- Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy by Carrie Pitzulo
Many young scholars believe that the best way to write an “original” book is to overturn conventional wisdom and create a new interpretation that challenges past assumptions. That is the privilege of each generation, of course, to re-examine research and publish work that refutes our views of the past and the present. Although this “counterintuitive turn” may give their work fifteen minutes of fame, it often comes at the expense of the larger truth they are trying to recount. [End Page 234]
One graduate student, for example, decided to argue that since we cannot persuade nuclear powers to eliminate their bombs, then the most obvious solution is to give every country in the world access to the technology of weapons of mass destruction.
I mention this because Carrie Pitzulo, in Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy, also employs this “counterintuitive turn.” Since feminists have long viewed Playboy as the first commercial and slick magazine for middle class men that displayed the nude female body, often accompanied by serious articles, she seeks to turn conventional wisdom on its head and claim that both Hugh Hefner and his magazine did, in fact, improve women’s rights and empower women.
She does, of course, have some evidence for this claim. Using the “counterintuitive turn” Pitzulo finds “empowerment” in all kinds of unexpected places. She argues, for example, that Hugh Hefner, who popularized the sophisticated bachelor’s lifestyle, gradually changed and understood the need for women to work. But his animosity towards the women’s movement verged on rage. She also argues that he punctured the sexual repression of the 1950s by making it clear that the wholesome next-door women also enjoyed sex. She’s right. What she doesn’t understand is that he conflated the sexual revolution with women’s liberation. The latter came later and took on Hefner precisely because he didn’t understand the difference.
Feminists wanted sexual liberation, not sexual exploitation. At the famous Miss America contest in 1968, protesters threw his magazine into a trash can, as one of the many objects that most degraded women. They also infiltrated his mansion, which housed his famous lovers who lasted a few years or perhaps a few months. Another claim made by Pitzulo is that because Hefner gave money to many liberal groups, including those that supported women’s rights, that he was not misogynist or sexist. But who among us doesn’t know hypocritical people who fund causes which, in their actual lives, they don’t truly support?
It is also true that Hefner gave women work—as bunnies, at his clubs spread across the country. Given the time, this was one way some of my friends worked their way through college and graduate school, but they disliked the work intensely.
Pitzulo claims that working for Hefner was empowering for women. She quotes letters from women who said their work gave them a terrific way to feel sexually liberated. A minority of sex workers and prostitutes have also said the same thing. But the vast majority says it is simply a way of supporting themselves or their families or a way to get through their education. (Disclosure: I wrote two books on the history of prostitution.)
The dark side of the history of the magazine receives minimal analysis from Pitzulo. First, there is the popularization of the airbrushed woman who is so perfect that she became the icon against which women began assessing their own bodies and faces. Then there is the experience of Hefner’s playmates in his mansion, which is described in Bunny Tales: Behind Closed Doors at the Playboy Mansion by Izabella St. James. These are the women who rotated through Hefner’s life and bed as though they were cogs in his sex life. Playboy also glamorized the single, swinging, wealthy male life style, unmoored from marriage or commitment. Depending on your point of view, this was an important origin of [End Page 235] male commitment...