Carrie Pitzulo. Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 216 pp. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-67006-5.
Reviewed by Bob Miller (University of Cincinnati-Claremont)
Published on Jhistory (January, 2014)
Commissioned by Heidi Tworek
Hugh Hefner and the Feminists
My first exposure to Playboy magazine as a curious, adolescent male, consumed with heterosexual desires, dates back to some distant memories in the 1960s of well-worn centerfolds that were circulated among the boys at my school. I represented the nonpaying segment of Hugh Hefner’s empire that worshipped female sexuality and beauty. The nude model in the centerfold represented the epitome of everything appealing about the opposite sex--perfection. Twenty some years later, I found that my standards for female beauty had matured and my politics had changed rather dramatically. As a not so young doctoral candidate in the late 1980s, I decided early on in my graduate studies to develop American women’s history as one of my areas of specialization. Within a few years, I found that I was not just questioning the idea of patriarchy in society, but I was becoming more egalitarian and feminist in my views. When my first daughter was born, I passed out cigars to all my graduate school friends, male as well as female. As I put the finishing touches on my dissertation, I also cared for my newborn girl at home. As my children (both daughters) grew and matured, my parental and fatherly instincts took over. Concerns about the objectification of females in the media came to the fore. So, in many ways, the history of Playboy magazine and the challenges it faced from the women’s movement and feminism paralleled some of my personal history in the late twentieth century.
Carrie Pitzulo, an assistant professor of history at the University of West Georgia, has written an engaging and very sympathetic history of Playboy magazine. As the subtitle of her book implies, Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy, she is interested in exploring more than the role of centerfolds in popular culture. The author’s focus “is on the editorial voice of the publication as it pertained to gender and sexuality” (p. 8). At the end of the day, she contends that Hefner’s sexual worldview came closer to representing postwar norms than the burgeoning porn industry. Moreover, despite the fact that Hefner was a frequent target of feminist attacks, Pitzulo found plenty of evidence in the editorial voice of the magazine that lent its support to women’s issues.
Pitzulo mined the columns written by Playboy staffers and the letters to the editor by readers to determine the impact the magazine exerted on popular culture in the latter decades of the twentieth century. When Hefner launched his magazine in 1953, he hoped to create a forum that would showcase an attractive lifestyle for men in the atomic age. Hefner’s readers were kept abreast of the latest advice on cooking, party planning, fashion, and cars, as well as how to woo the opposite sex.
The author provides useful insights about the editorial process Hefner used to select playmates for each publication. While the occasional celebrity was featured as Playmate of the Month, more often than not, models were chosen through word of mouth recommendations from photographers or editors. Hefner wanted to showcase who he thought were ordinary, prototypical examples of female sexuality--the veritable girl next door. Hefner had the final say on who was selected.
The real value of Pitzulo’s book comes in later chapters that examine the cultural and political challenges that Hefner’s empire faced. When Bob Gucionne, the publisher of the rival magazine Penthouse, decided to feature more sexually explicit, full frontal photos of his female models, Hefner agonized over the decision on whether to “go public” or not. At the risk of being perceived square or conservative by some of his readers, Hefner fought the temptation to go the way of his competitors.
Pitzulo’s sympathetic treatment of Hefner is on display in the book’s final two chapters. Throughout his professional career as a publisher, Hefner prided himself on his liberal politics: he consistently stood for the idea of sexual freedom for men and women, freedom of speech and expression, and basic principles of gender equality in the workplace. Pitzulo even finds evidence that Hefner hung out a tolerant shingle for readers who had homosexual desires or concerns, which was especially notable for any publication before the Stonewall Riots raised awareness about gay and lesbian lifestyles.
Predictably, Hefner’s greatest battles were with radical feminists, who had no patience for the objectification of nude women in men’s magazines. Pitzulo contends that “Hefner reduced the complexity of feminist thought to a divide between mainstream feminism that supported civil liberties and individual choice, and a radicalism that supposedly called for an overthrow of heterosexual norms; he fully supported the former, and was totally opposed to the latter” (p. 138).
Despite the vitriol on both sides, Pitzulo found that Hefner made a concerted effort to champion liberal causes throughout the 1970s and beyond. The Playboy Foundation donated generously over the years to raise awareness for rape victims, worked toward the legalization of abortion, and fought for equal pay and against gender based discrimination in the workplace. These discoveries do not completely revise the image, the reputation, and the legacy of Hefner. Even though he shared many of the same political beliefs of second-wave feminists, the author concludes that Hefner never abandoned “the privilege of men to define narrow standards of feminine beauty and sexual availability” (p. 149). Pitzulo’s Hefner emerges as a nuanced figure--neither the one-dimensional male chauvinist pig some of his critics claimed he was, nor the egalitarian feminist he claimed to be.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Bob Miller. Review of Pitzulo, Carrie, Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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