So I just read an article entitled “I Was a Playboy Bunny,” by Gloria Steinem. The article, which was originally published in 1963 and later included in the collection Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, details the writer’s experience as she goes undercover as a Playboy bunny, assuming an alias and hiding her identity as a well-known writer. In her exposé, Ms. Steinem reveals the life of a bunny to be demeaning and demoralizing: bunnies wore constricting costumes that caused bruises and scrapes, including shoes with three-inch heels that painfully and permanently enlarged Ms. Steinem’s feet; worked long hours as waitresses or “hat-check girls” for very little pay—far less than what was promised; received no breaks and very little food—often what they did eat had to be sneaked away in tidbits and hidden in a back room; and were regularly propositioned and assumed to be prostitutes—in fact, part of the application process included a gynecological exam, a practice that was discontinued after Ms. Steinem’s article was published. Her article exposes the Playboy clubs for what they were—money-making machines that used women as disposable sexual distractions so that men would spend large quantities of cash, very little of which went to the bunnies.
I also just read, in a recent edition of Entertainment Weekly, several glowing endorsements for the new NBC drama The Playboy Club. From what I have read about this show, it is clear that we are in danger of rewriting history, and losing the ground Ms. Steinem worked hard—suffering both physically and emotionally—to make sure we gained. To ensure that doesn’t happen, we need to stay grounded in reality, and let fantasy be what it is—illusion.
Playboy and the Illusory Empowerment Of Women
Amber Heard, the lead actress for The Playboy Club, said in a recent interview, “The feminist movement is often clouded by Gloria Steinem’s perspective, but to deny women their sexuality is just as chauvinistic. The women who worked at the Playboy Clubs were using sexuality to their advantage.” (I am getting this quote from a writer who fortunately points out Ms. Heard’s woeful lack of knowledge.)
Another actress on the show, Laura Benanti, is quoted in Entertainment Weekly: “Wearing the Bunny costume is a powerful feeling. It makes you feel sexy…fun, playful, flirtatious, and everything that it should be.”
An actor on the show, David Krumholtz, is also quoted in Entertainment Weekly: “They were independent. These women held themselves to a higher standard. There was nothing risqué about the club…it was all class.”
Great balls of fire, y’all—where to begin? With inaccuracy or misperception or the blurry line between the two? Since these actors—who stand to gain financially from a show that glamorizes the real-life clubs (which had their heyday in the 1960s, were defunct and considered passé by the 1990s, and are now experiencing a resurgence)—are making claims about a situation they weren’t a part of, let’s read what the women who were a part of them had to say.
Ms. Steinem describes the reaction of a fellow bunny who has just read an article claiming that Playboy bunnies will make “…three to ten times as much as they could earn in any similar position. Average earnings are two hundred to three hundred dollars….” A bunny, a real-life woman in a constricting costume, read this and said, “Two hundred to three hundred a what?…I got a hundred and eight dollars this week, and the girl with the biggest check got a hundred and forty-five.” When the bunny said she was going to ask someone important about this discrepancy, she was warned to be careful because the man was a “Number One keyholder”—a bigwig, a man who could circumvent the standard no-dating rule with the bunnies. (Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 2nd ed., page 57.)
Ms. Steinem also describes an experience she once had upon leaving work: “The street was deserted, but a taxi waited outside by the employee’s exit. The driver held a dollar bill out the window. ‘I got four more of these,” he said. ‘Is that enough?’ I kept on walking. ‘What’sa matter?’ he said, irritated. ‘You work in there, don’t you?’” (Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 2nd ed., page 56.)
The experience of a real-life bunny in a Playboy Club in the 1960s was not sexy, glamorous, independent, or empowering. It was, a job in which you put your body on display during hard physical labor while men ogled you at best and assumed you were a prostitute at worst. Some of the women working at the clubs were college students, most had had work of some kind or another, and many were aspiring models. Most of them were aware of the game in which they were pawns, and few if any of them had illusions about personal empowerment.
Ok, so that was the real deal back then. How about now? What’s so sexy and empowering about wearing a bunny suit and wagging your tail in a roomful of drooling men? Well, I’m sure it feels incredibly powerful, just as Ms. Benanti says it does. I’ve walked the length of a crowded bar—as I describe in my post If I Work It, Who Owns It?—and I get it, I do. It’s fun to have men look at you, and fun to feel that you have power over them because of their desire. But ladies, they have power too, a very deep power. If your sense of personal power is hooked in to their desire, then what happens to you when they leave the room? Or you turn thirty? Or have a kid? What happens to you when you stop thinking about your body as an instrument of seduction and start thinking of it as an extension of who you are? If your power is seated in the sexual effect you have on men, what makes you any different from the bunny next door, or the bunny in Asia, or the bunny in Las Vegas, or the latest centerfold bunny? Bunnies, honey, are a dime a dozen. And there’s nothing empowering about that.
Playboy and the Illusory Empowerment of Men
NBC’s website describes The Playboy Club with this sizzling tagline: “A provocative new drama about a time and place in which a visionary created an empire, and an icon changed American culture.”
I am assuming that the “visionary” they are referring to is Hugh Hefner. Hugh, God love him, has always presented this “empire” as supportive and encouraging of female sexuality. He has gone on TV to confront the accusations of angry feminists. After Ms. Steinem published her article about Playboy clubs, he wrote her a long letter in which he stated that the gynecological exam was being eliminated from a bunny’s application. For most of the letter, he insisted that he didn’t mind her article at all—and over the years, Playboy magazine has continually published Ms. Steinem’s employee photograph as a bunny “…amid ever more pornographic photos of other Bunnies,” one version of which claimed that she was good for bunny recruiting; another version of which included an accompanying photograph of Ms. Steinem at a dinner for the Ms. Foundation for Women in which she was reaching upward while wearing an evening gown, accidentally exposing part of one breast. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 2nd ed., page 74).
Whatever his claims may be, Hugh Hefner’s message to Ms. Steinem is clear: You think you got me? No, no, I got you—exposed for the world to see, desire, and dismiss as just another exposed breast—and pay me for the privilege. Here is a sentence I shouldn’t have to write, not given everything that Ms. Steinem has stood for, but that I will probably write more than once in my lifetime: Hugh Hefner is NOT about female empowerment and sexual independence. The only thing he has ever envisioned is his own well-endowed wallet.
And to that point: the men who frequented the Playboy Club were not empowered either. They had more personal power than the women, of course, but they were there for one reason: to lighten their wallets. My father pointed this fact out to me about Playboy long ago—not just the clubs, but the whole enterprise, the magazines, the mansion, the very idea—is built upon the assumption (which so far has been true) that men will pay lots of money to see a scantily clad woman that they might, but probably won’t, be able to take home.
Men are sucked into the illusion of sexual empowerment just as the women are—they are one step up from the women, because they get to be “Number One keyholders” and do all the ogling and propositioning, but they are many steps below the club owner, and the franchise owner, who are benefiting from an empire based on fantasy and illusion. The bunnies who worked the club knew this—as the lunch shift was beginning one afternoon during Ms. Steinem’s time at the club, a bunny saw three middle-aged customers and said, “Wouldn’t you know it…here come the suckers.” (Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 2nd ed., page 67.)
I was a young woman when my father first pointed out to me the ways in which Playboy exploits men, and I had trouble grasping the concept—I was too mired in my own perspectives, too angry and confused by the conflicting messages of sexual empowerment and sexual objectification that our culture sends to young women. But he was right, and I’m grateful to him for pointing it out to me, because men—everyday, non-Hugh Hefner men, are right beside women all the time. We have to figure this out together.
Figuring This Out Together
Hugh Hefner is old, y’all: the man is 84. 84. He will probably be dead in 10 years, 15 at the outside. But he has created something that is not going to die with him. As I said earlier, Playboy clubs are making a comeback—the franchise intends to open 30 new clubs worldwide within the next five years (see this article for the history of Playboy clubs and their planned rebirth).
It has been 48 years since Ms. Steinem undertook an assignment that would cost her a great deal both personally and professionally because it was the right thing to do for herself and for other women. In December of 1971, when I was one month old, Ms. Steinem started Ms. magazine and used it as a platform to discuss important women’s issues, such as domestic violence. I don’t think that the things she has done will die with her—her legacy is too far-reaching and important for that—but, in the case of the Playboy club, her message is in danger of being eclipsed.
That’s because her message is based in reality, which is rarely pretty, often messy, but can sometimes lead to transcendence if you confront it. Hugh’s message is based in fantasy, which feels transcendent, skips over anything messy, and is pretty as all get-out. If we are going to succeed as a culture in which men and women are truly sexual equals, we’re going to have to set aside fantasy—all of us—and deal with what’s real. That process begins with knowing what’s real.
If Amber Heard, who is 25, is any indication, we need to begin educating our young women—and men—about their own history. And we need to start talking to our kids, girls especially, about the meaning of the word “empowerment.” A good place to start would be following Ms. Steinem’s advice and boycotting The Playboy Club (see her statements here). If so many people boycott this show that it gets cancelled, and if they talk to their boys and girls about why they’re boycotting this show, we will be taking a step forward instead of backward. If that happens, I might just be able to believe that yes, in the last 48 years, we have come a long way, baby—even when it comes to the intoxicating combination of booze, boobs, and bunny costumes.
Note: The Playboy images were taken from The Playboy Club’s NBC website.