Co-opting Empowerment: Televising the Playboy Club

Bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anything they wanted.” ““ Hugh Hefner

The Playboy Club, NBC’s upcoming new drama, promises to be the key to your fantasies, giving viewers complete access to the once great world of Playboy Bunnies. Set in 1963, the show will be a look at the women who made up the first Playboy Club in Chicago, enticing look at the culture around the club, and more importantly, the empowerment of the women who worked there.

Yes, empowerment, The empowerment tour has indeed started, as cast members and the shows creator, Chad Hodge, have publicly spoken out against the controversy their as-of-yet unaired show is already causing. “Really, the show is all about empowering, and who these women can be, and how they can use their position to get what they want,” Hodges said in response to the backlash from the Parents’ Television Council and feminists. The two extremes have seemingly agreed on the idea, for their own divergent reasons, that the Playboy Club is indeed, not about empowerment.

“That was my kingdom. It was the place where dreams came true.” – Hugh Hefner

Your Wildest Dreams

There is no doubt that the experience of being a Playboy bunny was empowering to some women. It provided a source of financial independence, allowing a woman to make her own choices, like accessing birth control, the ability to leave a relationship or just the privilege of having financial autonomy. The Playboy Club was also one of the first desegregated venues for members, bunnies and performers, allowing for black women to step out of racially subservient roles and onto a similar platform that many of their white counterparts were already accessing. Business was business to Hefner, a value the club stood firmly by, most notoriously when Hefner bought back franchised clubs in the South, which had denied black members or performers. Hefner would also later lobby against segregation state laws, decrying not only the illegality and demoralizing fabric of Jim Crow, but also the sheer bad business of it.

But lets not stare completely starry-eyed at the Playboy club, as time makes it often easy to do. All paid positions come with a cost- especially those that rely on fantasy. The Club cemented expectations about what type of work women should have been doing at the time, i.e., catering to men by dressing up as bunnies and selling high-end cigars and drinks to those who had earned “access.” Bunnies, like the club itself, were status symbols of what the good life and all its accoutrements was supposed to be like. Being a bunny was to be a symbol ““ to lose your individualism and exist solely as a pleasurable object that could keep good conversation. Hefner knew exactly what type of image he was trying to portray with the bunnies ““ expensive, well-groomed and girl-next-door innocence.  While money could be tremendously good, it came with hierarchical strings attached, a part skimmed over by most of the ads for the position, as well as those who wish to polish over the less glamorous aspects of the club. Most bunnies started off at coat check, a position that averaged out to about $12 for eight hours. Table bunnies had the potential to make big bucks, a well-known fact from one of Playboys more famous bunny grads, Gloria Steinem. But Steinem was also a realist about how the money always came with catches. Not only were earnings mostly based on tips, but the club could take half if they felt it was necessary to reap back lost profit  from girls enjoying the perks of the club in entertaining customers. The Playboy Club emphasized the importance of being young and beautiful, and bunnies were put through a rigorous process to attain and keep that look, giving them a shelf life until age 30, when they were turned into the rare house mother or booted out. This is also not touching on the possible pain that can come from adhering to the bunny standard (long hours, high heels, lost wages), as well as lecherous client behavior that may have gone “unnoticed” in the name of money, business, and hell, just because that’s what men did to women at the time.

In many ways, we all participate in some sort of compromising behavior earn our paychecks, whether it’s blatantly disguising parts of ourselves or making small innumerable sacrifices to help our careers move forward, receiving the all mighty paycheck.  To argue in the vein of someone like Susan Brownmiller, who believed that the Playboy Club was inherently wrong and the women working there were delusional, not only stigmatizing them for their “less feminist choices,” but also providing the beginnings to a rhetoric that still stigmatizes any woman who makes a living from providing sex or fantasy. When we talk about paid services, we often leave out the convenient fact that most jobs require parts of ourselves that we rather not give up, as sacrificial in the name of making a buck. One has to wonder where the line exists between putting on a bunny costume for a dollar looks completely different from putting on any other uniform and hustling for a dollar.


Nostalgia Sells

History is heavy, often heavier than the joy we take out of being entertained. This isn’t to say that certain time periods or experiences are off limits to the world of entertainment, nor that we can’t take some sort of joy in watching them, but that they are portrayed in just a few dimensions. One of the reasons Mad Men works so well is because it shows the accepted behavior of the early sixties and how difficult life was if you were anything other than a straight, able-bodied, white man. But one of the reasons Mad Men gets raked over the coals is because it leaves out so much history in the name of story arcs, for example, the lack of narrative provided to Carla, the Draper’s maid, and her role not only as a character, but as a black woman in the days of segregation. One wonders if Naturi Naughton, aka Bunny Brenda, the first “chocolate bunny,” whose role is based off the experiences of Jennifer Jackson, will have her experience of being the lone black woman in the group of bunnies as an actual narrative or relegated to the sassy sidekick.

“These women were using so much more than [their bodies],” Naturi Naughton said in a press conference for the soon-to-be launched pilot. “It’s empowering, because these girls were smart, they’re going to school, they’re buying homes, property ““ things that show what women couldn’t do at the time, using resources and relying on themselves,” said Amber Heard, aka Bunny Maureen, during the same conference. “This is about choice. Ultimately it’s a different generation with different opportunities and different expectations for women.”

“The way we look at things, if it involves sexuality, somehow a woman must be compromised,” said Leah Renee, who plays Bunny Alice. “And I think it’s just as chauvinistic to deny a woman her sexuality. It’s about the time. It comes down to choices. If they are making the choice, they are not being exploited.”

That’s true ““ feminism is ideologically and inherently about women being able to choose whatever is best for them. But one has to note the difference here being the choices that actual bunnies made and the ones that the shows writers are making for them in the name of good television. Which story will prevail? Which story will make for good television?

In the end, what does the history of the Playboy club have to teach us now? Do we even need to care about it possibly teaching us anything? Can we be okay with something just being entertaining, much like the bunnies? While there are a hundred other shows that push the sex factor on every female member on cast, The Playboy Club has set itself up to compete with not only the past, but also the present Playboy brand, leaving people wondering, who is the Playboy Club being televised for? Will it be a look into the complex, nuanced, fulfilling and difficult lives of the women who zipped up into bunny costumes to get ahead? Or will it just be a show where running around in a bunny suit is just part of the regular old status quo? Only the show itself will prove whether or not the legacy of the Playboy Club was something that was inherently empowering to these women’s experiences or if it’s just going to be more of the same old thing, repackaged in the name of women’s empowerment.



3 replies on “Co-opting Empowerment: Televising the Playboy Club”

When I first saw a trailer for this show, I rolled my eyes so hard it hurt. I couldn’t believe NBC was airing a series based on the porn industry. I did have a momentary, fleeting thought that it might be from the perspective of the women, to show their struggles and how they used their positions to better themselves….but then I thought, “yeah, Im not gonna hold my breathe”.

I feel very wary about this show and I LOVE the phrase “co-opting empowerment”. That sounds about right! Via Twitter, I saw a lot of writers at the Television Critics Association express astonishment that this is how the show’s being framed, rather than a fun romp, as it’s clearly trying to titilliate.

When you say, “Will it be a look into the complex, nuanced, fulfilling and difficult lives of the women who zipped up into bunny costumes to get ahead? Or will it just be a show where running around in a bunny suit is just part of the regular old status quo?”… I would like to see the former, but suspect the latter. And I also suspect – which depresses me – that people will like that about it.

Something that sometimes gets lost in these discussions is that that there’s room to feel sex work (of which Bunny-dom was certainly one incarnation) is exploitative and yet not shame or stigmatize the women who choose to do it. I say “choose”, but that’s kind of spurious, because any choices women make are in the framework of a kyriarchical society.

Of course, they’re in the framework of a capitalist society too, and I think you’re right to point out that wage labour is in itself exploitative, and that
to some women, working in McDonald’s may feel worse than posing for Playboy. But I do think sex work is more degrading to soceity as a whole, because women are so routinely objectified as part of a rape culture which encourages us to see women as a series of body parts for other people’s commodification/enjoyment.

I’m not saying some women can’t find working as a “bunny” or a Hooters girl empowering, but it isn’t inherently so. And I’ll never buy into the idea of Hef as anything but a very rich dirty old man.

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