Female Chauvinist Pigs, Part Two


I asked Christie Hefner [Hugh Hefner’s daughter, and chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises] how she felt about young girls aspiring to be in Playboy girls like the ones she provides scholarships to through the Committee of 200.

‘The reason why I think it’s perfectly okay is because the way women see being in the magazine is not as a career but as a statement,’ she said firmly.

It’s a moment that lets them be creative. That can be as simple as I just want to feel attractive, or it can be very complicated, as has happened with a Vicky La Motta or a Joan Collins, saying, I am older and I want to reassert the ability to be attractive now that I’m fifty. Or: I’m an athlete and I don’t think athleticism in women is at odds with being sexy. It can be something as profound as [a woman]who had a car accident in her twenties and was a paraplegic and wrote us a letter wanting to be in the magazine and tell her story. So I think people who choose to pose for the magazine have a very definite idea of what they want to get out of it and then they have a life and they may be an actress or a mother or a lawyer or an executive.

An actress or a mother sure, but a lawyer or an executive not necessarily. Putting your tush on display is still not the best way to make partner or impress the board. The only career for which appearing in Playboy is a truly strategic move is a career in the sex industry.

In How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, Jenna Jameson writes, ‘Beginning with nude modeling is a nice way to ease into it.’ Many women who appear in Internet or home video porn were ‘discovered’ in Playboy. Playboy discourages this practice, and several former Playmates have been barred from the mansion after breaking the unofficial rule against appearing in pornography (never mind the fact that Playboy itself operates the soft-core Spice television network). Still, porn directors continue to use Playboy and Penthouse as casting catalogues. Women who appeared in Playboy have also been recruited to be live-in hookers in the Sultan of Brunei’s brother’s harem.

Author Ariel Levy

Author Ariel Levy

The more basic way Playboy undermines the female sexual liberation Hefner claims to promote is this: The women who do go into careers outside the sex industry will never be seen by the millions of men and the growing number of women who read Playboy as actresses or mothers or lawyers or executives; they will never be seen as themselves. They will only ever be seen spread out, in soft focus, wearing something slight and fluffy and smiling in that gentle, wet-lipped way that suggests they will be happy to take whatever is given to them. They are expressing that they are sexy only if sexy means obliging and well paid. If sexy means passionate or invested in one’s own fantasies and sexual proclivities, then the pictorials don’t quite do it.

A model named Alex Arden, a former Penthouse cover girl, told interviewers from VH1:

When you get yourself into the really contortionist position that you’ve got to hold up and your back hurts and you’ve got to suck in your stomach, you’ve got to stick your hips out, you’ve got to arch your back and you’ve got to stick your butt out all at the same time and suck in and hold your breath, you don’t feel sexy. You feel pain. And you feel like you want to kill [the photographer].

The well-known nudie photographer Earl Miller, for his part, said, ‘Our job is to go out and bring ’em back alive or dead or whatever … we gotta get the picture.’ Porn queen Jenna Jameson echoed Arden’s sentiment when she wrote about her early test shoots for mainstream men’s magazines: ‘I had to arch so hard that my lower back cramped. When I see those photos now, it seems obvious that sexy pout I thought I was giving the camera was just a poorly disguised grimace of pain.’

Doesn’t sound like something you would do for fun. There are some women who are probably genuinely aroused by the idea or the reality of being photographed naked. But I think we can safely assume that many more women appear in Playboy for the simple reason that they are paid to. Which is fine. But ‘because I was paid to’ is not the same thing as ‘I’m taking control of my sexuality.’

To hear [Christie] Hefner tell it, you would think Playboy was a veritable cornucopia of different models of sex appeal handicapped! aging! buff! But they gave me a big stack of magazines to flip through and the only variety I saw was the kind of variety you get when you look at a wall of Barbie dolls. Some have darker hair (but most are blonde), some have an ethnic – or professional-themed costume, but they all look very distinctly poured from the same mould. Individuality is erased: It is not part of the formula.

When Playboy’s Olympian pictorial was out, for example, if you logged on to Playboy.com you were presented with several boxes to click on for previews; the choices were ‘athletes,’ ‘blondes,’ and ‘brunettes.’ It reminded me very much of shopping online for pants: ‘tweeds,’ ‘stretch,’ ‘jeans.’

Why can’t we be sexy and frisky and in control without being commodified? Why do you have to be in Playboy to express ‘I don’t think athleticism in women is at odds with being sexy?’ If you really believed you were both sexy and athletic, wouldn’t it be enough to play your sport with your flawless body and your face gripped with passion in front of the eyes of the world?

Rather than showing that we’re finally ready to think of ‘sexy’ and ‘athletic’ as mutually inclusive, the Olympian spread revealed how we still imagine these two traits need to be cobbled together: The athletes had to be taken out of context, the purposeful eyes-on-the-prize stare you see on the field had to be replaced with coquettish lash-batting, the fast-moving legs had to be splayed apart.

That women are now doing this to ourselves isn’t some kind of triumph, it’s depressing. Sexuality is inherent, it is a fundamental part of being human, and it is a lot more complicated than we seem to be willing to admit. Different things are attractive to different people and sexual tastes run wide and wild. Yet somehow, we have accepted as fact the myth that sexiness needs to be something divorced from the everyday experience of being ourselves.

Why have we bought into this? Since when? And how did this happen?

Raunch culture feels perhaps the most alien to aging hippies like my parents they are all for free love, but none of this looks loving to them; it looks scary, louche, incomprehensible. And, in a way, the emergence of a woman-backed trash culture is a rebellion against their values of feminism, egalitarianism, and antimaterialism. But even though this new world of beer and babes feels foreign to 1960s revolutionaries, it is actually also a repercussion of the very forces they put in motion they are the ones who started this.

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

For Female Chauvinist Pigs, Part One from New Matilda Issue 61 click here; and for Kath Albury’s story about Ariel Levy’s work, Porno-chic, Fembots and Girly-Girls click here.

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.