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Both critics and supporters alike have much to say about the infamous centerfolds in Playboy. Carrie Pitzulo, author of Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy takes a slightly different stand by examining not only the centerfolds, but also the articles and advice columns in Playboy, and the correspondence and memos sent between Hugh Hefner and his staff. In doing so, Pitzulo argues that the sexual politics of Playboy were more progressive and egalitarian than previously credited, and that their vision was more complex than previously noted.
Pitzulo takes us through an historical journey of the 50s, 60s and 70s by focusing on the issues that Hefner and his staff grappled with in terms of male and female sexuality. Pitzulo also describes the cultural norms of the time and the ways in which Playboy negotiated, resisted or conformed to these standards. Pitzulo argues that even though Playboy was often more progressive than its cultural counterparts, she notes that non-threatening wholesome femininity was advocated, while Playboy was promoting inclusive heterosexuality.
Even though Playboy started out as a male-oriented, hedonistic and often female-bashing magazine, Playboy still took a more progressive stance towards women’s issues and women’s rights than previously assumed. During the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Playboy celebrated the concept that women were sexual beings with needs and desires, rather than prudish and asexual, thereby defying the notion of the sex double standard. Playboy also celebrated a new kind of man, one that was interested in fashion, design, cooking and interior design, thereby blurring the gender roles. This new man was very different from that of the 1950s traditional male. Therefore, the goal of Playboy was to be a guide for men, providing a new take on American manhood.
Even though Pitzulo focus mostly on the written material in Playboy such as the articles, columns and memos written during that time, she also discusses the centerfold pictures in chapter 2. Pitzulo argues that the centerfolds do not display crude sexuality but were sexually liberated during a time when nudity and female sexuality was not promoted. The centerfolds were, however, still sexualized. At the same time, Pitzulo explains the view of Hefner who states that the women were not dehumanized and perceived as objects due to the fact that much information about their lives, families and hobbies were also included along with the photographs.
In chapter 3, Pitzulo discusses in depth the male lifestyle promoted by Playboy, focusing on consumerism and male attractiveness. As such, Pitzulo states that men are becoming increasingly scrutinized and objectified. Pitzulo uses examples of male models in underwear whose heads were not included in the pictures, and nude pictures of the celebrity Burt Reynolds among others. Pitzulo also mentions the challenges Playboy faced in the 1970s, such as antifashion and the feminist movement.
In chapter 4, Pitzulo describes how Playboy ultimately does not only celebrate sexual liberation for both women and men, but also grapples with the notion of homosexuality. Even though Playboy supports homosexuals, they take a stand for heterosexuality, often stating that Playboy is for heterosexual men. In the last two chapters, Pitzulo describes Playboy’s stance towards feminism, as well as the critique and support that different feminists offer. Pitzulo argues that Hefner supported much of the feminist movement in terms of women’s liberation, job equality, sexual freedom and abortion. At the same time, Hefner very much critiqued radical feminism for being asexual and irrational.
Even though Playboy supported equality for both women and men independent of class, gender and race through monetary contributions and by bringing up topics through articles and discussions, Hefner’s own stance on heterosexuality, the sexualization of women and the denial of credibility of radical feminists displays a complex notion of women and men. As such, Pitzulo really engages the reader in the complexity of thought and action described in Playboy. At times, Pitzulo might credit Hefner more than others would for being progressive, even though Playboy is often contradictory in its beliefs. The discussion of male objectification is also contradictory at times, especially since many of the early centerfolds were unknown American women while some nude male models were celebrities. Therefore, the objectification of women could be said to include all women, whereas male objectification can be applied in some situations. Pitzulo also describes how Hefner raved about the work of sexologists Masters and Johnson, while contributing financially to their research. At the same time, feminists have critiqued the credentials of Masters and Johnson and their work for focusing on men’s sexual interests rather than women’s.
The language used by Pitzulo is easily understood as she goes through an historical analysis of Playboy and the culture in which it was formed. The book would be of interest not only to anyone who finds the history of Playboy interesting, but students and teachers in women’s studies, gender studies and men and masculinity studies. Students and teachers in sociology and psychology may also find the book to be helpful. Even though the book is very approachable, it might be suitable for a more mature audience since centerfold pictures appear in the book.
© 2011 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss is a graduate student in Sociology at California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.