Tuesday, February 7, 2012

booknotes: bachelors and bunnies

About two years ago, I reviewed Elizabeth Fraterrigo's Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America (Oxford U.P., 2009), which examines Hugh Hefner's re-packaging of post-war masculinity via the highly successful Playboy magazine and still-thriving media empire. Now another historian, Carrie Pitzulo, has taken up the question of Playboy in historical context with Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2011). In Bachelors, Pitzulo argues that Playboy -- often used as cultural shorthand for sexual objectification of women -- in fact displayed a much more complex and often contradictory editorial stance on the subject of gender equality and women's sexuality than they are given credit for. To make her case, Pitzulo examines the arguments put forth in the pages of Playboy about what it meant to be masculine, what it meant to be feminine, and the nature of heterosexual relationships (both on the individual level and in the broader society). The six chapters look, in turn (and quasi-chronologically), at the gender-war language of Playboy's early years, the centerfold Playmates, the selling of masculine consumerism, Playboy's romantic values, the editorial reaction to feminist critique, and the Playboy Foundation's political activism around sexuality and women's rights.

Overall, I would say Pitzulo makes a convincing case that Playboy as a publication -- and as a cultural phenomenon -- deserves more sustained and thoughtful attention that it has received from either historians of sexuality and gender or from feminist writers and activists. For the most part, Pitzulo refrains from becoming an apologist for Hefner's (and the publication's) checked history when it comes to support or critique of feminist arguments. She opens the book, in fact, with a chapter on the virulent anti-women rhetoric that filled the pages of Playboy in its early years -- highly influenced by the post-war anxiety about the emasculation of men, who were often portrayed as victims of women (smothering mothers and demanding wives). At the same time, she finds textual and visual evidence in the pages of Playboy of a more equalizing, humanistic view of women that belied the early editorial venom. In order for the Playboy of Hefner's magazine to enjoy his version of the Good Life, it was necessary for Playboy to construct what amounted to a Playgirl: a sexually adventurous single woman. The Playmate disrupted the notion that good girls don't by depicting, Pitzulo argues, "all-American girls who enjoyed sex ... [Hefner] told his audience that women like the Playmates could be found everywhere, thereby not only popularizing his magazine but also granting sexual autonomy and desire to women" (40). Although I would point out that "autonomy and desire" isn't necessarily synonymous with "available," which is the other aspect of women's sexuality that the Playmate centerfold promotes, I do think Pitzulo makes a largely successful case for the multiple meanings of such sexual imagery -- beyond the perennial argument that sexual objectification is de facto an oppressive act.

What Pitzulo ends up suggesting is that Playboy championed a vision of gender equality that encouraged women to become a feminine version of the Playboy himself. The good life according to Hefner was urban, sexually liberated (yet responsible), economically secure, with enough time and money to gain the materials and skills necessary for successful heterosexual romance: an extensive wardrobe, a chic apartment, the ability to be a good host/hostess, skill in the kitchen, etc. Helen Gurley Brown articulated this ethic from a woman's perspective in her phenomenally popular Sex and the Single Girl (1960). Both Hefner and Brown "rejected the sexual double standard, yet still embraced heterosexual seduction and femininity" grounded in the notion of innate gender difference. Differences that were somehow fundamental to the continued success of both heterosexual relationships and the society as a whole. When feminist activists began to criticize Playboy for its sexual objectification of women and its championing of what they considered outdated and harmful gender stereotypes, Hefner (and his editors) responded on the defensive. On the one hand, they argued (somewhat truthfully) that they had a record of supporting many feminist objectives, such as reproductive rights and equal pay for equal work; on the other, they railed against "militant" feminists who sought (they thought) to "reject the overall roles that men and women play in our society," roles that Playboy  believed were both innate and desirable. The tension between calling for social equality on the one hand and championing innate gender difference on the other remained in continual tension throughout the 70s and into the 80s. Indeed, Pitzulo seems to suggest, the tension only really resolved itself when the mainstream culture at large rejected the more radical critiques of feminist activists in favor of embracing what was essentially the Playboy vision of both heterosexual relations and gender roles more generally: "American culture has largely embraced the vision of gender and heterosexuality promoted by Playboy in the postwar years, and the country continues its ... celebration of the rampant consumerism central to creating those identities" (177).

Despite Pitzulo's inevitable references to Sex and the City as shorthand for where we've arrived at the turn of the new millennium (cue Bradshaw's Law!) her re-evaluation of the messages concerning (hetero)sexuality and gender in Playboy deserve serious consideration by both historians of sex and gender and by those with an interest in deconstructing the powerful notions of gender, sex, and sexuality that still hold powerful sway in our cultural discourse. I was particularly intrigued by the anxiety with which Hefner met feminist challenges to gender difference and "heterosexual seduction," as if his entire formulation of Playboy masculinity depended upon the existence of an opposite. I wonder why this mattered to him so much, given that -- as Pitzulo demonstrates -- the Playboy and his Playmate were, in many ways, identical as model urban workers/consumers. One possible response of Playboy to feminist challenges would have been to reconfigure the notion of the ideal bachelor to be more ambiguous in terms of his sexual desires and more flexible in gender presentation (with male and female sexual partners with similar plasticity) -- while continuing to emphasize all of the material accouterments Playboy had argued all along were essential for the good life: A posh wardrobe, expensive car, chic flat, and fine dining could have been successfully packaged to gay men, stay-at-home-dads, and men with a thing for women in suits. That Hefner fell back on an insistence that the height of romance depended on opposite-sex attraction and performance of narrowly-defined gender roles speaks of something more compelling than the profit motive to maintaining a specific vision of male-female complementarity. That this same vision continue to be compelling for a significant portion of Americans today supports this notion that gender difference has persuasive explanatory power -- even in the face of social science and medical research to the contrary.

I have to say it's when I'm reading books like this that I find myself extra-specially glad that my own life circumstances have allowed me to opt out with relatively little pain from the straight-jacket of heterosexual roles that so many men and women continue to struggle with. Hugh Hefner and the Playboy editors gave scant attention to non-straight sexuality, beyond a general approval for repeal of laws punishing consensual sexual behaviors and an acceptance of Kinsey's notion of a sexual continuum (in which most people had the potential for same- as well as other-sex attractions). Beyond that, Playboy unapologetically championed straight sex. If only they'd been willing to champion a broader notion of what it meant to be male, female, and sexually desirable. It would be nice to think that American culture, as a whole, might have been influenced in a slightly more feminist (and dare I say healthier) direction.

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