a1 Birkbeck, University of London
Revisionist history is always good fun, but not always convincing. Carrie Pitzulo, from the University of West Georgia, has set herself a daunting task: to revise the established feminist critique of Playboy magazine and its accompanying “empire” of clubs and merchandise. Pitzulo goes so far as to argue that the magazine is “more pro-woman, even quasi-feminist, than previously acknowledged” (7). It is a claim likely to infuriate some readers but Pitzulo has done her research, including making extensive use of the Playboy Enterprises archive and conducting oral histories with Hugh and Christie Hefner, contributors, and a number of “Playgirls.”
The overarching story is familiar. When Hugh Hefner established Playboy in 1953, both he and American men more broadly were undergoing a “crisis of masculinity.” Hefner had been born into a Methodist home in the Mid-west. In the aftermath of the Second World War, he rejected domesticity and gradually turned himself into the sexually liberated “man in a red silk smoking jacket” that still defines his identity (13). He established himself as a warrior against sexual repression and censorship. As Hefner had observed in an essay he wrote during his brief enrolment at Northwestern University, if the laws against various sexual acts were ever enforced, then most Americans would find themselves behind bars. Postwar shifts in the social and sexual roles of men, combined with a new confidence among American women, were making many heterosexual men anxious. Surprisingly, perhaps, Playboy provided these men with some guidance. The magazine also increasingly eroticized men. They provided fashion features on male underwear and gave advice about furnishing flats and making appetizing meals. Editorial comment was consistently positive about domestic responsibilities, the importance of monogamy, and the need for “honesty, imagination, and love” in relationships (108).
In large part, Pitzulo's argument is convincing. Crucially, she is careful not to overstate her case. She admits that Hefner was not actually a feminist, despite his own claims. Feminine beauty was narrowly defined; women's sexual availability was equated with female emancipation. Its female fans were complicit in their own objectification.
There are problems with the book, though. There are some annoying repetitions that should have been spotted by the editor. Her insistence that there was a “crisis of masculinity” is curiously vague: did the crisis envelop all American male heterosexuals (including poor African American men) and did it remain unchanged throughout the whole postwar period? Pitzulo does quote musician Miles Davis's comment that Playboy was “a magazine for whites … All they have are blond women with big tits and flat asses or no asses” (60), and she does comment on the first Asian and African American models. But most of the book simply assumes whiteness. In addition, the standard criticism about historians who write about “crises of masculinity” applies to this book: they fail to differentiate between “crisis” and simply “responding to change.”
Nevertheless, this is an exciting book, especially when Pitzulo directs her analysis towards the role of women and femininity in Playboy. The magazine had many female readers. The women who modelled in the centrefolds were not necessarily dehumanized. Indeed, considerable effort went into giving them distinctive identities, attempting (in the words of one Playboy editorial) to portray each woman “in detail as the living person she is” (37). Their parents were even mentioned and could be present in some of the non-nude photographs. Perhaps more to the point, the “Playmates” were extremely well paid. In the late 1960s, they would receive an initial payment of $1,500, followed by $1,000 upon publication. Ninety per cent of them were given another $2,500, and gifts amounting to $10,000, for doing further promotional work. This was a time when the median annual income for women was around $1,600. In the words of model Diane Hunter, “It was strictly a better job than the soda fountain I was working at before” (52). For many years (from 1982 to 2009), the CEO of Playboy Enterprises, Inc., was Christie Hefner, Hugh's daughter, a prominent pro-choice campaigner and one of America's most powerful executives. It is perhaps a sad reflection on American capitalism that one of its most powerful women made her name trading sex.