Female Chauvinist Pigs, Part One


Some version of a sexy, scantily clad temptress has been around through the ages, and there has always been a demand for smut. But this was once a guilty pleasure on the almost entirely male margins. For a trend to penetrate political life, the music industry, art, fashion and taste the way raunch culture now has, it must be thoroughly mainstream, and half that mainstream is female. Both men and women alike seem to have developed a taste for kitschy, slutty stereotypes of female sexuality resurrected from an era not quite gone by. We don’t even think about it anymore, we just expect to see women flashing and stripping and groaning everywhere we look. 

Author Ariel Levy

Author Ariel Levy

This is not a situation foisted upon women. Because of the feminist movement, women today have staggeringly different opportunities and expectations than our mothers did. We have attained a degree of hard-won (and still threatened) freedom in our personal lives. We are gradually penetrating the highest levels of the work force. We get to go to college and play sports and be secretary of state. But, to look around, you’d think all any of us want to do is rip off our clothes and shake it.

If men have been appreciating the village belly dancer or the Champagne Room lap dancer for sexual gratification and titillation over the years, we have to wonder what women are getting out of this now. Why would a straight woman want to see another woman in fewer clothes spin around a pole? Why would she want to be on that pole herself? Partly because women in America don’t want to be excluded from anything anymore: not the board meeting or the cigar that follows it or, lately, even the trip to the strip club that follows that. What we want is to be where it’s at, and currently that’s a pretty trashy place.

It no longer makes sense to blame men. There are plenty of women behind the scenes, not just in front of the cameras, making decisions, making money, and hollering "we want boobs".

Playboy is a case in point. Playboy‘s image has everything to do with its pyjama-clad, septuagenarian, babe-magnet founder, Hugh Hefner, and the surreal world of celebrities, multiple ‘girlfriends’, and nonstop bikini parties he’s set up around himself. But in actuality, Playboy is a company largely run by women. Hefner’s daughter Christie is the chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises. The CFO is a middle-aged mother named Linda Havard. The Playboy Foundation (which has supported the ERA and abortion rights, among other progressive causes) is run by Cleo Wilson, an African-American former civil rights activist. A woman named Marilyn Grabowski produces more than half the magazine’s photo features.

The company, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2003, is valued at $465 million; its brand and bunny are ubiquitous; it recently and successfully moved into the televised soft-core porn market; Playboy remains the world’s top-selling men’s magazine, with a paid circulation of just over 3 million in the United States and some 15 million readers across the globe. And, after 20 years in remission, the first of many new Playboy Clubs is set to open at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas in 2006.

Like the original swinging sixties Playboy Clubs, the new ones will be staffed by ‘hostesses’ dressed in strapless bathing suit-like uniforms topped off with rabbit ears, shirt cuffs, and bunny tails; the same conceit that prompted Gloria Steinem to go undercover at a Playboy Club in Manhattan for two weeks in 1963 to write her famous article, ‘A Bunny’s Tale’, in which she seared the women’s working conditions and pronounced the club’s atmosphere generally conducive to exploitation and misogyny. (Steinem’s assessment was refuted, much less famously, by former bunny Kathryn Leigh Scott in a book called The Bunny Years. Scott, who worked alongside Steinem in Manhattan, recollected the Playboy Club chiefly as a pleasant place where she made a lot of money.)

Playboy closed the last of the original clubs in 1986 because they were no longer profitable, but now, with the country’s reinvigorated interest in all things bimbo, Playboy has determined, probably correctly, that the time is again right to offer Americans cocktails served by women dressed as stuffed animals.

Christie Hefner is a founder of two women’s groups: Emily’s List, which raises money to support pro-choice, female Democratic political candidates, and the Committee of 200, an organisation of female executives and business owners who provide mentoring programs and scholarships to young women and girls. I wanted to find out how she reconciled the work she does for women’s advancement with her job as head of a company that uses women as decorative inducements to masturbate, so I went to visit her in Chicago during the city’s green, rainy spring.

There was no hint of debauchery in the lobby at 680 North Lake Shore Drive, the building that houses Playboy Enterprises. The floor was a giant chessboard of cool marble, and an understated stainless steel sign spelled out the company’s name. (No bunny.) But when I stepped on the elevator, I knew I was in the right place. A tall, rock-hard woman in jeans and heels with a long, silky ponytail and a motherlode of cleavage got on with her friend, who looked more garden-variety blonde human female. The hot one applied another layer of lip gloss, licked her white teeth, and then bared them. "How do I look?", she asked. Her friend scrutinised her with great concentration and then pulled the zipper of her tight terry cloth top down an inch from the midpoint to the base of her cleavage. She stepped back, surveyed her work, and nodded. "I think that’s more what you want to say."

On the fifteenth floor, a blonde receptionist was sitting in front of a glass case that housed two weird, white, rabbit-headed mannequins. "Are you all here for the fiftieth?", she asked, smiling. She meant: Were we going to audition to be Playmates in the fiftieth anniversary issue of the magazine. The one of us who obviously was, followed the receptionist back into the belly of the building. "She works for a German pharmaceutical company called BrainLAB", her friend told me as she flipped through a copy of the magazine she’d picked up off the coffee table. A few moments passed and then she looked up from a spread on college girls, wild eyed. "I’m going too", she said. "What the hell!" Then she went dashing in after them.

There was a sharp difference in aesthetic and attitude between the women in the lobby and the woman I was there to see. The Playboy offices are designed as glass fishbowls that you can see inside of when you approach from the stairs, so you can watch Christie Hefner long before you actually meet her. She has good skin and a short French manicure and she looks quite a bit like the actress Jo Beth Williams … you want to find Hef in her face, but he just isn’t there.

"You know, I used to laugh when people would ask, ‘How can you be CEO of a company whose products are sold to men?’" she said, smiling. "It never seemed to occur to people to ask that question during all those years when all the women’s fashion and cosmetic and everything else companies were run by men! Nobody sat around going, well, how would he know whether this would appeal to women?"

Actually, more than a hundred women literally did sit around on the floor of Ladies’ Home Journal editor-in-chief John Mack Carter’s office for eleven hours on 18 March, 1970, with a list of ‘non-negotiable demands’ like ‘We demand that the Ladies’ Home Journal hire a woman editor-in-chief who is in touch with women’s real problems and needs.’ But in any case, I wasn’t there to question Hefner’s ability to produce a product that appeals to men; the numbers show she can deliver that. I was there to hear about what Playboy does for women.

"A lot of women read the magazine," she said. "We know they read it because we get letters from them." She said this was proof that the post-sexual revolution, post-women’s movement generation that is now out there in their late 20s and early 30s —and continuing with the generation behind them too — has just a more grown-up, comfortable, natural attitude about sex and sexiness that is more in line with where guys were a couple of generations before. "The rabbit head symbolises sexy fun, a little bit of rebelliousness, the same way a navel ring does … or low-rider jeans! It’s an obvious — ‘I’m taking control of how I look and the statement I’m making’ as opposed to ‘I’m embarrassed about it or I’m uncomfortable with it.’ A little bit of that in-your-face … but in a fun way … frisky is a good word." I asked her why she supposed all these frisky, in-your-face women were buying Playboy instead of, say, Playgirl. "To say that the gap is closing isn’t to say that the gap has closed," she replied. "You can’t put male nudity on the screen and get an R rating; you can’t put male nudity in an ad the way you can put female nudity in an ad and have it be perfectly acceptable. I mean, we still have a disconnect because of the attitude that men have about being uncomfortable with being the objects of women’s fantasies and gaze." That would explain why men would be less likely than women to dream about one day appearing in the pages of Playgirl. (Why there aren’t any men charging out of the lobby and into the photo shoots saying, "What the hell! It’s worth a shot!")

But it doesn’t explain why women would be buying the magazine, the rabbit head merchandise … the shtick. I think that has more to do with the current accepted wisdom that Hefner articulated so precisely: The only alternative to enjoying Playboy (or flashing for Girls Gone Wild or getting implants or reading Jenna Jameson’s memoir) is being ‘uncomfortable’ with and ’embarrassed’ about your sexuality. Raunch culture, then, isn’t an entertainment option; it’s a litmus test of female uptightness.

This is an edited extract from Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy, (Schwartz) $27.95

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.