“The Playboy Club,” a show debuting on NBC’s fall lineup has had its fair share of publicity. A Salt Lake City NBC affiliate is refusing to air the show for moral reasons, Troy Patterson’s thinly veiled assault on Maureen Dowd’s coverage of the show, in which he quotes Amber Heard – the show’s leading Bunny – as saying “what’s wrong with being sexy? Why is that subservient?” Even NPR covered the show’s bizarre claim that it was empowering for women because, as Hefner says, “a bunny could be anything they wanted;” an odd claim since the identity of a bunny was scripted with a hard line and came with a hefty set of rules and guidelines.
One of those rules that Gloria Steinem revealed in her great expose “A Bunny’s Tale” about going undercover as a Playboy Bunny, was STI examinations and a physical. This logically leads one to the assumption that the bunnies were expected, encouraged, or even forced to engage in sexual relationships with the clients under the identity of Bunny – why else require a waitress to get an STI test? This is where my first retort to Ms. Heard’s bafflingly short-sighted comment comes into play. The Bunnies have to get tested so they don’t infect the men – what about the men infecting the Bunnies? Were they swabbed upon entrance to the club to ensure that they weren’t putting the waitresses at risk? It seems they were excused because they were funneling money into the pockets of Hefner, and this is a perfect example of why Ms. Heard is serving above all else. Catering to the whims of the customers with the most money without protection or regard for the workers doesn’t make it seem like those workers are so empowered after all. Seems more like they’re at risk.
Ms. Steinem had a great response to the show, in which she said: “It normalizes a passive dominant idea of gender. So it normalizes prostitution and male dominance.” She has hopes that it will be boycotted, and I fully share in Ms. Steinem’s vision of what the show projects. Normalization of unhealthy behaviors and images is a primary topic of my blog. Despite it taking place 50 years ago, witnessing the power dynamic between the bunnies and the customers reinforces how damaging those scripted gender roles truly are – and for viewers who still think those gender roles should remain as scripted, this show and the participants’ comments that it’s all just fun and games helps to serve their ideal. Why would we want to bring back – even as a source of entertainment – the vision of a reality that restrained women from being seen in their workplace as anything more than a decoration? Beyond that, this show isn’t even an attempt at parody, it’s an attempt to glorify this world that Ms. Steinem points out resulted in “women…[telling] me horror stories of what they experienced at the Playboy Club and at the Playboy Mansion.”
There are also serious flaws with the idea that these roles were empowering for the women simply because the men were told “not to touch” the bunnies. This creates the false notion that the best way for a woman to maintain a position of power is to withhold sex. The bunnies could have had this “power” which was limited to withholding sexual pleasure while in a sexual pleasure palace taken away from them easily, through direct assault or coerced sexual relationships that they felt they needed to engage in given their role as servers. Withholding something is not in and of itself an act of positive power but one of passivity masquerading as control – which can easily yield to the money these customers had. An act of positive power would be intellect, a skill set, developed talent, cultivated life experiences leading to the fully fleshed out self not entirely composed of a sexuality and not reliant on the financing – whether in tips or in marriage – of men. True power exists when the reliance on others or threat of others ceases to exist. This isn’t to say that sexuality isn’t a part of an identity, I most certainly think it is. However, the bunnies – infantilized, presented as reward, reduced to the image of a cuddly baby rabbit – are not actually presented (in this show, and in Ms. Steinem’s brilliant ‘A Bunny’s Tale’) as women who have a deep understanding of their sexuality and identity. The power in sexuality lies in one’s ability to articulate what their sexual needs and wants are, to respect those of others, and to communicate with partners. That is what prevents one partner from feeling or being subservient to the other – something The Playboy Club doesn’t seem to promote.