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On The Secret Feminist History of Playboy

Updated: Apr 13, 2018

The fact we can mention Germaine Greer and Hugh Hefner in the same sentence is a happy accident of the 1970s. Believe it or not, Playboy was once an inconsistent yet successful platform for feminist voices and the unlikely supporter of feminist causes.

Examining Playboy’s love-hate relationship with feminism shows how unlikely allies can be made by infringing into the mainstream and Greer’s criticism of the magazine from within its own pages was an exercise in feminist guerrilla warfare.

‘I’m sorry, the centrefold’s missing,’ says the man behind the till, avoiding looking either me or my mom or me in the eyes. It’s 2012 in Cape Town – where Playboy was banned under Apartheid until 1994 – and I’m buying the Christmas 1971 issue. Playboy was banned under Apartheid until 1994, and I imagined someone smuggling this magazine over, a contraband of nudity and progressive ideas. My Playboy is a weighty and well-worn tome, and as a feminist I’m not sure why I’m buying it – an ironic gesture, perhaps? Or a twisted fascination with how the other side thinks?

What I discovered surprised me. For its first issue in 1953 (for which Marilyn was the cover girl) Playboy decided to include nudes, it became a political publication, inscribing itself and its readership into the debates around sexual permissiveness and freedom which were about to explode in the aftermath of the sexually-repressed 40s and early 50s. The politics of nakedness extended Playboy’s remit to contraception and abortion and , environmental politics and legalisation of drugs in the hippy 70s, making extending the magazine’s remit far beyond ‘Entertainment for Men’.

In other words, Playboy inevitably became entangled in feminism.

In December 1971 the magazine interviewed Roman Polanski, who aired his view that ‘women on the average are less intelligent than men’ and mused about that perhaps gender inequality wasn’t entirely unmerited: ‘The women’s libbers argue they weren’t given equal opportunities, but what I want to know is what were they doing when the opportunities were given? Were they just passed out one fine day?’

In the following month’s issue, Germaine Greer was interviewed. While Greer has today recently muddied her feminist credentials by refusing to accept the legitimacy of transgender women, she was in the early 70s a beacon of the 1970s feminist movement. Playboy’s decision to interview her and include her writings, alongside men like Polanski, is remarkable, shows a remarkable willingness to represent give time to figures on both ends of the political spectrum.

Seduction is a Four-Letter Word, Greer’s 1973 article for Playboy on dating and rape culture directly contradicted prior editorials encouraging pick-up artistry. She addressed readers’ misogyny head on: ‘If you do not like us, cannot listen to our part of the conversation, if we are only meat to you, then leave us alone.’

Unsurprisingly, readers weren’t impressed. One Shawn Thomson expressed his outrage at Greer’s article in a letter: ‘If I wanted to read the militant rantings of a feminist bitch, I would buy feminist magazines. If Playboy is to become a sounding board for women’s lib, say so and I will simply quit reading it.’

Few contemporary media platforms would challenge readers’ biases in the same way now; most are content to reflect and reinforce them. It’s hard to think of an equivalent in today’s overcrowded and fragmented online media world. I want to say it would be like the LAD Bible interviewing Laura Bates, or Return of Kings publishing an article by Roxane Gay – but it seems absurd to even contemplate those possibilities.

The concentration of progressive ideas in a small number of printed publications simply made it so much more likely for unexpected ideological clashes to occur.

Now we’re fenced into comfortable provinces of the Internet by search engines serving us feedback loops of our own opinions, you really have to work to find dissonance, and even harder to find a platform willing to hear out – over a lengthy interview – a sworn enemy.

But what made Playboy especially happy to risk alienating its readers? The explanation is twofold: in part the fact that Hugh Hefner’s media empire was too big to fail, and partly a bold editorial decision to platform feminist voices.

Yet there is an explanation even more cynical than this – that Playboy, reluctantly, gave a platform to contemporary feminists simply in order to cement its status as the voice of a generation. If the Playboy Man wanted a slice of the sexual freedom of the 1970s – and the Playboy Bunnies that came with it – he would, at least superficially, have to support the sexual freedom of women.

That said, Playboy’s approach was not entirely ecumenical. Carrie Pitzulo writes in The Journal of the History of Sexuality that Hugh Hefner’s approach to feminism hinged on a distinction between its liberal and radical forms feminists. The silk-pyjama-uniformed founder of Playboy – who died in his Playboy Mansion in September last year - was willing to accept feminists who m as long as women still ‘looked like women,’ and but he vilified radical feminist ‘man haters who are doing their level worst to distort the distinctions between male and female.’

Gender difference, Playboy’s philosophy went, ‘feels good, and is productive of well-being,’ is ‘‘deeply gratifying to male and female alike.’ ‘It is complementarity that makes heterosexual love so necessary and so fulfilling,’ the magazine claimed in one of its more backwards editorials.

As editor Jim Petersen continued to maintain even in a 2006 interview, Playboy was founded on the difference between the sexes; a feminist voice that radically challenged those distinctions could not be heard in the magazine.

So feminism could be tolerated, but only a liberal, watered-down feminism in which women still knew their place. As editor Jim Petersen maintained in a 2006 interview, Playboy was founded on the difference between the sexes. A feminism that sought to eradicate those distinctions could not be given a voice in the magazine. When Greer was interviewed, her courage had to be described as ‘ballsy’ and the editor’s notes labelled her ‘desirable’, implying her attractiveness distinguished her among feminists. Indeed, with feminist groups such as the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) active in the 70s, it’s easy to see why Playboy opted for a more palatable ‘feminine’ feminist such as Greer instead – who in her interview was introduced as ‘desirable’ – her sex-positive views and traditionally ‘feminine’ looks made her approachable, sidestepping the ostensibly ‘man-hating’ feminism from which Playboy was keen to distance itself.

Hefner did, surprisingly, put his money where his mouth was in supporting feminist causes, when – an incredible and little-known arm of the magazine, the Playboy Foundation, was born in 1965. It focused on three areas: protection and extension of civil rights; modernization of laws on sex, drugs, contraception, abortion and censorship; and support of research on sexuality. The Foundation contributed to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for its women’s rights work and to help fund day-care centres for working women. In May 1967 Playboy even called upon readers to write to their Congressmen and demand abortion reform. The Foundation was radical for its time, considering the hostile climate around abortion in the 60s and today, and Playboy’s reputation for misogyny.

But the it is hard not to feel that the Foundation did its work was a clean front for the alongside the highly ever more dubious, increasingly ever bigger big business of Playboy Clubs where, in 1963, Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny to reveal the poor pay and sexual assault behind these clubs. Her account A Bunny’s Tale, published in Show magazine in 1963, revealed Hefner’s double standards by showing how uncomfortably close work as a Bunny came to prostitution.

The clubs’ hypocrisy is apparent even in The Bunny Handbook, which states both that: ‘We do not tolerate any merchandising of the Bunnies, and are most anxious to know if any such thing is happening.’ and that ‘Bunnies are reminded that there are many pleasing means they can employ to stimulate the Club’s liquor volume.’ The Bunnies who were rewarded for “charming” customers into buying the most drinks were rewarded; they had no choice but to sell themselves.

The Playboy media empire, then, was a contradictory forum in which feminist actions coincided with entrenched misogyny, a closed space in which women were only allowed if they were physically attractive. But then the reality of the world in which Playboy existed was just as harsh. In the absence of a more coherent medium, Playboy succeeded in bringing feminist voices to millions of readers who would not have encountered them otherwise – and whose mistrust of feminism might have been slightly eroded by its framing in the familiar ‘masculine’ the unlikely context of Playboy.

‘It’s important for me to talk about Playboy,’ said Greer, ‘because I’m going to get shit for giving you an interview in the first place’ said Greer. ‘It’s got to be very clear with what kind of cynicism I do it.’

Though highly ideological in her political beliefs, Greer’s tactics were pure realpolitik, accepting her social constraints and working within them Greer’s cynicism does not, however, lead to apathy: she knows she will have to speak to people she disagrees with and does not respect, in order to ensure the widest reach for spread her message further. Yet Greer’s cynicism is underpinned by a faith in her opponents’ ability to change: ‘I probably feel that some people will read this interview and drop some of their more ridiculous notions about the women’s movement. You have to have some faith in people,’ she said. ‘My role is simply to preach to the unconverted. I’m the one who talks to Playboy.’

Greer risked the wrath of her fellow feminists by being ‘the one who talks to Playboy’. Yet by adopting guerrilla tactics, invading spaces in which misogyny typically circulates, Greer could directly confront her real enemy.

Playboy has since thinned, shedding its lengthy columns and fiction pieces by prestigious authors along with its pretensions to be anything other than a glossy soft porn mag.

But this overlooked episode in Playboy’s history is one from which feminists and all activists today can learn – preaching to the unconverted should still be a priority. Greer shows it doesn’t have to bring with it a loss of dignity or compromise of message.

And it expresses something much stronger: a hope and a deep belief that, if your argument is good, you can convince almost anyone of it, regardless whether the debate occurs in a safe space, in the murky pages of Playboy, or in the middle of a men’s rights activist conference.

Written and illustrated by Helen Reid

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