[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 
Playboy Playmate
Beggan, James K; Allison, Scott T
Journal of Popular Culture 38, no. 5 (Aug 2005): p. 796-818
ISSN: 0022-3840 Number: 872194991

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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 
Playboy Playmates?

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 
confront authorities.

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 
her name."

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.

Works Cited

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Bailey, Cathryn. "Making Waves and Drawing Lines: The Politics of Defining the 
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Beggan, James K., and Scott T. Allison. "The Playboy Rabbit is Soft, Furry, and 
Cute: Is This Really the Symbol of Masculine Dominance of'Women?" Journal of 
Men's Studies 9 (2001): 341-70.

______. "What Do Playboy Playmates Want? Implications of Expressed Preferences 
in the Construction of the 'Unfinished' Masculine Identity." Journal of Men's 
Studies 10 (2001): 1-38.

______. "The Playboy Playmate Paradox: The case against the Objectification of 
Women." Gendered Sexualities. Ed. Patricia Gagne and Richard Tewksbury. Vol. 6. 
London: Elsevier Sciences, 2002.

Beggan, James K., Patricia Gagné, and Scott T. Allison. "An Analysis 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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