Who exactly are the twenty-something “hipsters” with money to burn that are confidently expected to patronise the Playboy Club (complete with revolving bunny head) to be built by 2006 near the Las Vegas Strip? Exactly 46 years after the launch of the first Playboy club and 20 years after the last one’s demise, what accounts for the continuing cachet of the bunny brand?
I must admit to cynicism about the “hipsters”. Playboy has long tried to steer public perceptions away from the truth about the pedigree of both the bunnies and the club’s clientele.
In her 1963 expose, Gloria Steinem revealed that claims bunnies were not only beautiful, but also possessed superior education and fine breeding, were simply not true. For those she met, their lack of education and skills meant the Playboy package of long-hours, high-harassment and minimum wages was their best employment option. As well, Steinem revealed that despite club advertising in which customers were depicted as young, lean, nattily dressed urban men, the true Playboy patron was a middle-aged business man.
Presumably such lily-gilding is part of Playboy’s branding: a way of alluding to the historical exclusivity of men’s clubs while making it possible for everyone to join by setting reasonable fees for club “keys”.
Playboy sends this same message in other ways, too. Clubs in the past required bunny waitresses to be “friendly” but strictly prohibited them from dating customers, for the reason that familiarity would breed contempt and thereby undercut the customer’s belief that access to the glamorous bunnies made him special. The “I want you” smiles on the glossy lips of the women in magazine features (clean-cut girl-next-door types in poses more risque than explicit) sends a similar sub-textual message.
Everyone likes a touch of class, especially when they feel - however mistakenly - that their contact with it means they’re pretty classy, too.
So the real Playboy Club client - past and future - must remain shrouded in mystery, but we can make some educated guesses. For one, he’ll surely be someone who has chosen either to ignore or to actively reject the feminist movement’s claim for women’s economic empowerment, social dignity and liberation from the confinement of stereotypical gender roles. Who else could feel comfortable having their drinks served by grown women on the minimum wage wearing regulation 3-inch stiletto heels, bunny ears, tail, cuffs and collar?
Such a claim might be rejected by some in Playboy’s demographic: men 18 to 35. Such “fellas” may insist they neither know nor care about the history of the Playboy Club, or that the retro-craze is the source of the bunny’s allure for them.
In the same way that a young woman indignantly informed me that she makes no apologies for buying fashion gear with the Playboy logo because the bunny is “cute”, men are likely to defend their decisions to enter the new Playboy club on grounds of compulsive consumer need: to dance, gamble or lounge in the 21st century hipster pad, which is to be designed by none other than Hefner himself.
Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard (I am an ethicist) but I find excuses for both ignorance of historical facts, and an unwillingness to avoid repeating them for the sake of consumer gratification, fatally weak.
Attending a Playboy club supports both the practical and symbolic oppression of women. No amount of pretending otherwise actually makes it so. Everyone has a responsibility to understand the basic meanings encoded in what they do, and to take responsibility for the choices they make.
OK, I feel better now. Good enough, in fact, to acknowledge that different men have different reasons for the attitude they take towards feminist claims for gender dignity and equity. I know that some men will reject feminist calls for them to vote with their feet and refuse to patronise Playboy clubs. (Or perhaps even show solidarity with women by demanding respect at work while wearing a tail!)
For them the gender hierarchy is the only one in which they come out on top, and they’ll be damned if they’ll lift a finger to assist in its abolition. Keeping women in their place is the only way of holding on to the status they have simply because they’re men.
If correct, such an explanation ties the feminist project of eliminating gender-oppression with the project of reducing class and economic inequities: a connection few socialist feminists would find surprising. A more elaborate version of the same theory can explain why men in colonised countries channel their feelings of emasculation into the repression of entire populations of women (and religious fundamentalism too, but that’s a story for another day).
Sexism as protest? As honour? As rage? No matter how you understand it the facts are still with us. Playboy’s revenues totalled $US316 million last year, across the ocean another generation of poorly-paid satin-eared bunnies are suiting up to serve drinks and dodge the roaming hands of boozy middle-aged men. Meanwhile the nepotistically-appointed Christie Hefner chairs an all-male Board of Directors.