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.