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

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.