'Bachelors and Bunnies'

May 18, 2011

Over the years there has emerged a body of Playboy scholarship, which I read around in, every once in a while, for the pictures. Actually, including images from the magazine seems to be a fairly recent development in this field. The pioneers were unable to do so (not much room for porn in the academic publishing world until fairly recently), and their their work sometimes suffered for it. A case in point is “Hugh M. Hefner: Guardian of the Faith” by the late J.A. Ward, appearing the summer 1963 issue of The Antioch Review. The author, who was a professor of English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, called Playboy “a relic of Victorianism” (centerfold notwithstanding) that embodies the spirit of Matthew Arnold and Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The parallels should be evident,” writes Ward.

Well, sure -- who can read “Dover Beach” without picturing naked Bunnies frolicking in the waves? Ward strives manfully to render his argument plausible, or at least non-preposterous, and he almost manages it. By 1972, it was still not possible to incorporate visual aids, but the scholarship took an important step forward that year when Harry Joe Jaffe published “The Stars of Playboy” in the journal Western Folklore. This short article, barely one and a half pages long, reported on “a current item of folklore circulating at the Ohio State University” concerning the star(s) appearing near the “P” of the magazine’s title on the cover. Surveying 175 students in freshman English during the fall of 1970, Jaffe collected variations on the belief that, to quote one informant, “The stars on the inside of the ‘P’ indicate the number of times that Hugh Hefner has had intercourse with the Playmate of the Month. If the stars are on the outside of the ‘P’ that means that he has not had intercourse but came close.”

Among male respondents, this urban legend (or rather “contemporary legend,” to use the term folklorists now prefer) was quite widespread, but only 7 of the 53 female subjects had heard it. Jaffe contacted the magazine and learned from an editor that “since 1955 the stars have been used to denote regional editions which are offered as a service to advertisers.” Their placement was “determined by artistic considerations, that is, whether the ‘P’ is dark or light as well as the color of the cover.” The name of this editor was Auguste Comte Spectorsky, and it seems fitting that his response may count as the beginning of positivist Playboy scholarship.

Are the stars still there? It's been such a long time since the last time I saw the magazine that I didn’t know, but according to the Internet, they aren't. That it is still publishing at all seems remarkable, given the competition. Among the images in Carrie Pitzulo’s Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy, published by the University of Chicago Press, is a picture of Linda Summers, also known as Miss August 1972, who became familiar to my pre-adolecent peer-group, a couple of years later, when someone filched that issue from a parental hiding place. Seeing it again now is not just a matter of nostalgia but a reminder of the historicity of experience. Once, long ago, it was difficult for a boy to locate such a picture, with its valuable but normally unavailable information. Hormones would etch the images into the depths of the brain. There may be Amish teenagers who still respond to Playboy that way in 2011, but the photographs have lost their power, which came in large part from scarcity.

At the same time, the magazine itself was all about abundance, both material and erotic. The world in its pages was utopian. And the utopia rested on an ideology: "the Playboy Philosophy," worked out by Hefner, that Socrates in a smoking jacket. This was an enlightened hedonism -- part libertine, but mostly libertarian, with repressive morality understood to be the great evil in the world. For the serious Playboy, sex was recreational, while true passion involved high-end consumerism.

How Playboy brought carnal and acquisitive desires into alignment is the central concern of Pitzulo’s study. She focuses on the magazine’s first two decades, from its debut in 1953 through a mutually polemical encounter with radical feminism in the early 1970s. In the uncorrected page proofs sent out to reviewers, she refers to the book a couple of times by the title For the Articles -- a nod to the old joke explaining why one read Playboy. Presumably this was the title it bore when the project started out as a dissertation. (Pitzulo is now assistant professor of history at the University of West Georgia.) This has been corrected in the final version -- and in any case, Bachelors and Bunnies is both a better title and more fitting, since its argument is that Playboy's agenda was, at heart, emancipatory for men and women alike.

As the magazine came on the scene in the 1950s, pundits were in the midst of brow-furrowing over a “crisis in masculinity.” Expansion of the professional-managerial class meant that there were more guys working at desks than ever. Women had increasing power in the marketplace, and lots of them were having careers. Some of the rough-hewn male virtues of yesteryear, such as indifference to fashion and a distaste for luxury, were becoming inappropriate in an affluent society. However suitable in the day of the covered wagon, they now slowed the wheels of commerce. “This translated into a cultural angst over the ability of middle-class men to maintain their traditional authority in the home, workplace, and world,” Pitzulo writes.

A new, alternative code of masculinity could be found in the pages of Playboy. It was completely urban and tended towards a sophistication verging on dandyism. While displaying an aversion toward being domesticated by women, it was unambiguously (even strenuously) heterosexual. A man had to know how to consume, and women were there for the consuming. You used the best available hi-fi to play the coolest possible jazz album for that secretary you met in the elevator; soon she would be wearing only a smile, just like this month’s centerfold.

It was a new design for living. Pitzulo’s assessment is the bachelors to whom the magazine was addressed were not the only ones to benefit. The “objectification” of women in its pages was only part of the story. The centerfold was always accompanied by the model’s account of her life and interests; the women portrayed were presented as having lives outside the erotic gaze. They even had agency in their encounters with men. Pitzulo includes a memorable image from 955 showing a woman, mostly naked, leading her male companion up the stairs. (Presumably this is set in his split-level bachelor pad.)

Drawing on letters from readers found in the magazine’s archives, Pitzulo shows that by the late 1950s its audience included women who appreciated its lack of hypocrisy and fairly egalitarian attitude towards sex roles. And while there was the occasional bit of homophobia in Playboy’s pages, this was the exception and not the rule. Well before Stonewall, its attitude towards gay men and lesbians was by far more generous than that of any other mainstream media outlet. “In the December 1967 issue alone,” Pitzulo notes, “just under one-third of the letters published were about homosexuality, with five discussing police and government entrapment…" Thus Playboy philosophy moved from libertinism to a form of libertarianism -- and no one the worse for it, or so goes the argument.

Previous studies of Playboy have made similar points about its cultural impact. Bachelors and Bunnies is so quick to situate itself in a dialogue with earlier writers that it can be difficult to determine what is new about its interpretation. This may be a matter of shading. Framing the magazine’s stance as quasi-proto-feminist means dealing with some fairly overt expressions of hostility toward women. Pitzulo acknowledges this, while stressing that such attitudes were common enough in the culture of the time. We ought not to distract us from what was innovative about Playboy.

But anticipating the worldview of “Sex and the City” is not necessarily an unmixed good. Neither is redefining masculinity through competitive status-driven consumption. The quotations Pitzulo gives from Playboy articles advising readers on what to buy start to sound, after a while, like the interior monologues of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

In The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (Anchor Press, 1983), Barbara Ehrenreich quotes various specimens of misogynist ranting that appeared in the magazine over the years. An example: “All a woman wants is security. And she’s perfectly willing to crush man’s adventurous, freedom-loving spirit to get it.” (Similar deep thoughts are available upon request from some drunk in the nearest bar.) “From the beginning,” writes Ehrenreich, “Playboy loved women – large-breasted, long-legged young women, anyway – and hated wives…. The real message was not eroticism, but escape – literal escape, from the bondage of breadwinning.” As Pitzulo shows, this is not a fair characterization of the whole history of the magazine. By 1971, an article in Playboy included the Bartlett’s-worthy line: “The lack of sex is an inconvenience; the lack of love is a tragedy.” This is true. But there was never any legend claiming that the stars near the "P" showed how much Hefner loved that month's Playmate.

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