Originally published: 01.07.15
No one wants to be ugly. No one wants to be the unsexy one. No one wants to be rejected.
And that, I think, is what makes this weird phenomena of ‘Playboy Feminism TM’ so attractive.
Okay, if like me you read the phrase ‘Playboy Feminism TM’ and went WTAF, I thought Playboy was rather antithetic to feminism seeing as it involves Hefner’s insistence on being flanked by much younger women and the magazine’s 50+ years history of treating women as disposable objects for male consumption, then you have my sympathy.
But no! It’s 2015 and let go off your anti-porn hang ups ladies, because apparently these days Playboy is totes feminist. In fact it always was, and the proof is that they got a bloke to write an article telling all us boring women feminists how we’ve done feminism wrong, and Playboy-reading men have done feminism right (sorry guys who read Playboy thinking they were sticking it to the feminist movement. Turns out you were feminists all along! Oops!).
Of course, Playboy has always tried to claim itself as feminist. Which is weird because I just can’t believe their reading demographic has ever cared that much about feminism? Hefner once claimed he was a “feminist before feminism was invented” (soz Mary Wollstonecraft. But he is a man you know…). He based this claim on the idea that feminism was (in part) about liberating women’s sexuality (true) and Playboy was a key player in the sexual revolution (which did very little to liberate women). Because, you know, Playboy’s aim was to free sex from the confines of strict Victorian morality. That he and others like him tried to free sex from the confines of Victorian morality only to trap it back into a big box marked CAPITALISM is better left unsaid…
The problem was, Hef, that despite your protestations that you totally “get” feminism, you kept on insisting on saying really shitty things about women. You know, how the perfect woman was like a bunny rabbit with a clean mind, not like those ‘filthy’ women with their ‘lace and satin underwear” (yes, I know this doesn’t make any sense but he said it – check out Female Chauvinist Pigs for the full quote).
To be fair to Playboy (the only time I will EVER say that), the magazine did donate money to pro choice and other feminist campaigns. But that doesn’t take away the fact that throughout its history, Playboy has made money by treating women as disposable objects displayed for the male gaze (sometimes without their consent – see Marilyn Monroe. Which kind of tells you all you need to know about how much they respect women’s “choices”…).
So anyway, back to the present and Noah Berlatsky – the man who wrote this latest article on why Playboy is feminist. As Meghan Murphy says in the New Statesman today:
Indeed, Playboy’s foremost “feminist” writer is Noah Berlatsky, whose work exemplifies their longstanding approach to feminism: men know what’s best for feminism, regardless of what feminists say. His political philosophy appears to be “equal objectification for all”, which fits perfectly with the brand. It’s the idea that the more women we can view as “fuckable”, the more women will be liberated.
Today, Playboy and writers such as Berlatsky emphasise “choice” and “consent” in their writing on female sexuality – the objectified are meant to be eager about their objectification, not forced, not begrudging.
It’s a type of “feminism” (not feminism) that embraces the male gaze and sells women the lie that being treated as always and only an object is an act of liberation. It’s an argument that goes that women who oppose or challenge male defined ideals of beauty, and the idea that all women must spend time, money and energy on trying to match them, are being cruel to the women who “choose” to do this. He thinks that seeing as it’s a woman’s “choice” to conform to beauty standards she didn’t create, any criticism of those standards is a personal attack on each individual woman.
But this is such bullshit. There’s no other word for it.
It’s a completely libertarian approach (which is not surprising coming from a magazine that treats sex and sexuality as a performance to sell for profit – hel-lo capitalism!) that tells women that their “choice” to be objectified by men is a free one. It’s not. We live in an unequal, patriarchal and capitalist society. The choices women make to survive in this society are informed by that inequality.
That’s not a nice thing to think. Of course we want to believe that we make free choices – that our choices are not impacted by the gross inequality women live through. But in a society where women’s value as human beings is so often predicated on their ability to meet the Patriarchal Fuckability Test (PFT), our choices aren’t free (both metaphorically and in monetary terms – conforming to the PFT ain’t cheap). This doesn’t mean each individual woman is bad or wrong for making these ‘choices’. We do what we can to survive in this society. But to say that all the choices we make are free and equal is simply untrue. Otherwise why is it only in the last 10 years that so many UK women have ‘freely chosen’ to spend a fortune waxing off their pubes? Or having bits of their labia needlessly lopped off?
Again, this is not about judging the women making these choices. It’s about looking at the pressures society puts on women to make these choices and changing that society to end patriarchal oppression.
Unlike Playboy Feminism TM’s claim, women won’t be liberated through being objectified – through making the “choice” to be treated as objects. Because that is not a choice women can freely make in this unequal society. We are treated like objects whether we consent to it or not. We may be objectified in a way that meets male approval. And we may be treated as an object that greets male derision. It all depends whether we pass or fail the PFT. Neither of those are choices women freely make. Neither of those things represents freedom. Neither of those things gives women any power.
And Playboy is part of that problem – it props up a culture that judges women and predicates women’s value on their fuckability. It is not part of the solution. That’s why – for all its bigging up of its feminist creds – Playboy would never publish an article that discussed the impact of mass capitalist sexualisation of women on young girls’ self esteem. That dared to talk about how young girls grow up pressured to act out what their boyfriends saw in porn. That looked at how treating women like dehumanised objects on the page and on the screen might link to the treatment of women like dehumanised objects in “real life”. Because Playboy Feminism TM isn’t concerned with the rights of women to be treated as fully human. They just want to reassure men who worry that looking at the centrefold makes them look sexist. ‘We’re not sexist!’ Playboy cries. ‘And neither are you! Women love being objectified! They chose it! It’s feminist now!’
It’s bullshit, is what it is.
Playboy Feminism TM wants us to agree to our dehumanisation and treat it as liberation. It tells us that the hatred we may feel towards our bodies is the result of second wave feminists telling us to reject a culture that treats us as objects, not the culture that treats us as objects itself. It tells us that our liberation, our freedom, our happiness, our health, our rights, all depend on men finding us attractive. On men liking us.
And that brings me back to the start of this post. Because we all want to be liked. We all want to be found attractive. We don’t want to be called the names that men use to mock, deride and silence women.
But, to paraphrase Levy, you can be the woman the Playboy Feminism TM men like. But so long as they see women as lesser – which they do – and so long as they see women as objects and not fully human – which they do – then you will still be lesser to them.
And that’s too high a price for me to pay, I don’t know about you.
Women’s liberation does not rest on men finding us attractive. Women’s liberation won’t be achieved by us meekly accepting our status as objects of the male gaze. Women’s liberation is about fighting back against the oppressive structures that uphold gender inequality – that mean woman as a class are oppressed by men as a class. Women’s liberation recognises that we are subjects, not objects. Women’s liberation is about giving women real choices and real power.
Playboy Feminism TM wants us to accept this particular manifestation of women’s inequality as our liberation. It reduces everything down to individual choice, slags off the gains of our feminist sisters, and ignores structural power and inequality. It demands everything of women and nothing of men.
That’s not feminism. It’s just the same old misogyny.
Such feminism! This account of life in the Playboy mansion makes grim reading.
Sian and Crooked Rib: I‘m a Bristol based blogger who writes stories, talks about feminism and politics and generally muses on happenings. Twitter @sianushka