Playmate Bunnies at Playboy’s 60th anniversary celebrations in 2014. Photo: Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Playboy
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Playboy Feminism™: how the gentleman’s porn rag co-opted the women’s movement

Playboy’s recent attempts to incorporate “feminist” content into their online magazine are part of a longstanding effort to sell a version of “women’s lib” that really only benefits men.

If you ask Hugh Hefner, he’ll tell you he “was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism”. Just this week, Cosmopolitan republished Hef’s love letter to himself, arguing that feminism was its own worst enemy, Playboy being the true source of women’s liberation. “Everybody,” he writes, “if they’ve got their head on straight, wants to be a sexual object”.

This piece was originally published in 2007, but Hef’s been making the same argument since the 1960s. And, in fact, the magazine did promote their own version of “women’s lib” back then – supporting reproductive rights and, of course, “sexual liberation”. The Playboy Foundation even donated generously to abortion rights organisations and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to fund daycare centers. Longtime senior editor, Nat Lehrman said the magazine “came out on these important feminist issues before feminists had figured out what their issues were”.

But their support for women was selective, to say the least, and back then there were few feminists who fell for it. Playboy still was known primarily for the centerfolds and was clear about their distaste for a certain kind of woman (and a certain kind of feminist). The Playmate was a young, happy, simple girl – not a “difficult” one, Hef told journalist, Oriana Fallaci, in 1967. Problem is, the feminist movement has fought for women to be seen as human, not one-dimensional playthings.

Claiming to support women’s rights while simultaneously insisting on our objectification was unconvincing for the second wave. But the times they are a-changing and the kind of feminism presented to today’s liberal doesn’t seem so far off from the magazine’s ethos. In an era that ascribes “empowerment” to everything from breast implants to nude selfies to pole-dancing classes, and when the hottest conversation of 2014 was Beyonce’s feminism, it only makes sense that the magazine would double-down on their efforts to capitalize on the movement.

Playboy’s existence relies on the notion of women as sexually liberated proponents of free love. As such, the introduction of the birth control pill in America was deeply connected to not only women’s liberation but to the sexual revolution – women could now have sex “like men”, no strings attached. Playboy was crafting a version of “women’s lib” that was, in the end, still male-centered. Women were permitted to be “sexual” but within the confines of a one-dimensional view of “sexuality” that had to, in the end, satisfy men.

In Right Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin said, of the sexual revolution, “It did not free women. Its purpose – it turned out – was to free men to use women without bourgeois constraints, and in that it was successful.”

So while the sexual revolution was a grand old time for men, for women it was more of a drugged up, floral-patterned version of rape culture. In the past, women could (theoretically) say “no” to sex lest they get pregnant. With the advent of the pill, there was no justifiable reason (from the perspectives of men) to say “no”.

What Playboy did 60 years ago mirrors the direction popular feminism (and liberal politics, more generally) has taken today. Playboy’s philosophy was an individualist one that valued “personal freedom” and “personal choice” above all else and saw the state as an impediment to the American Dream. Western men – progressives or activists who claim to oppose corporate power, imperialism, and white supremacy – have happily adopted Playboy’s version of feminism. Rather than questioning their own power and privilege and the way in which patriarchy has dictated representations of the female body and female sexuality, they’ve embraced porn culture, positioning the male gaze as liberatory.

In an imagined effort to defeat the virgin-whore dichotomy that had, in the past, created a class of women men could use and abuse in order to protect the “purity” of upper class women, many progressive men (and liberal feminists) found a “solution” in constructing all women as “whores.” Rather than challenge the notion of women as bodies that exist to serve men, in one way or another, whether through childbirth, sex, or unpaid domestic labour, they’ve embraced Playboy’s “all women are fuckable” vision of emancipation. And not only were all women to be sexualised, consumable objects, but they were supposed to love it. Women learned to always be “up for it,” lest we be labeled repressed prudes. Ergo, our liberation depended on our sexual availability to men.

Playboy’s “safe-for-work” site, launched in 2014, has been recruiting “feminist” content. While many saw this as an effort to rebrand, Playboy’s efforts to coopt the feminist movement are ingrained in the magazine’s history. Cory Jones, senior vice president for digital content told the Columbia Journalism Review, the brand has always been “inclusive,” “pro-consent,” and “pro-women”.

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. This all serves to reinforce exactly what Hefner began selling in the 1960s: the Playboy man is a “gentleman”, which means that he won’t catcall women on the street or support revenge porn – rather, he wants a woman’s enthusiastic consent (nobody likes a downer, after all…). He wants her to have chosen objectification and to frame it has something she enjoys.

In a recent piece, Berlatsky wrote, erroneously, that radical feminists who criticise the notion that empowerment is achievable through male-dictated beauty standards were cruel and exclusionary. Misrepresenting feminist critiques of objectification as personal “attacks” on women is common practice for liberals who are unwilling to extend discourse beyond the personal. Using the language of liberal feminism, he capitalises on the very lack of accountability demanded of him as a white man, writing for Playboy, to trash and slander women who challenge the very systems of power that support him. Like Hef, he sees himself as a generous, open-minded, “feminist” man – one of the “good guys” – so kind as to engage in the sexualisation of all women, fairly and equally.

Apparently aware of critiques of both his work and of Playboy’s “feminist” marketing efforts (some of which came from myself), Berlatsky recently argued, defensively, that he chooses to write for the magazine in order to “change minds.” He claims that, despite feminists like Susan Brownmiller’s claims that Playboy doesn’t speak to women, but uses them as “masturbatory fantasies” instead, women were, in fact, enthusiastically speaking to him. Berlatsky has a habit of including particular women’s voices in his ongoing battle against feminism – women who will parrot back to him exactly what he already wants to believe and convey. It’s a shrewd move, learned from the masters. The sexual exploitation industries have always found women to bring onside – women who are hopeful that the “sexy = empowering” mantra will prove to be true. Though, somehow, despite all that sexy sex, Playboy has yet to end patriarchy…

Comedien and Playboy writer, Sara Benincasa, whose articles include “Why Every Woman Should Do A Pinup Photo Shoot,” describes herself as “a sex-positive, body-positive, fun-loving feminist”. Now, there’s nothing wrong with loving sex, your body, or fun – the problem is that these qualifiers are code for “unthreatening feminist” and, therefore, describe the ideal “Playboy Feminist”. It represents the kind of feminism that won’t interfere with men’s sexual fantasies – you can imagine the words placed right alongside a Playmate a la “I’m fun, easy going, and up for anything!”

Other “feminist” articles recently published on the site include a plea to decriminalise the purchase of sex, a piece about how empowering it is to give men blowjobs, and a couple about the compatibility of feminism and porn. The message isn’t particularly subtle…

Playboy will never bring on feminist writers who challenge men’s vision of women as beautiful creatures to be gazed at and carefree girls who are always up for a good time because it goes against everything Playboy stands for. Supporting writers who represent dissenters as bitter hags and hateful prudes is a far better marketing strategy.

What writers like Berlatsky (and Playboy as a whole) refuse to acknowledge is the possibility that women’s liberation does not rest on men’s ability to find them “beautiful.” His lie, that feminists find the bodies of naked women “disgusting” is particularly misguided (and willfully so) – we know full-well that our body-hatred derives from men like him and other Playboy readers. It is he and men of his ilk who tell us our happiness, our worth, our ability to love ourselves, our humanity, and our freedom all rest on their sexual arousal and satisfaction. Berlatsky’s misogyny is – like Playboy’s – subtle and cloaked in the language of “sex-positive feminism” and liberalism. It is a “pro-women” kind of anti-feminism. And his timing couldn’t be better.

Now that second wave feminists have been thoroughly trashed by progressive men and women alike, the time is ripe for Playboy Feminism’s resurgence. Today’s young feminist wants to make her own porn, perform stripteases (But for free… Because it’s not work, it’s “for fun”) take her objectification into her own hands via Kardashianesque Instagram “belfies”, and rebrand prostitution as an empowering choice sexually liberated women make for themselves.

Playboy never wanted to impose their version of liberation onto women – they wanted us to adopt it willingly, gleefully – with our consent. They wanted us to call it our own. And we did. Playboy Feminism is indistinguishable from mainstream liberal feminism: it is pro-capitalism, pro-sex industry, pro-beauty industry, and pro-objectification. It challenges little in terms of male power, but supports “sex” and uses buzzwords like “choice”, “agency,” and “consent” in order to avoid more complex, challenging conversations that situate “freedom” within a larger social and political context. It asks nothing of men but that they support our “choice” to hop out of our bunny suits and into the grotto.

Meghan Murphy is a writer and journalist from Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear