Playboy Bunny: Sexist Relic or Early Feminist Figure?

playboy bunny

THE PLAYBOY BUNNY IS AN INTERESTING — AND POLARIZING — CREATURE. With her skin-tight bodysuits, bunny ears, and fluffy pin-on cottontail, she’s an all-American sex symbol of a bygone era: a romanticized figure of female empowerment and sexual agency to some and the personification of male sexual chauvinism to others. The first bunny hopped onto the scene in 1960, when Hugh Hefner opened the first Playboy Club in Chicago and, according to his proponents, helped usher in an era of sexual liberation and normalization that we still live in today. Hefner’s club existed to offer men a taste of what he considered the ultimate fantasy lifestyle: a bachelor’s playground featuring snazzy décor, fancy cocktails, and the affections of a bevy of beauties dressed up as sexy bunnies in corsets and tights, there to host and entertain customers. Where men could only dream about the pretty girl down the street, Hefner’s clubs allowed them to indulge that desire in a setting couched in fantasy and populated with life-sized bunnies. Inspired by the magazine’s logo — the Playboy Rabbit — the ideal bunny at the center of the fantasy was between the ages of 18 and 23 and possessed the “sexy but wholesome, girl-next-door appeal of the magazine’s centerfolds. A Bunny [was] not a broad or a ‘hippy.’ She may [have been] sexy, but it [was] a fresh healthy sex – not cheap or lewd.”

While the above sentiment reeks of the old-school sexism that demanded women be Jessica Rabbits in the bedroom and June Cleavers everywhere else, ask any bunny — current or long-since sent out to pasture — about her experiences as one of Hef’s gals and she’ll most likely gloss over that particular aspect of the experience. Former New York Bunny Kathryn Leigh Scott told Vanity Fair: “You could re-invent yourself completely. You went from the schoolgirl to this glam person, and you could be anything. You could put on a French accent and call yourself ‘Fifi.’ It was a way of discovering yourself and playing around – a great experience when you’re 18, 19-years-old and exploring your sexuality.
Am I pretty enough? Am I sexy enough? And here’s a whole room full of people letting you know you are.” That exploration could be particularly lucrative: many of them report earning $1,000 (or more) a week, making valuable social contacts and connections, and being able to put themselves through college and launch their own varied careers.

But that exploration was also stringently managed. A series of “Bunny Manuals” was created to dictate their behavior, ranging from how they could smoke, sit, or stand to the proper ways to address members. Bunnies were  expected to stay within five pounds of their hiring weight, were required to obtain explicit permission prior to changing their hair color, and could receive demerits if they didn’t wear the right shade of lipstick. Bunnies were also not allowed to date customers or engage in any physical contact with them, because Hefner wanted to avoid engaging in any sort of “scandal.”

So: on the one hand, we have an institution that some say helped pave the way for the Sexual Revolution of the ’60s, gave women (certain women, anyway) the opportunity to become financially secure and the tools to embark on their own forays into the professional world, and which ostensibly allowed women to explore their sexuality in ways that were previously made unavailable to them. On the other, this same institution literally dehumanized its female employees, policed their appearance to cater to the sexual fantasies of its male patrons, and helped reify and exacerbate the sexual and economic balances that had always existed between the genders. Gender judo or no, the Playboy Club and its twitch-nosed denizens were not as innocent or forward-thinking as Hefner and supporters of his clubs would have us believe.

Thankfully, the Bunny began to fade from the social scene in the 1980s, after people began to criticize it for being sexist and the Playboy Club’s version of sexual fantasy — “Look, but don’t touch!” — began to be replaced by the masses’ desire to look less and touch more. The concept eventually became  passé instead of palatable — or profitable, since Hefner’s empire of clubs began operating at losses instead of profits very soon after they were opened — and the majority of the Playboy Clubs were closed. The last vestiges of Hefner’s vision of “sexual liberation” — Playboy recently announced that it would stop publishing nude photos in its eponymous magazine — live on only in places like the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles and the Playboy Club in London’s Mayfair district, which is one of the last few clubs to remain open today and doubles as a casino.

This isn’t to say that we’ve been able to officially send the Playboy Bunny hopping. While the flesh-and-blood Playboy Bunny might be an endangered species on the verge of extinction, it continues to occupy the space of a cultural icon. Thousands of women still dress up as Playboy Bunnies for Halloween every year, 2011’s The Playboy Club chronicled the lives of several fictitious Bunnies who worked at the first Playboy Club in Chicago, and just last year Kate Moss graced the 60th anniversary cover of Playboy in signature Bunny costume. Even though it doesn’t occupy the same space in society’s consciousness as it once did, it’s evident that the Playboy Bunny has certainly left its paw-print — and everything that stood for — behind. Here’s hoping that it won’t take another 60 years to wipe it away.

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