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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage