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Playboy’s playgirls

“I don’t get jealous of other girls, because I was… raised in a cloning lab to be the perfect woman for Hugh M. Hefner, so, other than the fact that my I.Q.’s probably a little higher than he would like, I have nothing to worry about.”

Holly Madison

…..The perception of a Playboy Playmate has been critiqued since the first publication of Playboy was distributed in December 1953. Hugh Hefner, founder of this iconic American men’s magazine, has been both scrutinized and applauded for his use of the media, his magazine, as both oppressive and liberating. In discussing the influence of gender identity on this technology and the influence of technology on this identity, Playmates have used and been used by Playboy. My question is, to what extent is this media oppressive or liberating for Playmates? Is Playboy a “champion of sexual liberation” or a “purveyor of patriarchalism”? (Pitzulo 263) How does technology overlay in this dualist theory of gender identity?

…..Gender identity, in the case of the Playmates, has a twofold definition. Playmates are publicly criticized for being hyperfeminine, hypersexual, walking Barbie dolls. Playmates are tall, leggy blondes, with large breasts, and small waists: the modern pinup. Yet Playmates are also defended by their “toughness,” (Beggan and Allison 797) their ability to take risks, their confidence, strength and power: the modern independent women. With this, we can assume that Playboy, being the technology of media, can be both oppressive and liberating to Playmates. Technology can help or disable these women in forming and conforming to gender identities.

…..The technology that I speak of is more than just the media, or the magazine. After all, Playmates use the media and are being used by the media, but the media uses and is being used by other technologies. Though the magazine is established on selling sex, libertarian politics, and intellectual art, the technology that comes with this masculinized, bachelorized lifestyle can equally exploit or free Playmates from constructed societal norms of gender identity.

…..Women are using mutative technology, such as cosmetic surgery, to conform to extreme ideals of hypersexuality and hyperfemininity. Statistics have shown a drastic decrease in BMI levels of Playmates, as well as considerable changes in bust-waist-hip ratios. Average BMI has decreased from 19.4 to 17.6 since the first publication of the magazine. Bust size, or the circumference of these Playmates’ chests have decreased, where breast size “are getting dramatically larger relative to the size of the woman who has them.” (Gammon) Though in Playboy, breast implants are a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ issue, it seems quite unnatural for a woman with a BMI of 17.4 to have a cup size D. In this case, technology of the media and all that comes with it is oppressive to Playmates. These Playmates must conform to these extreme ideals of sexuality in order to be a part of this identity and therefore conform to the domination of a patriarchal society; there is no room for a 5’4’’, 115 lb brunette like myself.

…..On the contrary, technology gives Playmates the freedom to form their own gender identity. Some argue that Playboy is a “champion of sexual liberation,” (Pitzulo 263) giving women the freedom to honor their bodies, explore sexualness, and “develop a uniquely feminine personality.” (Pitzulo 265) Playmates are considered emancipated women, and the magazine “celebrated the traditional dance of heterosexual seduction but also called for women’s economic independence and their sexual…freedom.” (Pitzulo 265) This emancipated woman gender identity is represented by an associated “toughness.” Playmates use technology of their bodies to be “presented as dominant, even in a space that would appear to rob them of their dominance….[Playboy] can be viewed as a testimony of women’s abilities to be agentic and self-determining even in situations that might at first appear fraught with the reinforcement of [gender] stereotypes.” (Beggan and Allison 811) Playmates were the pioneers of sexual liberation, forming their own gender identity though the use of their body, rather than being merely exploited by it.

…..Playboy has succeeded in satisfying both spectrums of this dualist theory. Playboy is both the “champion of sexual liberation” and a “purveyor of patriarchalism”? (Pitzulo 263) Playmates use technology to form an identity of the tough, liberated woman. Technology uses them to stratify extreme ideals of femininity, sexuality in a masculinized society. There is an equal divide between what is being used and by whom. Hugh Hefner obsessed over “womanization.” He wanted to revolutionize gender distinction and gender identity. “He wanted women to look like women and he wanted men to continue to have the traditional thrill of the sexual chase.” (Pitzulo 263) He gave Playmates the option, in a way, to determine how they wanted to be portrayed – as ideal hypersexual beings or as sexually free bodies of power.

Works Cited

Beggan James K., and Scott T. Allison. “Tough Women in the

…..Unlikeliest of Places: The Unexpected Toughness of the

…..Playboy Playmate.” The Journal of Popular Culture 38(2005):


Gammon, Katharine. “Infoporn: Today’s Playmates Are More Like

…..Anime Figures Than Real Humans.” Wired Magazine 19 Feb


Pitzulo, Carrie. “The Battle in Every Man’s Bed: Playboy and the

…..Fiery Feminists.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 17(2008):


One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    March 22, 2009


    As we agreed in conference, this paper has some very strong resemblances to the first one you wrote for this class: there, you looked @ the way in which Barbie both reinforces and challenges a hyperfeminized ideal; in this paper, you play out the same dynamic for the Playgirls. What’s different, this time ‘round, is that you are discussing the agency of real women, rather than of dolls. In each case, you are insisting that both ends of the spectrum—using and being used by technology, and by conventional gender expectations—are in play.

    So: where can you go from here? How to complexify the binary that you’ve shown us, twice now, is not either/or but always both/and? Are you interested in forms of intervention that might shift the balance away from “being used” to “using”? Are you interested in looking beyond the U.S. to representations of gender and technology in the southern hemisphere? What about the raced and classed dimensions of such gender performances? How do Barbie and Playgirl “play” in Black, Latina, Asian, Native American contexts? In lower or working class neighborhoods? In Africa, South America, Asia? In films or novels or other forms of representation, such as those now available on the internet?

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