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Society, Politics & Law

A cocktail lifestyle and a fear of castration: What is the Playboy brand?

Updated Tuesday 14th June 2011

Hugh Hefner's aspirational brand supported emancipation - up to a point. But has the bunny brand been bypassed by history?

Laurie Taylor:
It's not a thing that I exactly choose to expand upon at North London rocket salad dinner parties, but back in the what must have been the late '60s, when the de rigour outfit for sociologists was a pair of tatty jeans, a tie dyed t-shirt and a working knowledge of Simone de Beauvoir, I was occasionally - occasionally and very naughtily - tempted by the idea of putting on a pair of dark glasses and slipping into the Playboy Club in Park Lane.

I sort-of knew what I'd find there, for although we regularly tut-tutted over the latest edition of Playboy it still kept appearing because… well, it was simply so full of good writing, I mean Nabokov; Mailer; Mr Simone de Beauvoir; Jean-Paul no less; James Baldwin; Ernest Hemmingway.

So I sort-of knew that, as a playboy, I needed to have the full set of grooming products.

Extract from Playboy magazine:
A tensolator, to provide body building isotonic tension; a portable steam bath; a Persian leather soap set; Raphaeline cologne imported from the Virgin Islands; face bronzer; manicure sets and a scalp massager.

Laurie Taylor:
And I also needed to have a smart suit; a reflective pipe or a silver cigarette case and I should pay special attention to my feet.

Extract from Playboy magazine:
There's nothing that so betrays the plebeian who is trying to look well dressed as run down heel or unpolished shoe. Women prefer a man who can keep both feet on the ground, put his best foot forward, stay on his toes and kick up his heels. All at the same time.

Laurie Taylor:
And, of course, after the club it would be straight home with my new fluffy playmate, home for an ideal evening....

Women wearing the iconic Playboy bunny ears at a 2010 Playboy event Creative commons image Icon gillyberlin under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license
The 2010 version of the Playboy bunny

Extract from Playboy magazine:
Mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two; putting on a little mood music on the phonograph; inviting in a female acquaintance for quiet discussion on Picasso; nature; jazz, sex.

Laurie Taylor:
Yep, all of those are extracts from Playboy and they all come from a new book on the magazine, a book called Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy and its author is Carrie Pitzulo, who's assistant professor of history at the University of West Georgia and she now joins me on the line from Atlanta, Georgia. And here in the studio I have Angela McRobbie, who is professor of communications at Goldsmiths College, London.

Carrie, I suppose we have to start off by talking about Hugh Hefner. I know you interviewed him for your book, but tell me a little bit about the man. He founded it way back in 1953 and wanted to make the magazine in his own image in a way, what did that mean?

Carrie Pitzulo:
Well, in 1953 that actually meant that he wanted to portray himself as he hoped he could be someday. Hugh Hefner certainly wasn't living the playboy lifestyle in 1953.

He was married, living in Chicago, had a new baby and was feeling very dissatisfied with his domestic life, the supposed American dream for a heterosexual man at the time - but he was very bored with that.

And he wanted to be sexually liberated; he wanted to live a more cosmopolitan exciting lifestyle. And when he founded Playboy he portrayed himself as that rogue in the pages of the magazine.

It took him a few years to be able to pull off that lifestyle but, as he says, by the end of the decade he was able to step out from behind the desk and become Mr Playboy and start living the lifestyle he was promoting in his magazine.

Laurie Taylor:
And what about the name of the publication, where did he get that from and that the famous rabbit icon - the tuxedo bowtie?

Carrie Pitzulo:
Both the rabbit and the bunny image were really just products of brainstorming sessions that he did with some of his close associates when he was founding the magazine, which were really some of his friends and people he had convinced that this new magazine was going to be a worthy venture.

And he thought that the name Playboy called to mind, at least for him, the culture of the 1920s, the F. Scott Fitzgerald culture of a sophistication and sexual adventure that he associated with the United States in the 1920s, the so-called roaring twenties.

So he thought the image of the bunny - actually a male rabbit; the bunny [which is] more associated with the female waitresses that came along later. The rabbit and the Playboy name seemed to be indicative to him of that 1920s culture that he had wished he had experienced.

Laurie Taylor:
Aha, nice friskiness attached to the notion as well. But you also say that when Playboy first came along there was something about the historical context, in terms of concerns that were being felt then about anxieties about men and masculinity; that it really was able to capitalise on that.

Hugh Hefner, pictured in 1978 Creative commons image Icon Alan Light under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license
Daddy to the bunny: Hugh Hefner

Carrie Pitzulo:
Exactly. The 1950s in the United States in a lot of ways, for many Americans, was experienced as a fairly conservative time, that really emphasised domesticity and traditional sexual and gender roles.

And Hugh Hefner did not really appreciate that aspect of American culture, he felt that it was an expression of what he called "American's repressive puritan heritage".

And a lot of that tension focused on changing gender roles, although the overall culture was experienced as something very conservative, many women were experiencing life outside of the home; more women than ever before were working for pay outside of the home.

And in the culture there was tension and anxiety over what it meant to be a man, if women were gaining increasing power out in the world. And so that anxiety I think found expression in Playboy.

Laurie Taylor:
I just wanted to bring in Angela now to see what her attitude towards the magazine itself. I mean, I used to see it around in the late '60s, '70s and people used to then say 'well, look it's got Mailer in, it's got Sartre, it's got Nabokov; even Margaret Atwood writes for it'. But of course it also had the famous centrefold, so I'm interested to know when you felt that it gained enough intellectual credibility from the writers to allow us to overlook the centrefolds?

Anglea McRobbie:
Well I think it was a product of its moment and it might well have had Simone de Beauvoir or Margaret Atwood there, but I think you could be sure that very few women ever bought it or read it.

And it certainly wasn't the kind of magazine that women would go in to a newsagents and sit and read it on the bus back from work.

So there was a kind of exclusiveness - this was a debate directed primarily to men, about men, about masculinity and about sexuality. It might well have had an impact of opening up sexuality in a progressive way, as Carrie describes, but nevertheless it was a mechanism wherein women were always going to be on the outside; women were talked about; they were looked at, you can be sure that the pin ups or the centrefolds, they weren't writing articles like Norman Mailer.

Laurie Taylor:
No, Carrie you would perhaps want to say that although the centrefold is something that people have concentrated on when perhaps they wished to be critical about Playboy, you found evidence of misogyny elsewhere really if you looked into the magazine?

Carrie Pitzulo:
Absolutely. I found the most hostility towards women in articles that were published in the very first few years of the magazine, really anti-woman, anti-marriage, rants that really criticised American women for supposedly taking over the culture and dominating American society in ways that were inappropriate.

But that kind of attitude was really abandoned for the most part as the magazine came to take itself more seriously and it became more political in the 1960s.

Laurie Taylor:
Although there was the famous Playboy Club, I think it was in Park Lane, do you think that this has somehow appealed to British men?

Anglea McRobbie:
No, I think it was a very American thing. I also think that what Carrie is really writing about is a slow slide from American conservatism in the '50s to American liberalism and a flurry of liberalism which then did engage with gender, sexuality, critique of the family, alongside that all of these fears of women taking over, fears that even poor mothers at home were becoming too powerful, this stuff about "momism" - that mums at home were somehow castrating.

So I think it's a very, very American debate. I also think that Hugh Hefner really has this kind of appeal within American culture that never really completely translated to the UK, except through the interest in American taste and consumer culture, and that maybe is one of the very interesting things in the book is the way in which masculinity, through Playboy, began to be connected with taste, lifestyle, with gadgets, with penthouses, with clothes. It kind-of made it possible for men to actually be interested in clothes without being seen as being gay.

Laurie Taylor:
Now I think Carrie does a good job, I wonder if you'd agree Angela, but I think she does a good job of showing the way in which in many senses Playboy did become increasingly liberal, I mean whether it was in terms of embracing civil homosexual rights, opposing the Vietnam War, with regular updates on abortion laws in different states.

We did get this but we do know, however, that Hefner, although he might feel pro-women's rights did feel threatened by feminist attacks on Playboy and this led him to circulate a memo, [in which] he was looking for an article which would attack the women's movement:

Memo:
These chicks are our natural enemy. It is time to do battle with them and I think we can do it in a devastating way. Militant feminists are rejecting the overall roles that men and women play in our society. The society they want is an asexual one.

We believe women should have truly human roles in society. We certainly agree that a woman's place is not in the home, that a woman should enjoy a career, that she should not be limited with many of the old fashioned traditional notions relative to a double standard in sex.

But it is an extremely anti-sexual unnatural thing that feminists are reaching for. All of the most basic premises of the extreme form of new feminism are unalterably opposed to the romantic boy/girl society that Playboy promotes.

Laurie Taylor:
Angela, how do you react to that memo?

Anglea McRobbie:
Well you know it's very interesting to me, the way in which the magazine pitches itself against a certain kind of stereotype of a feminist who it's absolutely got to push into the corner and see as being unnatural.

And of course feminism was so much more diverse. And I think there's this kind of fascination or obsession with these castrating feminists all the way through from the '50s to the '70s.

And it's kind of interesting that Hefner - he's got to be able to kind of have this adversary and the adversary is the dyke or the masculine unfeminine woman. You know who is she? There were very few of them around.

Laurie Taylor:
And Carrie, things of course began to go into decline in the '70s and Playboy clubs started to close. What produced the reversal in fortunes?

Carrie Pitzulo:
Well I think that American culture caught up to and then surpassed where Playboy was for all of those years in the 1950s and '60s. It became a relatively respectable mainstream magazine but that was also very sexy obviously.

But the culture after the changes of the '60s and early '70s moved so far beyond the relatively tame version of sexuality presented in Playboy that people lost interest and could find more explicit representations of sexuality in other places.

Anglea McRobbie:
What I think is that Hugh Hefner wanted some kind of academic intellectual credibility by being associated with things like Lady's Chatterley's Lover. He wanted to see himself as this pioneer, this kind of emancipating force for freeing up sexuality and actually my position would be that this is corporate sex entertainment.

It got left behind because, indeed, the world did become in every way more interested in sexuality; sexuality became commoditised at every single point in the spectrum, but that doesn't mean that he slid behind or he just went out of fashion.

Actually there's a kind of retro fashion now for Playboy and Hugh Hefner that doesn't go away and I think that's something that's still...

Laurie Taylor:
It's true, isn't it, Carrie, there are people wandering around wearing sunglasses, t-shirts, Playboy stationery, retro fashion?

Carrie Pitzulo:
Absolutely, it's become a relatively pervasive consumer branding item for young women to wear on their t-shirts here in the United States. And particularly in some other parts of the world as well - in Asia, in some places, it's considered a high end brand.

Laurie Taylor:
Now we've got a new Playboy Club opening in London pretty shortly, I think it's due to open this week, and Playboy merchandise that we've just been talking about it all around us. Carrie, is it possible to talk about this coming back - are we somehow ripe for a reinvention of the Playboy Club?

Carrie Pitzulo:
Apparently we are. I found it fascinating the way that Playboy is promoting the London club by harkening back to its heyday in the 1960s, on the website for the club there's a picture of Hefner with some waitress bunnies from the 1960s.

So it's really a kind of retro nostalgia that they're trying to promote rather than reinventing it as something new for the 21st Century.

Laurie Taylor:
Would you say it's going to work Angela?

Anglea McRobbie:
Well I would say I'm not a puritan feminist, but I find this kind of branding exercise kind of crude commoditisation actually what it comes down to. It's ttrying to kind of win young women over to the idea that 'I'm not anti-men, I'm not a feminist so I'm wearing this logo just to let you guys know that I'm not some kind of aggressive young woman'. And actually, maybe, it would be good to be more aggressive, more interesting.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, 25th May 2011.

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