What’s up with these Bunny boilers?

Feminists saying ‘Eff Off Hef’ to a new Playboy club are belittling women, not empowering them.

Abigail Ross-Jackson

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Topics Feminism

By belittling Playboy bunnies, the Eff Off Hef campaign – protesting against the opening of a new Playboy club in London – undermines a woman’s right to make her own choices. Women are not all delicate little wallflowers needing protection from big, bad men. The feminists protesting against those who choose to make their living by trading on their sex appeal do little to empower women. On the contrary, they are patronising them.

This Saturday, adult entertainment empire Playboy will open a new London club, one of the few to open since the Sixties, and there are a lot of feminists who aren’t happy about it. Activist groups UK Feminista and human rights organisation OBJECT have teamed up to picket the opening with what they call the Eff Off Hef campaign, stating, ‘Playboy is a multi-million pound, multi-national porn empire which makes its money from exploiting and degrading women’. While on the face of it this might seem reasonable, scratch the surface and their arguments aren’t quite so convincing.

Anna van Heeswijk, campaigns manager for OBJECT and co-convener of the Eff Off Hef campaign, states that ‘the opening of a new Playboy club in London signifies a worrying step backwards in the quest for equality between the sexes’. But this surely misses the point by eliding the existence of a club with the cause of women’s liberation more generally. Why attribute such significance to what is essentially a cohort of consenting women – many of whom appear to really enjoy what they do – strutting their stuff? Could it not be at least possible to entertain the idea this is simply a club full of sexy bunnies, with well-off men paying for the privilege of being served by them? Even if that sounds hard to stomach, it is insulting to suggest that it signals a return to the old-fashioned sexist values feminists have historically fought to dispel. There seems to be no acknowledgment of the fact that we no longer live in the sexist society from which Playboy was born.

Fellow campaign convener Kat Banyard, director of UK Feminista, also voices concerns, saying: ‘It was Hugh Hefner who led the cultural groundwork for the brutal, violently misogynistic pornography that now floods society’. But where has the idea come from that we now live in a society literally ‘flooded’ with pornography that’s degrading women more broadly? It’s true that the internet has made access to pornography easier but, as far as the real world goes, for the most part women in twenty-first century Britain have it better than ever before. Of course, it would be naive to pretend we have 100 per cent equality between the sexes, but is this really the fault of Playboy? The Feministas seem to have picked the wrong target. If, for example, you want greater equality between the sexes and an end to the pay gap, wouldn’t it be better to argue, for example, for free childcare so women don’t have to stop working? Taking issue with what is – let’s face it – not exactly an overwhelmingly popular career choice seems narrow and misguided.

Also lurking under the surface of the disdain for Playboy is a real lack of faith in men more generally. Sure, there are some men for whom the blonde, tanned, mega-breasted glamour puss is the ultimate ideal, but for most it is simply a harmless escape. Men’s outlook on the world, and their expectations of the real women within it, are not skewed by watching porn stars getting their rocks off on camera. To suggest otherwise is not only incredibly patronising towards men, but also towards women, suggesting that unless they conform to this ideal they’ll somehow be unwanted, unattractive or undesirable.

There is a distinct air of snobbishness about the whole Eff Off Hef campaign and the discussion around strip clubs and porn stars more generally. Commentators are forever denouncing the tack and tastelessness of the whole sordid affair. One described an ‘upmarket strip joint’ as reeking of ‘power and cheap perfume’ and derided Playboy as ‘a wilting, impotent cliché, its “bunny” branding a weary rehearsal of sterile stereotypes of femininity, all bouncy smiles and submission’. And yet the more ‘arty’ forms of strip tease – Dita Von Teese and other burlesque performers, who also sell their femininity and sex appeal, but with a less tacky feel – are celebrated as empowering to women. A sexy corset and a strong woman is one thing, but add a bunny tail and suddenly it’s degrading. Where has our faith in women gone?

There is a real irony in claiming to empower women while simultaneously belittling their choices simply because they are considered unpalatable. The Feministas appear to believe women should be able to do whatever they want – just not that! Their despair at Playboy’s marketing to children (through pencil cases, kiddie jewellery, bedding etc) is telling. By placing women and children in the same camp they reveal what’s really behind their campaign – a real disdain for the ability of women to make adult choices about how they live their lives. While UK Feminista, OBJECT and the like might not be drawn to the idea of donning a pair of fluffy ears and swanning around in an expensive club, there are a lot of young women out there who are. And who are they to stop them, no matter how much they might disapprove of their lifestyles and career choices?

It’s time that feminists stopped demanding that women be wrapped in cotton wool and gave some slack to those who choose to wear a cotton tail now and then.

Abigail Ross-Jackson is national administrator and judges coordinator for the sixth-form debating competition, Debating Matters.

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Topics Feminism

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