1984, A Modest Proposal, Animal Farm, Bunny Tales: Behind Closed Doors at the Playboy Mansion, Essay, Expose, Feminism, Gloria Steinem, Hugh Hefner, I Was a Playboy Bunny, Individual Will, Isabella St. James, journalism, Literature, mysogeny, Playboy, Playboy Bunnies, Playboy Club, Satire, sex, Sexual Fantasy, sexual idealism, Sexual politics, syphilis, Totalitarianism
It has been the concerted effort of this blog and these essays to demonstrate that the study of literature can be more than “recognizing the Pipe as a symbol for patriarchy,” and in my last essay I touched upon the idea of sexual domination (no, not the fun kind) through a study of Richard Wilbur’s poem Playboy. It’s important, when approaching an argument, to get multiple viewpoints and Gloria Steinem is a writer brings so much to the table already. It would be irresponsible then not to discuss what is in my mind one of the most powerful (and yes, wonderfully hilarious) essays, I Was A Playboy Bunny.
This effort of gonzo journalism (enacted before Hunter S. Thompson had taken that first snort and forever set the standard for the medium) has defined the career of Gloria Steinem, for it created such a profound statement concerning the reality of the porn industry at this time. Written as a journal, Steinem auditioned for a job at the then popular Playboy club in New York that had been running ads insinuating that being a Playboy Bunny was, in essence, the equal experience of celebrity and adventurer. Her actual experience speaks for itself and I will my best to sample a few pieces of the prose to gain a real idea of what this woman actually experienced. When the essay was actually published Hugh Hefner was less than thrilled to say the least. Steinem has commented in interviews (in a tone that masterfully employs sarcasm but retains that almost Voltairesque smirk) that it seemed to her that Hefner’s greatest criticism of her essay was that the job wasn’t glamorous.
The work begins with an advertisement and right away we’re struck by the sales pitch
Do Playboy Club Bunnies Really
Have Glamorous Jobs,
Meet Celebrities, And
Make Top Money?
Yes, it’s true! Attractive young girls can now earn $200-$300 a week
At the fabulous New York Playboy Club, enjoy the glamorous and
exciting aura of show business, and have an opportunity to travel to
other Playboy clubs throughout the world. Whether serving drinks,
snapping pictures, or greeting guests at the door, the Playboy Club is
the stage—the Bunnies are the stars.
A quick observance of the rhetoric is enough to know that the writer aims only to titillate without generating any reasonable thought. The word glamorous appears twice, and throughout the essay Steinem observes the employees, higher ranking employees, continually employ this term to describe what turns out in fact to be nothing more than a stressful nightmare. Every word in the first sentence is capitalized (a trick that should be restricted to the field of literature for it accomplishes nothing in non-fiction prose) followed by a short snippet that sounds as if it was manufactured in a cheap snake oil salesman’s limited imagination. Followed by the invitation to consider the employment, we’re introduced to a promise of significant pay (even by today’s standards) and then the suggestion that employment at this establishment will allow a young woman the opportunity to be become world traveled. Best of all is the final remark in which the word glamorous haunts the reader yet again as it indicates “Bunnies are the stars.” My god who does not wish to be a bunny? To a young and impressionable mind that does not yet understand the concept of “the sales pitch” this advertisement would seem to appear to be an invitation to a kind of immortality. Achieving the position of “Bunny” then, is not only an affirmation of beauty (take note “attractive young girls,” there’s always thatcatch) but also a stepping stone or rite of passage ushering oneself into the position of woman. The desire to be recognized and admired is a recurring human weakness brought about by the power structure of society. Young women (and young men, I was going to be a rock star till I discovered I had no musical talent or real ambition) desire attention, because popularity has been demonstrated by our culture to indicate worth.
But let us return to Ms Steinem(get it…because she helped found Ms Magazine?…oh forget you that’s funny). The language employed within the essay is as well crafted and demonstrates a real satirist wit for it knows exactly when and where to offer the right information. Upon receiving the job she tells us that she is given a book referred to as “The Playboy Bible.” She samples a few pages from the text for us and the impression we get from the actual Bunny-customer relationship speaks volumes.
There is a problem in being “friendly” and “pampering” the customer while refusing to go out with him or even give him your last name. The manual makes it abundantly clear that Bunnies must never go out with anyone met in the club—customer or employee—and adds that a detective agency called Willmark Service systems, Inc., has been employed make sure that they don’t. (“Of course, you can never tell when you are being checked out by a Willmark Service representative.”) The explanation written for the bunnies is simple: “Men are very excited about being in the company of Elizabeth Taylor,
but they know they can’t paw or position her. The moment they felt they could become familiar with her, she would not have the aura of glamor that surrounds her, the same must be true of Bunnies”
Yet again that word glamor appears. I forewarned in a previous essay about the phrase, “let us consider the definition” but for the sake of this argument let us at least concern the etymology. Glamorous is rooted back to a Scottish word gramarye, which roughly translated amounts to “magic, enchantment, or spell.” Hopefully you should see where this is going. The Playboy Corporation continually advertised the glamor and myth of the Playboy universe to both men and women, but we observe that once women have entered into the system the myth alters. Steinem further reports to us
If the idea of being merchandised isn’t enough to unnerve a prospective Bunny, there are other directives that may. Willmark representatives are to check girls for heels that are too low, runs in their hose, jewelry, underwear that shows, crooked or unmatched ears, dirty costumes, absence of name tags, and “tails in good order.” Further: “When a show is on, check to see if Bunnies are reacting to the performers. When a comic is on, they are supposed to laugh. Big Brother Willmark is watching you.
The lat line is Steinem’s and demonstrates her ability as a dissenter as well as an excellent journalist. The allusion to Orwell’s text 1984 does not miss the mark at all for it becomes clear that should a woman decide to become a Bunny, rather than achieve the glamor spell and enjoy the perks derived from it, they find themselves prisoners to it. Much as Winston Smith, the gloomy anti-hero of the Orwellian Nightmare, is not free from the ever-present eyes of Big Brother, so it appears a Bunny is not free from the cronies of their employer. They must be on guard constantly, desperate for the maintenance of their physical appearance, but most odious of all is the thought crime aspect. Bunnies must react to performers, in accordance with the mass mood. A woman in this position is already too concerned whether her tail is clean, whether her seems are straight, or whether she has worn the right heels with the correct costume. What business does this woman have trying to follow a stage presence? It becomes clear that the Playboy club is managing a miniature totalitarian state designed to please only the male customers hungry for the spell of “glamor.”
There is enough here to further observe the dehumanization of women by the ever recurring moniker of “bunny” rather than human, but let me continue a little further before we get to this point. Following her actual employment at the Playboy club she informs her reader that she was required as a waitress, pay especial note to that part, to have a physical examination including a Wasserman Test. For those who do not know what this is, it is a test for syphilis. Steinem attends the appointment and asks the point of such an exam.
“This is the part all the girls hate,” said the doctor, and took blood from my arm for the Wasserman test. I told him that testing for venereal disease seemed a little ominous. “Don’t be silly,” he said, “all the employees have to do it. You’ll know everyone in the club is clean.” I said that their being clean didn’t really effect me and that I objected to being put through these tests. Silence. He asked me to stand to “see if your legs are straight.” “Okay,” I said, “I have to have a Wassermann. But what about the internal examination? Is that required of waitresses in New York State?”
“What do you care?” he said. “It’s free and it’s for everybody’s good.”
Once more the veil of glamor begins to fade. It seems, as the essay goes on, that what Playboy is most afraid of is vaginas. What difference should it make that a woman is unfortunate enough to have a venereal disease, if the Bible of the organization prohibits Bunnies from fornicating with the customers, and there is an established security Gestapo ensuring such behavior is banned, then what good could possibly be derived by having women’s lady parts checked out? Once again we return to the idea of glamor and sexual politics. There is no good reason. Playboy’s directions (erection puns spring to mind and I have an outstanding limerick for this but I shall abstain for now) demonstrate only an effort to sell the myth of sex where there is none. The female employees of the Playboy club are lured in by a promise of opportunity and excitement receiving only corns, back problems, self-esteem nightmares, and barely enough cash-in-hand to pay a taxi let alone pay for a plane ticket to travel the world. In short the entire system is a mockery, a spell designed to entrap any that may come close enough, and indeed, the Playboy presented seems to posses the ravenous strategy of an angler fish luring its prey with its bioluminescent headpiece before devouring it whole.
Steinem’s essay is an essential piece of literature for, like Animal Farm, it is a warning against idealism, and much like Johnathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, it’s a scathing satire against bullshit. Much like the animals on Manor Farm, numerous young women bought into the Playboy myth hoping to become something more than themselves. Much like the Irish selling their children to be devoured by the English so were many girls, for lack of a better phrase, devoured by the myth of Playboy and the ravenous men that flocked to it hoping to get laid. A lifetime of anonymity in the mundane is enough to drive even the most intelligent of people into positions in which they may compromise their virtue and integrity simply for the sake of celebrity.
This leads me to another young woman, who took a step further than Gloria Steinem, though not for the same reasons.
Isabella St. James is a model and actress that was born on the wrong side of the Post-World War II Europe. Her family emigrated from Poland arriving in Canada before eventually reaching the United States. Her memoir Bunny Tales: Behind Closed Doors at the Playboy Mansion will most likely never be considered astounding literature, but it should survive as an important social-sexual document for finally debunking the Playboy myth. St. James may be “blond and stacked” as the contemporary adjectives fit, but reading this book it becomes clear that the woman possesses a firm intelligence and character(she also holds a law degree from Pepperdine University). Through her memoir she paints a clear and unapologetic picture of the modern Playboy system that women find themselves in. The Playboy club has ceased to become a cultural hub in our lifetime, and instead the perceived hotbed of hedonistic bliss is the Playboy mansion. This haunt(the ghosts of Hefners dignity and sexual ability may spring to mind when this verb is employed) serves a s a retreat in which celebrity of every make, creed, color, and class distinction frolics to in hopes of scoring some of the glamorous “vibes”. The mansion then captures a certain wonder in every man’s mind but St. James unravels it quickly.
I just could not understand why Hef did not care as much about the general appearance of the interior of the Mansion as he did about the outside. I suppose he was more focused on the beautiful women surrounding him then he was on his actual surroundings. Maybe it’s because the Playboy Corporation wants to maintain it in its “original” décor, to keep it the way it was during Playboy’s heyday so that after Hef passes, it can become a museum. Hef has said repeatedly in interviews that he would like the Mansion to be purchased by the Playboy foundation and used as a Graceland-type of attraction. He wants to perpetuate the legend and mythology related to Playboy.
The second to last statement revolts me as a passionate fan of Elvis(a great man who died on the can, rhyme intended), but if I can maintain my objectivity, it becomes clear that the mansion as it stands is nothing more today than a shadow of its previous self. As so many things in life the exterior promises more than what is actually capable. Those hunting for hedonistic bliss will instead find only an old house where people used to fuck, a lot. St. James throughout her work carefully paints small portraits of what life is like in the mansion and a few lines stand out in mind.
We asked for darker carpets but we were refused. He liked our rooms to look like little girl rooms, white carpet and pink walls.
As soon as Holly moved in, she began an intense sexual relationship with Hef. She was the only one who had sex with him regularly and replaced his main girlfriend, Tina, in all of the bedroom duties. My guess is that she knew what she had to do to stand out and she did it.
Hef did not allow any Girlfriends to work. I think he did not want us to be independent.
What was strange to me is that Hef would gladly pay for any plastic surgery, necessary or not, but he would not help me with school loans.
Hef created a new persona for himself. This new guy was Hef, the Playboy, the suave magazine founder whom girls loved and was sexually free being. His entire identity is related to the magazine. It had brought him not only his riches but also an active personal life. He says Playboy brought sexual liberation for women because it told the world that nice girls like to have sex too. Hef likes to talk about how Playboy gave women freedom, freed them to be sexual. I think he means that it made it easier for guys to get laid.
Anyone interested can find numerous such passages as these and by the end of the book the “myth” of Playboy is thoroughly dead (The most humorous line in the text though is perhaps the passage in which sexual prowess of the old stud is described as “A cold fish”). Which brings us to the final act.
The tragedy of the Playboy myth is that it accommodates only men. Women may be invited to participate in the “glamor” that rest about this outdated institution like so many cobwebs, but it becomes clear that the institution, and this is most revolting, and even society itself will accommodate only those women deemed attractive enough. Playboy from the very beginning has been an attempt to cast a spell over the idea that sexuality is something equally expressible. Guising itself as sexual liberation, the movement of Playboy reveals only a system in which women are monitored and controlled sexually while men enjoy themselves. I Was a Playboy Bunny will continue to be a crucial document for our culture as long as the sexual politics that are in play continue to eschew favor to one sex over the other. It is not my intent to damn sexual expression, anything but, but observing the testimony of the women leaving the establishment it becomes clear than an authoritarian sentiment governs the entire system.
Playboy possess commandments for their employees, rules and regulations concerning behavior, idealistic invitations that promise opportunity yet offer only domination over independent will, and paltry sustenance to those who seek to enjoy the benefits of an oasis of hedonistic joy.
One last passage from Steinem should bring us to a close
I also learned from the musicians at the piano bar that there was something called “Playboy’s Theme.” These are some of the lyrics:
If you boy’s a Playboy
Loosen your control.
If his eyes meanders,
Sweet Goose your gander’s,
Just one more ornery Critter,
Who goes for the Glitter.
So if you’ve been over-heatin your oven
Just remember that the boy is a Playboy,
And a gal that makes a fireside lovin man of the boy,
Gets him to stay.
Never talks to him but sweetly,
When he plays it indiscreetly,
Never takes the Play completely,
One of the diverse duties of Willmark men is to make sure that this theme is played at the beginning and end of every musical show every evening—like “God Save the Queen.”
One can imagine this paltry tune playing, braying asses sing along to it and Bunnies are forced to smile and hum along while the bones in their feet re-arrange to spiked heels. And at any moment Hefner will stumble in followed by their successors, the “ingeniously” re-named “Girlfriends,” and like Squealer announce that this song is no longer necessary. The revolution has been accomplished.
I can only wonder how much longer the spell of “glamor” will linger before those reaping the rewards find themselves the laughing-stock that they are.