I was watching a biography of Hugh Hefner on the A&E television network this weekend and I found myself wondering when and where precisely Hugh Hefner became the enemy. When I say enemy, I don't just mean those with conservative political ideas or fundamentalist religious beliefs who have always scorned porn in general and Playboy in particular. No, in this day and age, Mr. Hefner is just as often criticized by the ever more politically correct liberal intellectual establishment, and this was not always the case.
I've bought a few issues of Playboy over the years, and, I'm very scared of any male over the 18 in this country who hasn't. I've always explained that yes, I bought the magazine when I was 20 years old for the pictures, but, I also did read the articles... which were generally quite good. I came across those issues not long ago (out of plain sight in my old bedroom at my parents' house). After seeing them, I was reminded of not only the political ethic and insightful interviews, but also the artistic nude or topless photo layouts of models and actresses that you just won't see anywhere else including Sharon Stone, Stephanie Seymour, and Cindy Crawford. So clearly, Playboy is not a cheaply produced, purely exploitative publication with a trite and overly suggestive name, like say "Bush League".
Yet, what is Playboy and its philosophy? The Playboy ethic is all about taking a connoisseur's approach to life -- be it through considered political and social thinking, progressive politics, fine food, good alcohol, or an appreciation of beautiful women. In order to discuss this openly and factually, this means that Hugh Hefner has always been a staunch supporter of First Amendment rights. He's also been very much in favor of sexual liberation in all of its various forms -- let's face it, if Mr. Hefner is going to have 7 girlfriends at his age, he's not going complain much about anyone who wants to experience any kind of alternative lifestyle. Mr. Hefner has also always been a strong proponent of drug legalization. From a liberal's point of view, this is all fine and good.
Where Playboy seems to run into serious trouble with the intellectual left can be summed up in three words: objectification of women. Looking at the average 22 year old C-cup beauty that constitutes the bulk of the Playboy Playmates, one can see why. In an age where women attempt to define themselves as something other than "seen, but not heard" in order to establish credibility in a variety of fields and endevors, the Playboy Playmate has got to seem like a traitor to her gender. Given the Marxist underpinnings of modern feminist critical theory, these women are seen as deluded members of the oppressed class of women who have been co-opted by a hierarchical, male-dominated society to serve the whims of men and forever perpetuate age old male ideas about women.
Yet I do not think that this is ultimately Mr. Hefner's intent. Mr. Hefner is ideally in favor of a sexually expressive society. Visual imagery is part of sexual expression, and therefore he includes it in Playboy. As such, I suppose that the aim is to be sexual without necessarily being oppressive or degrading... though I don't know if this is an achievable goal in the politcal or intellectual climate in the United States today.
I think that feminist thinkers have painted themselves into an interesting corner where sexuality is concerned. On the one hand, they seek to glorify a sense of female identity. To do this, however, they wish to break with the past by rejecting previous metrics for establishing feminity -- female beauty and child rearing among them. Therefore a woman must tread an interesting line... she can glory in her personal beauty and express her sexuality only to a certain point and only in certain ways before she is reviled for being a traitor to her gender. Likewise, a woman's ability to reproduce is simultaneously the defining characteristic in which she is supposed to glory AND the tool by which she is trapped and prevented from exploring the wider world beyond barefoot and pregnant.
(Can you tell I spent too many years in graduate school absorbing the ethos of a militant, lesbian, Marxist feminist belief system that embraced women for shaving their heads bald and getting tattoos, but reviled them for wearing makeup yet?)
In these murky waters, Playboy has played into its critics hands to some degree. The layout and the format of the magazine lend themselves to titillation. This is, I'm sure, due to attempts to compete with more explicit magazines like Penthouse or Hustler... whose goals lean a bit more toward exploitation than sexual liberation. The inevitable consequence, however, is that the Playboy Playmate is amply endowed (likely through augmentation) and is college age -- lending credence to the idea that the flesh is indeed the and thing and the oh-so-false-and-useless Barbie-doll ideal exists. Likewise, the features seem to be largely geared to a college age male market... whose primary goal seems seems less Louis Jourdan from "Gigi" and more Tim Matheson from "Animal House". No it does not help that we know a past Playmate's preference in sexual position, instead of her feelings about something, anything more socially or culturally relevant.
on 2003-06-24 at 3:13 p.m.
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