Friday, 26 December 2008

Girls of the Playboy Mansion

It is said that "respectable" men when confronted with their collection of Playboy magazines claim they "buy it for the articles". Alas, no such argument is available for Girls of the Playboy Mansion (or The Girls Next Door, as it is known in the US). In the UK it is screened on E! channel, the international purveyor of TV chintz, celebrity hagiography and conspicuous consumption. If there is a television show worse than Girls, chances are it will be on the E! schedule.

Each episode follows a familiar and well-worn format. Hugh Hefner's three girlfriends,
Holly Madison (until recently, "Hef's" girlfriend number one), Bridget Marquardt (#2), and Kendra Wilkinson (former girlfriend no. three) typically run about, exclaim everything to be "awesome!", show a bit of skin, and have a party. Their lives seem a relentless round of shopping, meeting the latest Playmates, eating out, playing pranks or buying presents for Hefner and going on tour; in other words, lives lived completely without effort. Their existence outside of the 24 hour party narrative the show constructs sometimes receives the skim treatment. Holly does the occasional bit of sub-editing for Playboy; Bridget has a masters in broadcast journalism and has appeared in several celebrity-based "reality" shows; and Kendra "works" by inhabiting a similar niche in the TV ecology as Bridget. All three have regularly posed for spreads in Playboy, which scarcely rank as drudgery.

Likewise with
Sex and the City, Girls displays a universe in which class and work is bleached out by opulence. But unlike SATC, this bourgeois effortlessness extends to Hefner too. The impression this supposedly behind-the-scenes look into life at the mansion gives is of a man who spends his days draped in silken dressing gowns and his captain's hat while selecting what photographs the next issue of the magazine should feature. The really interesting stuff, such as the political economy of Hefner's (apparently faltering) empire never gets a look-in. The nearest we got to a "true" look at the operation was during a fifth season episode when Holly candidly revealed the Barbie-like criteria required for an anniversary playmate.

Girls is interesting because of the demographic it aims for. The show does feature nudity from time to time, but it is primarily about selling image and lifestyle to young women. Anyone hoping for titillation are guaranteed disappointment. But for those who stick with it, they can expect exaggerated displays of conspicuous femininity and consumerism. The TV environment the "girls" (aged 29, 35 and 23 respectively) inhabit sees them regress to infantalised states, with regard to their styles of speech, their emphasis on play over work, and in their relationship to Hefner. Needless to say, this doesn't convey the most empowering of messages. It suggests that if women conform to the slim-but-large-breasted body type, your best bet at success is to play up your femininity, flaunt your body and submit to the heterosexual ideology of the male gaze. This is where the value of being a woman lies.

This neatly synergises with the rest of the
Playboy empire, and the world of pornography at large. The kinds of subjectivity and body image Girls encourage not only helps develop the habitus appropriate for the incoming generation of women entering the porn and glamour industries, but also reinforces the conforming pressures on women to serve the economy of heterosexual male desire heavily shaped by the images it promotes.

Girls is shamelessly trashy, but far from harmless. Disinfect your TV after viewing.

10 comments:

Madam Miaow said...

meeting the latest Playmates, eating out, ...

Ooh, I'm sure.

Girls is interesting because of the demographic it aims for.`

Yeah, Phil. :-)

Darren said...

Does Splintered Sunrise know you're parking your tanks on his lawn?

Phil BC said...

Lol, were you the guys who always used to snigger their way through sex education classes at school?

Madam Miaow said...

Yes, Phil. And I was the one teaching it!

Is sex dirty? Only if it's done right.

thinkingdifference said...

agreed, but how do you solve the problem that feminists have raised, arguing some women find their liberation in submitting to the heterosexual gaze? if this show exists, it's not (only) because of men, but because of women internalizing these norms.

Ken said...

What do you mean by the economy of heterosexual male desire? What do you mean by the heterosexual ideology of the male gaze? By combining terms about social processes (economy, ideology) with a term about biological fact (male) these expressions seem to combine social constructionism with biological essentialism.

OK, I can guess approximately what you mean. But I'm baffled as to what alternative you are posing. Is it a sexuality where no one sexually desires anyone? Where no one looks at anyone and feels sexual attraction?

Phil BC said...

Ugh, awkward questions for a Sunday afternoon. Teaches me to dabble with jargon! In short, Ken, the meanings of the terms I'm drawing on here can be found in the work of Bourdieu (habitus, cultural capital, fields) and feminist scholarship on the construction/reproduction of hegemonic forms of straight male desire. Definitely nothing to do with the 'E' word, I assure you!

Re alternatives, I'm not a neo-Victorian prude. But I would like to see a decoupling of commodity fetishism and sexuality, and the erosion of sexual violence, hegemonic body types and sexual hang-ups rooted in conformist pressures. Not less sex, but better sex for everyone, if you like :) How to get there? Well I would say a building a socialist society has something to do with it, but I' bound to say that.

Thinking, yes, some women feel genuinely liberated in these contexts. I haven't got any special insight in how to deal with that issue, unfortunately.

Darren said...

" Is it a sexuality where no one sexually desires anyone? Where no one looks at anyone and feels sexual attraction?"

Otherwise known as 'growing up in Larkhall.'

splinteredsunrise said...

You know, I look at Hef and I think that old lad should really be in a home. Then I realise he is in a home...

Phil BC said...

I don't think there are too many homes with women like Holly, Bridget and Kendra in their employ!