[Paleopsych] Beggan and Allison: Tough Women in the Unlikelies of Places
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Tough Women in the Unlikeliest of Places: The Unexpected Toughness of the
Beggan, James K; Allison, Scott T
Journal of Popular Culture 38, no. 5 (Aug 2005): p. 796-818
ISSN: 0022-3840 Number: 872194991
[The PDF contains no graphics of bunnies or even tables, graphs, or equations.
Just ASCII characters and "smart quotes."]
IN JANUARY 1985, A MAGAZINE ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED ABOUT JOAN Bennett. According
to the article, she was "raised in Glen Ellyn, a small town in the flatland
outside Chicago. She is tough ('I can sing, dance and box. I hate a man who
treats women as inferiors, who takes advantage. I'll stand up and rip his lips
off, just pop 'im in the nose'). She is a street fighter" (134).
In the article, Joan Bennett discussed her future. She said, "I thought there
should be more to life than traditional sex, going to college, finding a rich
husband and ending up in the driver's seat of a station wagon-waking up to the
sounds of kids playing their Big Wheels every morning. I didn't want to let
life go past" (134-35). Instead, she was "committed to her career" (142).
How did Joan describe herself in the article? She said, "I like to argue. I
like intensity" (138). She added, "I'm very independent and restless. . . . I
like to party with people, but I don't want to become attached to, or dependent
on, anyone or anything" (138).
The article included pictures of Joan Bennett. From the pictures, it is clear
to all that she is pretty. She is tall and slim, but with a well-proportioned
figure. Her measurements are 36-24-35. The most striking thing about her,
though, is that in many the pictures, she is naked, her pink nipples and brown
pubic hair on display for all the world to see. In one picture, she wears only
a pink garter belt and matching pink stockings. She is the January 1985 Playboy
In contrast to the nude pictures that present Joan Bennett adorned in pearls,
nylons, and a camisole, the centerfold text creates a rather unexpected
portrait. From what is contained in the centerfold text, there appears to be
more to Joan Bennett than merely being a sex object for men and teenage boys.
She seems to be a strong, competent, intelligent, and ambitious woman. Joan
Bennett is only one of 204 Playmates who appeared in the pages of Playboy
between 1985 and 2001. Is the depiction of her character typical or unusual for
The contradiction created by the juxtaposition of the nude imagery and "tough"
background is the basis for the present article. Our analysis of centerfold
pictorials for the past two decades suggests that it is a mistake to view
Playboy Playmates exclusively through a lens of sexuality. Although our culture
most often conceptualizes Playmates as highly sexualized, commercialized
objects, they are not just busty pinup girlie-girls. Playmates have unexpected
elements of toughness in their collective nature, and in reality, Playboy
presents them as possessing much more complex characters than popular wisdom
would allow. This richer characterization comes through the centerfold text and
other pictures that comprise the Playmate's pictorial. The centerfold text,
virtually ignored by social commentators, modifies the possible meanings
construed from the nude pictorials and makes it difficult for the reader not to
be struck by the personalities of Playmates.
The present article interprets the icon of the Playboy Playmate in terms of the
tough woman. In this analysis, we explore recurring themes in the collective
identities of Playmates. What is interesting about Playmates is that they
clearly exemplify the Western body ideal of femininity (large breasts and hips,
small waist, a narrow range of facial features), yet simultaneously display
nonfeminine-even masculine-personality attributes, interests, and occupations.
By adopting attributes traditionally considered to be the domain of men,
Playmates undermine gender stereotypes about femininity and the meaning of
being a Playboy Playmate.
The Concept of the Tough Woman
In her book Tough Girls, Sherrie Inness (1999) examines the representation of
"tough" women in popular culture. She identifies early instantiations of the
tough girl in 1970s television, specifically Charlie's Angels, the bionic
woman, and Emma Peel in The Avengers. Inness explores images of tough women in
women's fashion magazines and other media, such as comic books and film. She
also considers very recent characterizations of the tough woman, such as Xena,
Warrior Princess, and Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager.
A theme of Inness's analysis is that media images of tough women are undercut
by elements that reinforce traditional femininity. For example, in the movie
Aliens, the lead character Ripley is presented as very tough-tougher, in fact,
than both the male and female Marines assigned to protect her. At the same
time, however, one of Ripley's strongest motivations is the desire to protect a
child. Thus, Ripley's toughness is softened by the display of perhaps the most
stereotypic attribute of women. In a similar manner, Inness argues that the
images of tough women in women's fashion magazines are typically undermined by
messages that reinforce more conventional, softer images of women. Inness
cites, as an example, a magazine feature on leather jackets (an artifact
typically associated with strength) with text that states, "The new leathers
are coming through and they're miles from tough" (58). Another layout presents
the sentiment, "Leather's new look is more tender than tough" (58).
Ultimately, however, Inness asserts that "the containment of women's toughness
is never absolute" (179). She suggests that even when images of toughness in
women are accompanied by features that reduce their transgressive nature, "such
figures still offer visions of female power and independence that help to
challenge the gender status quo" (179). In the present article, we approach the
Playboy Playmate in a similar fashion. We consider how the elements of
toughness included as part of the Playmate's identity can help to modify the
meaning of appearing nude, and contribute to a construction of femininity that
is at odds with sexualized, stereotypic views of women.
Attributes of the "New Tough Woman"
According to Inness, one way to conceptualize toughness in women is through
their ability to take on stereotypically masculine traits. For example, Inness
refers to characters such as Calamity Jane as tough "because they adopt
characteristics stereotypically associated with men. By doing so, they place
themselves as outsiders in relation to a culture that assumes that women should
strive to act and appear feminine" (19).
In Tough Girls, Inness describes four domains of masculinity related to the
construction of the "New Tough Woman": body, attitude, action, and authority.
Body refers to the physical characteristics correlated with toughness, such as
well-defined muscles and an athletic, fit physique. Masculine clothing is also
a signifier of toughness. The attitude component of the new tough woman
consists of the expression of little or no fear, competence and control, and
the display of masculine emotions such as anger. A third aspect of the new
tough woman concerns action-that is, the ability to act in a thoughtful and
intelligent manner. Finally, the new tough woman has the authority to act as a
In the present article, we identify an intriguing instantiation of the tough
woman in a space as far removed as might be considered possible from domains
where images of tough women would be expected or even tolerated. Specifically,
we consider attributes of toughness associated with a modern icon of sexualized
femininity: the Playboy Playmate. In doing so, we assess the extent to which
Playmates display traditionally masculine attributes, and in doing so, modify
the meaning of posing nude.
A Brief History of the Playboy Playmate
A number of authors (e.g., Brady; Miller; Weyr) have reported, in what has
become a classic version of the Horatio Alger story, how Hugh Hefner founded
Playboy magazine in December 1953 with only a hope, a prayer, and a few
thousand dollars of borrowed money. Within a few years, Playboy was selling
more than a million copies a month. The key to Playboy's initial success was
the Playmate of the Month, the full-page (which eventually became three pages,
hence the term centerfold) picture of a nude or seminude woman. In the first
few issues, the Playmate of the Month was an anonymous model, and no background
information was provided about her. But the concept of the Playmate evolved
rather quickly. Once Playboy began shooting its own Playmates rather than
buying other photographers' stock shots, Playboy began to include additional
pictures of each Playmate. Although some pictures were taken in the studio,
others were candids that showed the Playmate entertaining friends, at work,
shopping, or at school. In addition, Playboy began publishing background
information about Playmates. The Playmate 38, no. 5 (Aug 2005): p.
796-818profiles and ancillary photographs worked together to establish the
"girl next door" image of the Playboy Playmate. This concept of the girl next
door was crystallized in July 1955 when Janet Pilgrim appeared as Playmate of
the Month. What differentiated Janet Pilgrim's appearance from those of prior
Playmates was that she was presented as a Playboy employee. The fateful
centerfold text stated, "We suppose it's natural to think of pulchritudinous
Playmates as existing in a world apart. Actually, potential Playmates are all
around you: the new secretary at your office, the doe-eyed beauty who sat
opposite you at lunch yesterday. . . . We found Miss July in our own
circulation department." By providing this personalized background information,
Playboy changed the nature of the nude model from a cynical, tough woman who
probably lived in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, to a sweet hometown girl
who might be living down the street from the reader in Anytown, Iowa, USA. Over
time, the Playmate has evolved to the point where contemporary images of
Playmates include a significant number of "tough" characteristics.
The Playboy Playmate is an iconic figure that has consistently generated
controversy across the more than 50 years that Playboy has been published. At
first pass, it would seem hard to identify a figure as less representative of
female toughness than the Playboy Playmate. Although conventional feminist
thought would argue that Playmates are the embodiment of men's exploitation of
women, our central thesis is that there is more than there appears to the
nature of the Playboy Playmate.
Prior Scholarship on the Playboy Playmate
Most prior scholarship on the Playboy Playmate has adopted the position that
the Playmate represents men's fantasies of the perfect woman because she is
simultaneously highly sexed and submissive. To those who think that Playboy
advocates this identity for women, Playboy naturally comes across as the
Past scholars have held Playmates in rather low esteem. Colin McDowell said
that Playboy magazine presents a preferred image of women as "airbrushed,"
"antiseptic," and "dumb and available" (174). Rollo May described Playmates as
"detached, mechanical, uninviting, vacuous-the typical schizoid personality"
(57). May contrasted Playmates with "real women," and in the process, implied
that somehow Playmates were less organic or natural than flesh-and-blood women.
Scholars have also criticized Playmates for representing standards of beauty
(especially with regard to thinness) that can be considered anorexic (e.g.,
Owen and Laurel-Seller).
In addition to viewing the women who posed for Playboy in a harsh and negative
light, critics have expressed unkind opinions of Playboy readers. Barbara
Ehrenreich suggested that Playboy encouraged men to "shed the burdensome
aspects of the adult male role" (45), and could be viewed as presenting a
"coherent program for the male rebellion" (50) against marriage and the family.
Gary Brooks borrowed a medical model to express the idea that looking at
Playmates in Playboy could create a "centerfold syndrome" marked by an
inability to form meaningful relations with women. The typical man, tainted by
his exposure to perfect Playmates, loses his appetite for "real" women,
according to Brooks.
Recently, we (Beggan and Allison, "The Playboy Rabbit," "What Do Playboy";
Beggan, Gagné, and Allison) have called for a reconsideration of how Playboy is
conceptualized in scholarship on the media. Like Nancy Berns, we have suggested
that it is essential to consider text in Playboy, and in the present case, how
it may modify the meaning of the nude images. Our basic strategy was to examine
text and other nonphotographic images in Playboy to understand what messages
they send regarding the construction of masculine and feminine identities.
Contrary to what might have been expected on the basis of prior analyses of
Playboy, we found extensive evidence that much of the content contradicted,
rather than reinforced, gender stereotypes. In Playboy, various forms of
tenderness are advocated for men, whereas women are presented as strong,
agentic, ambitious, and intelligent, traits typically more closely associated
with cultural representations of men. This unconventional view of Playboy
served as the basis for our analysis of contemporary tough Playmates.
Contemporary Tough Playmates
Playboy is a particularly intriguing context in which to consider the
presentation of the tough woman because, as ostensibly a men's magazine with a
rather simple and exploitative view of women and femininity, it represents an
unlikely source to explore the complexity of the construction of gender in the
media. At the same time, the potential importance of an understanding of
Playboy in contributing to a better understanding of gender cannot be
understated. As noted by John Shelton Reed in writing about Southern Culture,
"Playboy magazine has seldom been taken seriously as a cultural force in
American life. . . . Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Playboy provides
fodder for anyone who wants to understand the attitudes of Americans-or at
least those of many young American men" (92).
In our analysis of Playboy Playmates, we examined the centerfold, ancillary
pictures, and text of every Playmate in Playboy between 1985 and 2001. As such,
we considered material related to 204 Playmates. In evaluating such a broad
range of material, we were struck by several features. First, and not
surprisingly, Playmates are young and possess a physical appearance that meshes
well with conventional Western styles of beauty proselytized by both men's and
women's lifestyle, fashion, and glamour magazines. second, Playmates are not as
monolithic as critics of Playboy might suppose. Although most Playmates were in
their early twenties when they posed, a few were in their late twenties and
even early thirties. Several Playmates were married, and a number had children
(e.g., Kathy Shower, May 1985; Susie Owens, March 1988; Eloise Broady, April
1988; Stacy Arthur, January 1991; Vickie Smith, May 1992; Kimber West, February
1997; and Shanna Moaker, December 2001). Within the restriction that Playmates'
physical appearance mesh well with dominant Anglo-Western cultural
representations of feminine beauty, there was some variation in Playmates'
ethnicities. Although most were white, some were Asian or African American.
Not all Playmates might earn the moniker "tough," but the great majority had
attributes consistent with the identity of the tough women, as denned by
Inness. Only a handful of Playmates seemed to lack any attributes of toughness.
After exploring the characteristics of Playmates that could be considered
consistent with a tough image, we identify five Playmates who are exemplars of
different types of toughness.
Traits of Toughness
In her analysis of tough women and tough girls, Sherrie Inness identifies four
broad characteristics that contribute to the "new tough woman." These
characteristics are body, attitude, actions, and authority. In this section, we
examine these traits and explore the extent to which Playmates appear to
possess these traits.
In men, the body is the source of toughness in several ways. Tough men tend to
be physically strong. Tough men tend to have an imposing presence. Of course,
both physical strength and a strong presence are correlated with size. Tough
men tend to be taller and mote muscular than average men.
According to Inness, body "refers to how a woman presents a physical body that
signifies toughness" (24). Although Playmates do not possess a highly visible
musculature, they are most often presented as being quite physically fit.
Playmates also tend to be fairly tall, and a few Playmates are close to six
feet in height. In addition to having the advantages of youth, they maintain
their fitness through regular, sometimes intense, exercise. Very few Playmates
indicated that they did not engage in regular workouts (one exception was
Carrie Jean Yazel, May 1991).
Lisa Marie Scott (February 1995) said that weight lifting was "her favorite
daytime activity." Diana Lee (May 1988) was involved with track and gymnastics.
Kimberly Donley (March 1993) was shown fencing. Alesha Marie Oreskovich (June
1993) reported working out for an hour and half a day. Monique Noel (May 1989)
did 240 sit-ups each day. Jenny McCarthy (October 1993) was described as a
"born jock." Julie Clarke (March 1991) was described as "famously fit," in part
because of her "hundreds and hundreds of situps" each day.
A number of Playmates indicated an interest in the martial arts. Tonja
Christensen (November 1991) was pictured practicing karate. Karen Foster
(October 1989) studied karate for seven years, fought in tournaments against
boys, and never placed lower than third. She explained her success in terms of
"concentration-and a lot of knuckle push-ups." Jennifer Walcott (August 2001)
was pictured working out in a gi.
The body's physical markers of toughness involve muscles. Well-defined biceps,
a well-defined stomach, and broad shoulders all indicate physical toughness. To
serve as indicators of toughness, these muscles must be on display (i.e.,
visible to observers). But Inness points out that clothing, which by its nature
hides the body, "is an important element in the performance of toughness" (25).
She suggests that clothing with a masculine flavor can signify toughness.
Of course, the core concept of the Playmate involves an absence of clothing.
Very rarely do Playmates appear completely devoid of clothing, but what
garments do appear tend to be quite feminine in nature and reinforce
conventional images of women and women's sexuality. Playmates are often posed
in stockings, bras and panties, and sexy lingerie. Occasionally, Playmates are
presented in more practical clothing, but given their state of partial undress,
the clothing does little to reinforce toughness.
Although clothing cannot be viewed as an indicator of toughness with Playmates,
our examination of Playmates' centerfolds and centerfold texts did discern
other stylistic elements related to toughness. One way in which Playmates
incorporate signifiers of toughness into their identities involves a history of
being tomboys. At least fourteen Playmates had tomboy elements in their pasts.
For example, Suzi Simpson (January 1992) was described as "tomboy" tough when
she lived in Alaska at the age of 11. Tiffany Sloan (October 1992) was
described as "tall and strong for her age, she played tackle football with the
boys." She said, "I beat them up." Pia Reyes (November 1988) said, "I was a
jock-I never wore make-up until college." Kata Kârkkâinen (December 1988) was
an excellent bowler as a teenager, and when she moved to the United States from
Finland, she said, "They found me pretty wild ... I dressed punk . . . trounced
all the guys [at bowling]." As adults, Playmates continued to display tomboy
tendencies. Sharry Konopski (August 1987) "recently rebuilt her car's engine."
Peggy Mclntaggart (January 1990) restored her own 1959 Ford Fairlane. Cindy
Brown (May 1995) said, "I'm constantly looking for a way to do things that
women aren't supposed to do." Ava Fabian (August 1986), who was also a tomboy,
said, "I'm strong. I'm a survivor."
Another signifier of a tough style that Playmates displayed concerned
competitiveness. Alicia Rickter (Octobet 1995) described herself as "very
competitive." Nicole Wood (April 1993) revealed a stereotypically masculine
level of ambition when she said, "I'm real eager and ambitious, so whatever I
can get out of life, I'm going to get."
A second aspect of the modern tough woman concerns attitudes. Tough women, like
tough men, possess attitudes that involve a willingness to take on risks and
Little or No Fear
One important aspect of a tough woman's attitude concerns the experience of
fear. The tough woman, like the tough man, adheres to Shakespeare's dictum,
"Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death
but once" (62). In a variety of ways, Playmates display a high degree of
Playmates directly address their unwillingness to experience fear. Samantha
Torres (December 1995) explicitly said, "I'm not afraid of anything." Playboy
added that "some men are put off by her independence and stubborn streak." Lynn
Thomas (May 1997) said, "I have a daredevil side . . . I have to seek thrills."
She also said, "You should live through things rather than be afraid of them."
Fearlessness was also manifested in Playmates' willingness to seek adventure.
Laurie Carr (December 1986) said that she was "adventurous, even daring." She
continued, "I'm a person who is not afraid to accept responsibility for herself
and her future." Rhonda Adams (June 1995) possessed "restless" and
"adventurous" streaks. Sandy Greenberg's text (June 1987) cited empirical
evidence of her courage. She took a 12-day 3,600-mile trip through Canada and
the American Midwest on a motorcycle. Deborah Driggs (March 1990) described
herself as "daring." She said, "I'm outgoing, edgy-an explorer. There's not a
lot I haven't done, but if you have ideas, try me."
Another way that Playmates display a lack of fear is in their willingness to
confront authority. Carol Ficatier (December 1985) said, "I was in trouble in
school . . . the class clown, always." Anna Clark (April 1987) was "booted out
of three Catholic boatding schools."
Perhaps a lack of fear and an unwillingness to accept authority combine to
drive pre-Playmate women from their parents' homes. Tiffany Sloan (October
1992) left home when she was 15. Cristy Thorn (February 1991) dropped out of
high school at 15 and went to work for her boyfriend, who owned an auto parts
store. She said about being a teen, "I was a monster child" and a "wild child."
Alexandria Karlsen (March 1999) was on her own at 15. Natalia Sokolova (Aptil
1999) was on her own since 16. Donna Smith (March 1985) left home at the age of
14 and led a peripatetic existence, traveling in Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii, and
Japan. She supported herself at various times as a model and cocktail waitress
with a fake ID.
Competent and in Control
Another feature of the tough woman is the display of masculine traits of
competency and self-efficacy. A large number of Playmates are presented as
strong, agentic, and competent. At least ten Playmates were described as
independent. Heidi Mark (July 1995) was termed "fiercely independent." Tiffany
Taylor (November 1998) described herself as a "strong person because of what
[she] went through." Melissa Holliday (January 1995) said that she was
"hardheaded": "brought up to defend myself and stand up for what I believe."
Tiffany Sloan (October 1992) was described as a "veteran achiever of impossible
things." Rebecca Ferratti (June 1986) said, "I love to go for it and do it. . .
. I love bringing people up to my energy level."
Display Masculine Emotion-Anger
Another element of the contemporary tough woman is a willingness to display
typically masculine attributes, especially anger. One of the clearest examples
of Playmates glorying in traditionally masculine displays of emotion involved
Saskia Linssen (June 1991). She was called a "solitary, untamed spirit." In
addition, Playboy wrote, "with obvious relish, she tells the story of an
encounter with a rude German woman with whom she once fought over a parking
space. She stormed the woman's car, calling her a 'Deutschland uber Alles-er!'
We can probably rule out diplomacy from Saskia's career ambitions." In
addition, she says, "I can be very stubborn with men. I have my own ideas and I
won't shut up about them." Other Playmates displayed evidence of masculine
patterns of emotion. Tylyn John (March 1992) admitted to being "not very
patient." Angela Melini (June 1992) "can be really aggressive."
Another form of masculine emotion is the absence of emotion; that is,
especially in the romantic arena, Playmates, like the male stereotype, are
often "not into making any serious commitments," according to Ashley Alien
(August 1992). Priscilla Taylor (March 1996) said about getting married: "[it's
the] furthest thing from my mind." Like men, a large percentage of Playmates
are willing to put off marriage and children for the sake of a career or more
short-term hedonistic goals of pleasure seeking.
Tough women are action-oriented. Like the stereotypic characteristics of men,
tough women act in a manner that reflects rational, thoughtful analysis.
Although tough women can be contemplative, they take action when necessary.
Playmates are often described as being willing to take action as needed. One
clear instance of this characteristic is the way in which Kim Morris (March
1986) was described: "She's quiet, she observes, then she moves." And regarding
Cindy Brown (May 1995), "in another day and age, this extraordinary
girl-next-door might have been an outlaw or a revolutionary."
A final characteristic of tough women is the degree of authority that they seem
to possess. According to Richard Sennett, authority involves traits such as
assurance and superior judgment. Devin DeVasquez (June 1985) "exudes confidence
and poise" and had been living on her own since she was 16. She said that she
"never wanted to be taken care of." Hope Marie Carlton (July 1985) had
"self-assurance." Kelly Monaco (April 1997) worked as a lifeguard and talked
about having once did three saves in one day.
Our examination of Playboy centerfold texts presented abundant evidence that
Playmates possess many of the characteristics associated with the image of the
tough woman. The Playmates in our sample were physically fit, tended to be
tall, and had a number of attributes associated with tough men, such as
ambition and self-efficacy. Although we found some material that supported the
idea that Playmates
were action-oriented and possessed authority, the majority of material related
to Playmates' toughness seemed to involve physical elements and personality
Five (Especially) Tough Playmates
Most critical examinations of Playmates focus on their physical appearance and
the extent to which they seem to only reinforce stereotypic, patriarchal
conceptualizations of women. As we have noted elsewhere (Beggan and Allison,
"The Playboy Rabbit," "What Do Playboy"), a careful examination of the data
reveals that Playboy has consistently shown Playmates as possessing attributes
traditionally associated with stereotypes about masculinity. Playboy's,
willingness to include masculine attributes in the collective personality of
the Playmate provides the basis for the construction of the "tough Playmate."
As noted by Inness, one of the key features of the "tough woman" is that she
possesses character elements typically associated with men.
We have explored the characteristics of Playmates in terms of how they relate
to the concept of the tough woman. That a significant number of Playmates
possess attributes in common with toughness has led us to posit the existence
of the "tough Playmate." At the same time, we recognize that not all Playmates
possess the same set of "tough" attributes. As such, we have identified five
subtypes of tough Playmates. In this section, we would like to identify
Playmates who might serve as exemplars of five different flavors of toughness.
Donna Smith-Adventurous Playmate
Donna Smith was the Playmate in March 1985. Blonde and 5'7", she was presented
as possessing a rather wild pasr. The text states, "at the age of 14, she left
home; traveling in Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii and, finally, Japan, sometimes
working as a cocktail waitress with a fake ID; then going successfully into
modeling, getting married, getting divorced, moving to Los Angeles-which is
where we said, 'Whoaaa!'"
The centerfold text presented Donna Smith in a very positive manner: "It's best
to give Donna the benefit of any doubt. If you underestimate her, her attention
drifts." In addition, she was described as being able to handle herself "like a
PhD," and to have a "trigger-quick mind" that has been honed by "fending for
Donna Smith presented several elements that can be considered characteristic of
the tough woman. Of herself, she said, "I like being independent. . . . I
wouldn't have it any other way." She added, "I'm really easy to communicate
with, because I get right to the point." Playboy says about her, "Donna's
nothing if not candid. She finds the straight forward approach is best."
Rebekka Armstrong-Bad Girl Playmate
At 5'7'', with measurements of 34-23-32, Rebekka Armstrong (September 1986)
possessed a less curvaceous figure than stereotypes about Playmates might
suggest. She was the "quintessential tomboy" whose "favorite mode of dress was
combat boots, T-shirts and Levi's." Of herself, she said, "I used to beat up
the boys at school. . . . I even broke a kid's finger once." She had a penchant
for masculine pastimes and started motocross racing at nine. By twelve, she was
so good that officials would not let her compete against girls. She said that
she started chewing tobacco at ten and quit at fifteen. She sleeps with a
loaded deer rifle nearby. Recently, she had taken up drag racing. She
attributed her interest in masculine activities to the influence of her mother.
She said, "I take after my mom. . . . She's had some pretty masculine jobs . .
. ironworker, construction, welding, roofing."
Morgan Fox-Athletic Playmate
At nearly six feet tall, Morgan Fox (December 1990) was presented as an
extremely athletic woman, with interests in masculine sports. She worked out
every day. In addition to skiing, she was experienced in the rodeo. She cited
steer roping and barrel racing as her events. There was a picture of her
"snake-wrangling in Mexico." Of herself, she said, "I like to push myself to
the limit . . . just to see what I can do."
Tylyn John-Macho Playmate
Her March 1992 centerfold text opened with "a Harley Sportster 883 going west
like a bat out of Hollywood, ridden by the finest redhead you've ever seen, a
blur in black boots, a low-cut shirt and a cloud of exhaust." She was described
as "still free to aim her bike wherever she wants to go, she is as uncommon as
Angela Little-Outsider Playmate
Another theme in Playmates' profiles could be termed the "outsider." Just over
5'2" tall, Angela Little (August 1998) said, "I was an outcast. I couldn't wait
to bolt out of town." She was from a small town in the South where "there
wasn't enough to occupy my mind. People were into church and football. The
girls got married right out of high school."
Playboy's main claim to fame was the way it popularized a new, more risqué
version of the pinup girl. What distinguished the Playboy centerfold from other
"cheesecake" images of women (Meyerowitz) was the personal background
information that Playboy provided about Playmates. The most unique quality of
this personalizing material was the extent to which it challenged conventional,
stereotypic representations of women.
It might be argued that the nudity and individuating information work at
cross-purposes. What is the relationship between nudity and toughness on the
net impression that it creates of Playmates? Does the nudity undercut the
images of toughness? That even a tough woman can still be made to strip for a
camera may merely reinforce her domination by male patriarchy. Or does the
combination of nudity and toughness make Playmates even tougher? If a strong,
confident woman is willing to pose nude (and stand up to a potential backlash),
then she must be very tough indeed. The seeming contradiction of the tough
Playmate may rewrite the concept of male patriarchy.
Jennifer Lavoie's August 1993 layout characterizes the mixed messages that
connect masculinity to sexuality in Playmates' presentations. One picture shows
Jennifer standing in a stream, fishing. But the clear masculine overtones are
contradicted by the fact that she wears a tiny white bikini bottom. The bottom
half of her left breast is visible. The thigh-high fisherman's wading boots are
eroticized by her seminudity and bear a resemblance to nylon stockings. Her
comment, "I don't take them off the hook-that's a man's job," only serves to
reinforce gender differences. Within the male domain of fishing, her appearance
is both feminized and sexualized. The same pictorial quotes her as saying, "I
don't need a man in my life. I can be my own person." Does this stereotypically
feminine sentiment contradict the masculine image or merely broaden it?
Exploited or Exploiting
The net toughness of Playmates lies in their ability to assert dominance even
in a context (nude images) that would appear geared toward reducing their
potency. We tend to view the combination of nudity and toughness in terms of an
augmentation principle (Kelley). That Playmates are presented as dominant, even
in a space that would appear to rob them of their dominance, can be viewed as a
testimony of women's abilities to be agentic and self-determining even in
situations that might at first appear fraught with the reinforcement of
stereotypes. At the very least, our position echoes the sentiment presented by
Inness: "the containment of women's toughness is never absolute ... it matters
little how the popular media reduce the transgressive nature of tough women . .
. such figures still offer visions of female power and independence that help
to challenge the gender status quo" (179). In relation to our arguments about
Playboy, Inness's sentiment suggests that, although Playboy is less than
perfect in its representation of the tough woman, it fares better than other
media-even media geared toward women, such as women's fashion magazines. In its
depiction of the Playmate, Playboy can be seen as asserting an image of the
tough woman in the most unlikely of places.
The debate over whether Playmates are agentic individuals or exploited sex
workers mirrors debate that has taken place regarding the Playboy Bunny. The
Playboy clubs, which opened in I960, featured cocktail waitresses dressed in
the uniform of the Playboy Bunny. The Playboy Bunny costume, an American
classic that is part of the Smithsonian collection, is essentially a one-piece
strapless satin bathing suit, cut high on the hip and accessorized with a bow
tie and French cuffs. Gloria Steinem worked as a Playboy Bunny and wrote a
two-part article about her experiences, originally published in Show in May and
June 1963 and more recently published in Outrageous Acts and Everyday
Rebellions. Titled "A Bunny's Tale," the story presented the clubs, Playboy,
and the concept of a Playboy Bunny in a very negative light and was
instrumental in establishing Gloria Steinem as a feminist writer with clout.
In her book The Bunny Years, ex-Bunny Kathryn Leigh Scott presented an
alternative interpretation of being a Playboy Bunny as a "deliciously
empowering" (6) experience: "Now, suddenly, there was this opportunity for many
of us to earn more money than our fathers, in what was essentially an interim
job, while exploring a range of options that would otherwise have been beyond
our financial means" (3). Scott positioned this opportunity against the
backdrop of the preThe Feminine Mystique world for women. "But the social
revolution that engulfed the 1960s had yet to trickle down to women . . . what
was waiting in the real world was in reality not terribly different from what
their mothers had faced" (2-3).
Scott suggested that in Steinem's article, "The characterization of Bunnies as
naïve, hapless victims who spent all their time complaining was not only
cliched and predictable, but also insultingly inaccurate" (5). In contrast,
Scott conceptualized being a Bunny as "though we were perhaps only vaguely
aware of it on a conscious level, we were part of the novelty and publicity of
a revolutionary sexual change in post World War II society. But far more
important than any such highfalutin concepts was the almost giddy realization
that we had scored an unparalleled opportunity to earn great sums of money for
what amounted to very basic waitressing work" (6).
According to Scott, "thanks in part to Gloria Steinem's 'women-asvictim' mode,
Bunnies are . . . forever young and dumb, the archetypical female sexual
objects forced into positions of servitude toward men. My point of view: We
willingly exploited our sexuality . . . intelligence, wit, upper arm strength,
youthful exuberance and full range of survival instincts. We saw an opportunity
and grabbed it" (275).
Scott's analysis of the Playboy Bunny serves as a counterpoint to Steinem's and
informs our interpretation of the toughness of the Playboy Playmate. In our
prior interpretation of Playmates' collective identities (Beggan and Allison,
"The Playboy Playmate Paradox") as presented in the centerfold text, we tried
to consciously distinguish between their sexuality and their morality. By
presenting Playmates as "nice girls" who just happened to be comfortable enough
with their bodies and sexuality to pose nude, Playboy reconceptualized the
meaning of posing nude as a healthy and agentic action. In the present article,
by approaching nudity as a possible means to enhance a woman's toughness, we
have argued in support of a view that orthogonalizes women and women's
sexuality in a manner that contradicts the Madonna-whore dichotomy that seems
to govern societal views of women.
According to some feminists (e.g., Cathryn Bailey; Barbara Findlen; Leslie
Heywood and Jennifer Drake; Rebecca Walker), feminism has entered a third wave,
where women's sexuality has become reconceptualized as a means to hedonistic
satisfaction and self-expression rather than as a form of patriarchal
oppression. From this recent but evolving petspective, women who choose to
capitalize on their own sexuality should not necessarily be automatically
classified as possessing victim status (Chapkis; McElroy). In fact, the debate
between women's exploitation and agency in the context of sexually explicit
material has been recognized by feminists as potentially distracting from core
issues. For example, Meyerowitz wrote, "On one side, antipornography feminists
protest the subordination of women in pornography constructed by and for men.
On the other side, anticensorship feminists defend freedom of speech and insist
that sexual images might promise sexual pleasure to women as well as men . . .
a long-standing ideological rift continues . . . to haunt the American women's
movement" (26). Likewise, Jane Juffer writes, "In the two decades of debates
around pornography since second-wave feminism raised it as a primary concern,
we remain mired in a fruitless back and forth about the status of women in
relation to the genre: hapless victims or transgressive agents? The question is
no longer a useful one, if indeed it ever was" (2).
Playboy as Change Agent
We have wrestled with the question of whether the "tough Playmate" should be
viewed as a challenge, from an unlikely source, to conventional definitions of
femininity, or as a convoluted means of reinforcing male patriarchy at the
expense of nontraditional feminine identities. In her initial analysis of the
"tough girl," Inness also addressed this conundrum: "the toughness of even the
toughest women is limited, confined, reduced, and regulated in a number of
ways. In some cases, the femininity . . . of a tough woman is emphasized. . . .
In other cases, the sexuality of a tough woman is stressed. In a society where
a woman's sexuality is often associated with her subordination, this emphasis
reduces the threat of her toughness" (178-79).
Inness indicates that regulation of the tough girl took place in women's
fashion magazines, which "perpetuate the notion that toughness in women is
sexy, which assures the audience that women are not abandoning their
traditional roles as sex objects for men just because they are tough" (51). As
a result, women's magazines "often use [tough images of women] to affirm the
desirability of femininity for women and to help maintain traditional gender
divisions between men and women" (53). In contrast to this representation of
tough women in women's magazines, Playboy takes an alternative route. Instead
of undermining the representation of toughness by embedding even tough women in
a feminine context, Playboy undermined the representation of stereotypic
femininity by associating it with tough attributes. What is striking about the
results of our analysis of Playboy is that the inclusion of tough Playmates
helped dispel gender divisions between men and women. Thus, our work
illuminates an amusing paradox. It is in the pages of the penultimate men's
magazine that one can view images of tough women that are tougher than the
images of tough women in women's magazines. In the centerfold texts, we see
images that affirm the desirability of women by contradicting gender divisions
between men and women.
For cultural representations of women to develop and accept the tough woman
subtype, it is necessary that this different definition of femininity be
accommodated by two groups. The first group, of course, is the women who will
potentially occupy the tough niche. The second group, however, is men. Because
men and masculinity as a cultural character dominate society, the ability of
women to advance a tough image will depend, at least in part, on the
willingness of men to accept alternative representations of femininity.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, Playboy magazine represents a unique
means of socializing within the collective psyche of men, a new definition of
femininity that includes, as a subtype, the tough woman. Playboy is an
especially effective change agent because it appears embedded in an ideology
consistent with dominant male patriarchy. As such, it is seen as representing
the interests of men. Thus, when Playboy presents images of Playmates with
tough elements, it encourages men to assimilate nontraditional images of women.
In this fashion, then, Playboy acts as an effective means of altering
stereotypes about women.
Inness suggested that "tough women challenge the assumption that toughness is
an attribute associated with men" (179). In the present article, we have
identified a novel spin on the concept of the tough woman. The tough Playmate
challenges the assumption that toughness in a woman cannot coexist with
seductive sexuality. In the present article, we asserted what might by viewed
by many as a surprising and counterintuitive notion. We suggested that the
Playboy Playmate, the seeming poster girl/woman/person for the exploitation of
women, can be recast as an instantiation of a tough woman. Playboy's efforts to
popularize the image of the Playmate as a tough woman creates a multilayered
The Playboy Puzzle
Playboy'?, efforts to popularize, even in a limited form, an image of the tough
woman suggest that Playboy, the alleged manual for sexism, may in fact be more
multilayered than critics have previously allowed. Playboy's centerfold text
represents a complex space for the discussion of gender.
The first layer of the puzzle concerns the main topic of discourse in the
magazine. Playboy is a men's magazine, but one of the central topics is women.
Thus, in Playboy, men receive messages about women and women's personalities.
Examples of idealized femininity (i.e., Playmates), however, are complex
because they often contain messages that contradict conventional femininity. In
her analysis of women's magazines, Inness notes that women's magazines have an
implicit but unstated alliance with the producers of feminine artifacts (i.e.,
makeup, clothing). The magazine touts the products produced for women. In
exchange, through ad dollars, the magazine receives payment from the products'
producers. In contrast, in Playboy, because the primary reader is male, there
is no alliance between it and women's products. Hence, the magazine is free to
present images of women that contradict the dictums of the "cult of femininity"
The second layer of the puzzle involves the relationship between the tough
woman image and Playboy's own media identity. Because it valorizes sexualized
images of a narrow definition of femininity, Playboy at first appears to be a
space that would suppress the tough woman. Playmates are thought to reify a
form of femininity that invokes images of sexual exploitation. Their nudity and
sexually provocative posing make them appear willing collaborators in their own
sexualization and exploitation. Yet the centerfold texts make an effort to
present Playmates as competent, in control, physically adventurous, and strong.
As such, Playboy Playmates can be conceptualized as a fountain of tough images
for women. The presence of these tough images undermine the argument that
Playboy is a monolith of women's sexual exploitation. As we have argued
elsewhere, it appears that Playboy challenges the gender roles that it appears,
at first blush, to reinscribe. One possible limitation of our work is that we
cannot assess whether the profiles of Playmates are "true"-that is, reasonably
accurate reporting or pure fiction. To a large extent, for our purposes, this
distinction is irrelevant. Regardless of their accuracy, the profiles do exist
in the magazine. To some extent, if they are fabrications, they become even
more interesting documents. Why would Playboy go to such extremes as creating
images of toughness that are not even reflected in truth?
Most readers of Playboy are adult males. At such, it might be expected that the
images of tough women in Playboy would alienate, rather than pique the
interests of, most readers. The third puzzle is why Playboy would invest in an
image of collective femininity that might possibly drive away readers. The
obvious answer is that men do, in fact, find images of tough women alluring.
This notion permits us to speculate about a concept that, as far as we are
aware, has never been considered. We propose the existence of patriarchal
feminism-that is, that men may encourage women to adopt attitudes, beliefs, and
behaviors consistent with feminist ideologies because they (men) are in fact
attracted to women with these characteristics. This assertion causes us to
question the meaning of the word playmate. Critics of Playboy (e.g., Cox) tend
to assume that the emphasis belongs on the wordplay, and suggest that the term
derogates women because it implies that women can and should exist to be the
playthings of men. We prefer to put the emphasis on the term mate, and suggest
that the Playmate represents a companion for men. According to this
interpretation, men would like to have a romantic interest with a woman with
whom they could share their own interests. As such, the real message of Playboy
may be for the creation of tough women and tender men who together form the
basis for a depolarized view of gender in our society.
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______. "What Do Playboy Playmates Want? Implications of Expressed Preferences
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______. "The Playboy Playmate Paradox: The case against the Objectification of
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Scott Allison is the MacEldin Trawick Professor of Psychology and chair of the
Psychology Department at the University of Richmond. He received his PhD in
social psychology at the University of California -Santa Barbara in 1987. Dr.
Allison's research and teaching interests include social cognition,
decision-making, and media biases.
James Beggan received his PhD in psychology in 1989 from the University of
California -Santa Barbara. He is currently an associate professor of sociology
at the University of Louisville. His research interests involve the
representation of gender in the media, with a special interest in better
understanding how mass media can be used to contradict and reinforce
stereotypes. He has published critical analyses of Playboy magazine and the
pornographic films of Candida Royalle.
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