In Defense of the March Hare

This is the second of my “Things I Like” posts and I’ll admit that the topic isn’t something I’ve always been comfortable with.  Let me go on record as saying that I’m a fan of Playboy magazine.  Specifically, Playboy magazine from before about 1975.  I was a subscriber in the mid-to-late 90’s and I have nothing against the more recent generation of the publication, but I vastly prefer the era before airbrushing, cosmetic surgery and full frontal nudity.  But my preference actually has very little to do with the photos and a lot to do with the fiction, the interviews and the journalism that defeated McCarthyism and ushered in a new era where adults took control of their own pursuit of personal, and cultural, pleasure.

A couple of things make it uncomfortable for me to talk about Playboy magazine:

First, I grew up in a conservative world with a lot of focus on “moral values” and “pure thoughts” being pushed pretty much from kindergarten until I graduated from high-school and entered the real world.  Any of the secular things that might have been seen as salacious or risqué were not only prohibited, they were generally treated as though they didn’t exist at all.  I doubt I had an educator or pastor from K through 12 who would admit to having ever seen a movie in a theater, as “theaters were the devil’s playground” according to Ellen White.

Second, I consider myself a feminist.  An actual, “equality for the sexes” true believer.  While I accept that there are some (physical) activities that are inherently more well suited for the average member of a particular gender’s physical build, muscle mass, and bone density; I’ve met women who could do any physical job a man could do including roughneck, work cattle, shoot things, and play american football.

Also, both of the women who readily come to my mind as examples happen to be perfectly straight and hardly “masculine” as an overriding feature, so don’t think that I’m making some kind of exception for the mythical “bull dyke” model of “not-really-a-women” that some guys want to use as the exception to their otherwise complete “men are bigger and stronger” model.  Normal women, regardless of sexual orientation have as much physical and mental toughness as any of the guys I know working in “manly-man” jobs, including construction, truck driving, police work, fire fighting and soldiering.

I also know plenty of very smart women.  I work in technology, which still has a sort of “boy’s club” mentality lurking under the surface.  That club is an endangered species.  Some of the smartest technical minds I know are women, and I have every reason to believe the number of women in tech is just going to keep growing.

Guys who think men are inherently superior to women are dinosaurs, and all that’s left of the dinosaurs are the fossils of their desiccated bones.  Which I think is a pretty prophetic analogy really.

There is a strong strain of opinion in modern feminism about pornography and the objectification and commoditization of women.  Of course, like any issue, that strain of opinion runs a pretty wide gamut.

So let me explain my own opinion on pornography, the sex industry and how a reasonably enlightened (or at least one who tries to be enlightened) man can approach something that is seen as both empowering and enslaving by very smart people on both ends of the feminist spectrum.

I have no problem with the concept of an adult industry where women are paid a fair value for the product they are selling or the services they perform.  Which is exactly how I feel about a male dominated military or a transgendererd androgynous-mime circus.

I have no problem with strip clubs where women are independent contractors who work on their own time and negotiate their own charges while the house takes a door charge and sells ridiculously expensive drinks while providing overhead and a level of security for the participants.

I have heard tell of brothels in Nevada that function on a similar premise, but I have no first-hand knowledge one way or the other.

On the other hand, there are things I’m not ok with.  Sexual slavery is alive and well in the world and there are elements of the adult industry that are built and sustained purely on the…backs…of women (and by “women” I mean female, because age is a real issue) who are trapped into situations and trafficked with less humane care than Michael Vick gave his fighting dogs.

I realize that one arm of the industry is held up by the other, and vice-versa.

Which is why I’m not much of a consumer of porn.  Part of it is just point one above; my parents didn’t consume porn, and I have no frame of reference for porn consumption outside of a college dorm or the occasional link that shows up in an email from “a bud” from work.

And part of it is that the current crop of porn seems to tend towards behaviors that I don’t care to watch.  There’s an implied violence in a lot of porn that makes me uncomfortable.  Does that make me hopelessly “vanilla”?  I don’t really care.  I don’t put my standards of taste up for critique any more than I claim the right to critique other’s.

I’m not talking about spanking or light bondage or what have you, I’m talking about the simulated choking and spitting and implied threat that seems to seep into a lot of the stuff coming out of San Fernando Valley these days.  I don’t find degrading sexy, and a lot of porn pushes the degradation envelope, vis-a-vis I’m not much for porn.

But that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to pornography at a moral level.  As a parent of a little girl, I’ve had to consider this in a very real and personal way.  Since I have a daughter, and I know every girl in porn is someone’s daughter, I have to ask myself how would I feel if that was my daughter on the screen?  How would I feel if she wanted to “work adult” and was open about it?

Sure, it’s easy to assume that all strippers and porn starlets are the product of tragic homes and broken families and are desperately trying to fill some approval void left by father figures…but I know better.  I went to high-school with a girl who went on to be moderately famous in the porn industry, and her parents were sweet and her home life seemed fine to me (as fine as anyone else surviving Adventism in the 90s).

It’s much more realistic to assume that some people (male and female) find themselves down a sequence of events that led them to work adult.  I never thought I’d be a tax software consultant, so it’s safe to assume my daughter might have a similarly strange path through life.

How would I feel?

Probably, I’d ask a LOT of questions (because my prejudices would bubble up to the surface) and I’d try to sort through her decision making.  Mostly I’d be desperate to make sure she didn’t feel trapped into something she didn’t want to do…which means I’d have to be prepared for the fact that just maybe she wanted to take off her clothes for money.

Ultimately, my puritan past means that on some levels, I’d be uncomfortable with it.  Such is the nature of being a father.  And based on that, I have to respect the women who work adult because somewhere, they have a father and I hope he respects her decisions.

What does this have to do with Playboy from before 1975? And why 1975?

Well, the second question is easier, 1975 is when pubic hair became common and full frontal nudity became the norm.  Before that Hugh Hefner spent a lot of time pushing a boundary without quite giving away all the goods.  There was just something more tasteful about the magazine before it won the sexual revolution.  It was more earnest about what it was and what it was selling.  Also, the women had curves (and I don’t just mean boobs and butts) which hasn’t been the case since at least the mid 90’s when I started reading.

Playboy, before 1974 especially, was about women entering the workforce, and the clubs, and the places where adults gathered on their own terms.  They took charge of their bodies, their pleasure, and they didn’t decide who to date purely based on the babies they’d make when they got married.  Certainly, that has happened throughout time, but Playboy was the cultural barometer of the time when those things stepped out of the shadows and back alleys of America and into mainstream workplaces and churches and living-rooms.

Playboy, and the image it projected of confident women in charge of themselves, was as influential for women at the dawn of the sexual revolution as the pill and Helen Gurley Brown.  Not because it changed women’s minds (although it certainly might have) but because it change the minds of many men.

I have to believe that the majority of the women who posed for Playboy did so because they wanted to.  I would argue that despite simple assumptions, Playboy was an inherently feminist magazine.  Sure, it was the victim of some horrible failures of taste, and bawdy humor is often insensitive (I would argue the cartoons were often the most sexist element of the magazine), but overall it’s impact was profoundly positive for the women’s movement.

As someone who loves history, Playboy is like looking through a window into the heart of culture.  Articles by Henry Kissinger, fiction by Arther C Clark and Ian Flemming, interviews with Robert Kennedy and Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali).  Every month the powers that vied to change America came to millions of men through the doors of Playboy’s offices in Chicago and met a gatekeeper who refused any that wanted to conserve the old status quo, the old restrictions, the old conventions.

Today, I think Playboy is essentially irrelevant.  They won.  There is little for them to battle, and a hero without a villain is essentially just another Joe.  They have no more envelope to push culturally, and the internet is far far ahead of them in the salacious imagery department, never to be caught by old media again.

But to someone who loves the past, and history, and really great writing (not to mention some of the most artistic photography of it’s time) early Playboy is a treasure trove of incredible things to read and discover.

Even for a puritan-raised feminist.

[Word Count:  1777]

4 thoughts on “In Defense of the March Hare

  1. I love seventies porn. They have all this hair, and they all seem like they’re having a good time, while not seeming like THEY’RE HAVING A GOOD TIME, DAMMIT.

    Yeah, that’s a good way to put it…porn today looks like a lot of things, sincere and enthusiastic fun isn’t really one of them. Which kinda defeats the whole point of porn in my mind.

  2. This is the best “I read it for the articles” defense of Playboy I’ve ever heard/read.

    I would shy away from saying “I only read it for the articles” for two reasons, one…it’s just cliche; and two…I certainly enjoy the cartoons, and the skill and artistry of the photography (especially in the late fifties and early-to-mid sixties). I could probably read issues from that era just for the ads too. The marketing material makes me long for a fine pinstripe suit by Brooks Brothers and a classic Vespa scooter (oddly, at the same time) while drinking fine scotch.

  3. Maybe that wasn’t as obviously teasing/sarcastic as I thought it was…

    Maybe, but I’m leery of being perceived as making the “I don’t look at the boobies, I promise” argument. Intellectual honesty means saying “I took figure drawing and photography in college and I have a distinct appreciation for the work on display” and not ducking the responsibility (pros and cons) for that position.

    All that being said, teasing and sarcasm are welcome here, so please don’t feel like I took offense. I smiled when I read it, no worries.

  4. I think your response to Crisitunity up there is perfect.

    Thanks. It’s from the…heart.

    Me? I saw Playboy for the first time at the wrong age, I guess. I totally look for the boobies.

    I’ll say again, I certainly look at the boobies, I just enjoy MORE than just the boobies.

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