Are Playboy bunnies feminism’s biggest paradox?

If modern feminism is about freedom of expression, then there’s nothing wrong with choosing to be viewed as a sexual object.

Sara, Hana and Aree have pretty different interests. Sara is a trainee psychotherapist who dreams of running a holistic therapy centre, Hana manages her own cupcake business but hopes to move into event planning and Aree recently graduated with a degree in Accounting and Management. But they have one thing in common. Every day, they dress up as sexy bunnies and hop on the bus to work at the Playboy Club on Old Park Lane.

“Everyone thinks we’re strippers,” Hana tells me. “But, realistically, when I come to work I’m covered from my shoulders to my toes so I’m probably wearing more than I would on a night out back home in Belfast.”

It’s not a convincing argument from a woman who’s wearing nothing more than a leotard and a pair of tights (sorry, two pairs of tights; multiple pairs apparently stop your legs wobbling), but it’s easy to understand how Hana’s grown tired of defending her job. Hana works as a valet bunny, which means she serves drinks in the Players’ Bar upstairs. When she’s working, she’s not allowed to sit down, she can’t tell anyone her surname and she’s forbidden from dating members. The same rules apply to Sara and Aree, who work as a VIP host and croupier bunny respectively.

“People know the rules before they come in,” says Sara. “You can look, but you can’t touch. It’s as simple as that.” And if someone did touch? “They’d be asked to leave.”

And quite right too. Sara goes on to explain that every bunny undergoes rigorous self-defense training before taking up a job at the Club; something she seems proud of, but I can’t help but think is unnecessary. These women aren’t war reporters. They’re not working on dangerous territory. They’re serving drinks and dealing cards in a £12,000 a year members’ bar. However rarely they have to use their self-defence skills, and they claim not to have ever needed them, it seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you wear high heels, a leotard and bunny ears and hang around with drunk men, they’re probably going to touch you. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but it does mean you should be aware of the reaction you’re provoking.

Back in the Sixties, when the first Playboy Club was launched in Chicago, Hugh Hefner was, rightly or wrongly, the poster boy of women’s sexual and economic freedom. This is because he employed women at a time when they struggled to get jobs. Nowadays, though, sexual inequality doesn’t exist to the same degree. I’m not undervaluing the work the bunnies do (they have to go though basic Mandarin and Arabic training, and what these girls don’t know about cocktails isn’t worth knowing), but isn’t dressing up as a rabbit for a living a bit, well, degrading?

A Bunny Girl croupier spins the roulette wheel at the London Playboy Club, 20 December 1967. Photograph: Getty Images

The girls have two answers. First, they tell me that 40 per cent of the Club’s members are women. This is basically the same as claiming you’re not racist because you’ve got a black friend. Secondly, they tell me that the Club has a long history of employing its retired bunnies behind the scenes. To understand this, I’m told, I have to hear about the recruitment process.

After filling out an application form online, wannabe bunnies are invited to a recruitment day at the Club. This day has a GCSE Drama vibe. There are team building exercises, group questions and one-on-one interviews. Typically, of every 60 girls who show up to a recruitment day, three are hired. Yes, they’re looking for natural beauty. Yes, they’re looking for past experience. But they’re also looking for something more: longevity.

Take Aree, for example, who dreams of becoming a deal inspector. Trainee croupier bunnies work first at London’s other casinos, where they spend six weeks on roulette training and two on blackjack. They’re given times tables for homework every night. Only after completing the training can they start work at the Playboy Club.

When Aree retires, which she predicts will be within five to ten years, she’ll hang up her bunny ears and apply for a behind-the-scenes job at the Club. Her dreams of becoming a deal inspector will, in all likelihood, be realised.

“A lot of the bunnies who started work here have moved onto into deal inspector or cash desk positions,” explains Sara. “There is room to forge a career out of every area of the Club. Bunny Jess moved into food and beverage management after working as a valet bunny. It is possible, if you want to stay.”

Hana has similar ambitions. “I definitely want to be here in ten years time. I have always wanted to be an event coordinator at the Playboy Mansion. Now I’m here, I just want to keep moving up through the company. That’s just not a prevalent culture in a lot of other companies.”

This, I suppose, is the answer I was looking for. In the Sixties, when women found it difficult to get jobs the Playboy Club employed them. Now that it’s difficult to keep hold of jobs, the Playboy Club offers long-term employment opportunities. A career that places importance on attractiveness is always going to raise eyebrows among feminists. But these girls are pretty, they’re smart and they’ve got more job security than me, so power to them. 

Playboy bunnies in 2011, before the launch of the new Playboy Club in Mayfair. Photograph: Getty Images

Tabatha Leggett is a freelance journalist who has been published in GQ and VICE and on the London Review of Books blog and Buzzfeed.com.

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.