world of timeless, genteel hedonism. Life inside Hugh Hefner’s fantasy has always required that one accept certain rules, and so it is no surprise that the goings-on within the Mansion are governed in this same spirit. In short, Hefner is Emperor, the women are his subjects, and no one is wearing much clothing.
Girls Next Door focuses on the three permanent female residents of the Playboy Mansion: Holly, Bridget, and Kendra. All tall, blonde, and in their 20s, they form the G.O.H. (Girlfriend of Hefner) triumvirate. Holly, official girlfriend for three and a half years, is the self-styled alpha female. Bridget happens to be the most educated, holding both a B.A. and a Masters in communications. Kendra, the “new girl,” is the ditz, tomboyish, loud, and unapologetically goofy. While Holly and Bridget are poised in front of the interview camera, alternately spreading gossip and defending their “lifestyle,” Kendra seems uninterested in artifice; one can enjoy her ditziness without aftertaste.
Given the E! network’s penchant for celebrity exploitation, the footage here is remarkably tame. Hefner is mostly absent, appearing from time to time to mug for the camera or provide context for the girls’ activities. Their relationships with him are, as one might expect, central to the show. “We do all the things a regular boyfriend and girlfriend do,” says Holly in response to rampant tabloid and internet rumors about their sex life.
Based on this series, however, their relationship is better characterized as an eccentric man-child and his personal aides than anything resembling romance. “We have the same routine every week. So I kinda see that as a job,” Kendra says at one point, and this does seem to sum it up. They get their hair done, they dress up in expensive clothes, they make a perfectly managed appearance or two — and then they do it again. Cloistered from the concerns of the outside world, their job is to project the fantasy.
This is a many-faceted job, complete with hierarchy. But while the girls occasionally seem competitive, they also appear to accept Holly’s claim on the number one girlfriend title. Bridget even refers to herself and Kendra as “icing on the cake.” Holly is the only one who harbors any great resentment: “I think he needs to get rid of the extra girls.” (Ouch!)
No, the G.O.H’s collective jealousy is reserved for the magazine girls. According to Holly, being a centerfold is “all that [a woman] can achieve in both body and mind.” Current and prospective Playmates cavort through the grounds on a regular basis, a constantly changing lineup of gorgeous young things competing for Hefner’s attention. While the girlfriends age, these visitors will always be beautiful and desired by thousands of male readers.
Bridget is hit especially hard by this reality. She long dreamed of being a Playboy model, and now watches dozens of other women “get what I can’t have.” Tearful when she makes this confession, she’s soon giggling again, describing how she tests newcomers by getting them hammered the night before their photo auditions. When Hefner finally decides to put all three girlfriends in an issue of the magazine (along with himself, fully clothed), they are elated. While the show suggests this is a victory, it’s ironic that these most fortunate young women can still be this happy about being subverted, body and mind, into mere symbols.
The enormous pull of this fantasy is central to fame and celebrity. But a fantasy does more than attract, it conceals. Hefner and company attend the AFI Awards celebration for George Lucas. One hopes for a meeting between Hef and Lucas, two of America’s great fantasists, but it never comes. Here all exist in Lucas’ shadow, much as visitors to the Mansion exist in Hefner’s. Both men are virtual hermits, intimated by their hugely influential creations. Hefner in particular comes off as timid, though he’s professional before cameras, displaying that wizened, disturbingly eager smile of his. His personal life — the wife and children who live next door, the previous seven (or so) girlfriends — is ignored by the show, making him something of a cipher.
For a man so clearly obsessed with image, the demands of a celebreality soap present a problem. Reality in all its messiness and unpredictability — or at least its overstated appearance — must be presented in order to satisfy the audience. When the image in question is as vehemently opposed to reality as Playboy’s, all it can produce in the way of self-reflection is a PR smokescreen. In the end, Hugh Hefner is too worried about making himself look good for Girls Next Door to be anything more than business as usual.