In recent years the Playboy brand has come to represent what has been emotively called the 'sexualisation of childhood' or even 'corporate paedophilia'. These terms put a particularly gloomy spin on the fact that children are becoming consumers in their own right, suggesting that they are being 'prematurely sexualised' by the 'inappropriate' sexual connotations of the products they, or their parents, are buying (of course we're really talking about girls and mothers here, since the debate is highly gendered).Want to know more about childhood? There's an OU course on that...
Campaigners and even some researchers go on to blame these goods for a mind-boggling range of social ills, from lack of self-esteem to bodily dissatisfaction to low academic attainment, and (in what seems a worrying logic of blaming the victim) for placing girls at risk from adult sexual predators.
Playboy's extensive range of merchandise for women, encompassing make-up, jewellery, stationery, bed linen and more, all bearing its recognizable bunny logo and frequently found in children's sections of shops, catalogues and websites, has been a particular object for campaigners.
In fact, Playboy itself has denied deliberately targeting younger age groups; so is the popularity of its products amongst girls due to a covert corporate marketing strategy, or to insubordinate consumption practices by young people, refusing to follow the rules on what they are allowed to buy?
In one response to concerns about sexualisation, the Scottish Parliament funded research into 'sexualised goods', a move presented by the press as 'going to war' with Playboy and 'bringing it to book' for its practices.
However, the research team (of which I was a member) quickly realized the difficulties of doing any such thing.
We talked to diverse groups of parents and young people (aged 12-14) around Scotland; they were adept 'decoders' of contemporary culture, but they also showed that one can't say for sure what a product 'means', let alone what it 'does'.
In debating the effects of the Playboy logo, they pondered whether it was just a 'fashion icon', a 'cute bunny', with no inherent sexual connotations and disassociated from its history – the position generally taken by young people - or whether purchasing the products meant somehow endorsing the values of 'the sex industry' to which the brand was inextricably linked.
And even if it were the latter, should one explain this to children? - As one mother argued, 'you don't want to force them to think about things that they're innocently thinking [is] a nice pink bunny…. Just allow them to be children for that bit longer'.
A Playboy-themed float in a Limassol carnvial
Such qualms would apparently have been unnecessary in relation to our young participants, all of whom claimed to understand the symbol's associations with 'Hugh Hefner', the TV series, 'lassies in the mansion' and sexual exploits, without this knowledge having corrupted their moral compass: 'The lassies were flaunting and I think that's totally disrespectful' said one girl, her friend adding, 'They have no self-respect'.
They described the products in derogatory terms such as 'tacky', 'mingin', 'tarty', 'chavvy', and 'neddy'. Personal attachment to them, if admitted at all, was strictly in the past; the bunny was 'too childish' for them now, although they recognized its continued currency amongst younger siblings, in effect as a form of 'aspirational consumption'.
Whilst a majority of our adult participants expressed strong dislike of Playboy products, this did not mean they forbade them. In some cases, they recounted being ground down by their children's tactics of nagging, wheedling, playing parents off against each other and so on. But they also called on other 'common sense' notions about adolescence, such as 'rebellion against authority', 'getting it out of your system' and 'peer pressure' as reasons to permit purchases of which they claimed to disapprove in principle.
Ideas about 'good parenting' and 'healthy child development', moreover, suggested that parents needed gradually to cede responsibilities to children as they grew up; and for the most part, parents did this in relation to clothes and personal care.
That is, it was tacitly agreed that children could if they wished have the final say on how they dressed and looked by about 12 or 13, within some established boundaries. This was a further reason to give way even when it came to the kinds of items cited as agents of 'sexualisation': and as parents repeatedly told us, 'there are worse things they could be doing'. (This might also lead one to ask why young people have so few arenas for exercising genuine agency other than that of consumption… but that is for another day.)
Amongst adults there were different logics involved in superficially similar responses to Playboy. These divided, roughly speaking, along class lines. One mother of four objected strongly to what she described as Playboy 'grooming' girls for sex work, but not – it transpired during the course of discussion - to her son's poster of Jordan, since Katie Price was 'doing it for herself', rather than exploiting others, and was, like her, a single mother with kids to support.
She, and some other working-class mothers in our groups, recognised the sex industry – defined broadly to include lap-dancing nightclubs, 'glamour modelling' and so on - as a potential employment option for girls or for themselves.
By contrast, middle-class parents had the 'luxury' of adopting a more superficially coherent position in which they condemned ('distasteful') Playboy merchandise along with the sex industry as a whole, in part perhaps because it was comfortably remote from their own daughters' future career prospects.
We're dealing with something interestingly elusive here: Playboy merchandise sells well, but we're not sure what the brand means, and hardly anyone admits to buying it, or not any more, or not in certain contexts (like schools and focus groups…). And the products are 'chavvy' and 'tarty'; terms also applied to people, especially to (white) working class women.
If this is about 'taste', as some of our participants suggested, taste is never a simple matter. Behind the bunny logo hover far bigger issues: changing social relations between adults and children, shifts to more 'democratic' family structures; differentiated employment opportunities for women in the service and leisure industries, shaped by longer histories of class privilege and disadvantage; new ways for people to refuse to do what they are told. All these and more are there, even 'just' for a pre-teen girl with money to spend and a school pencil case to buy.