Just last week she was slammed for being too sexy for “The Daily Show,” but now Olivia Munn is generating sympathy from some feminists. That’s because, as Amanda Hess reports today on The Sexist, her memoir reveals that she felt pressured into posing topless for Playboy. Based on Munn’s account in “Suck It, Wonder Woman!: The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek,” Hess writes that “Playboy’s photographer, stylist, and team of handlers staged a day-long attempt to coerce Munn into taking it all off.” It happened, as Hess sees it, in eight stages: Control, denial, social pressure, appeal to her sense of trust, “accidental” exposure, downplaying her concerns, silencing, anger, condescension and abandonment.
The short of it is that Munn rejected Playboy’s first request to have her pose naked on the cover of the magazine, but accepted when a chance to pose clothed was offered. She signed, as Hess puts it, “a comprehensive contract specifying which specific areas of Munn were on-limits and off for the photographer — side boob and underboob, yes; nipple, butt crack and vagina no.” But when she arrived for the photo shoot, everything seemed suddenly up for negotiation.
The stylist offers up “nothing like we discussed,” including “a black, fishnet, one-piece bathing suit where you can see everything going on,” Munn writes. “Here we are, contracts decided, conversations spanning weeks about this day, and everyone has a different agenda.” She tries to explain the contract, and that she wants a non-nude shoot, but the stylist is unrelenting. The photographer promises to “Photoshop everything out.” She writes:
He wants me to pose nude, while strategically placing my arms and legs; my publicist of course doesn’t. He wants to do a shower scene nude with strategically placed bubbles and steam on the glass; my publicist of course doesn’t. It’s exhausting. All the while I’m trying to pose flirty, fun, summery with about five dudes — strangers working the set — watching my every move. One of the shots has me without a top and my long, thick hair covering my breasts. The whole time I’m worried about the wind blowing, exposing a nipple, the filthy five and the photographer snapping away because that’s the shot he wants.
The stylist ultimately throws a temper tantrum, a scene Munn uses for laughs by leaning hard on his Scandinavian accent: “This is not all about Olivia okay? It iz about me, too! I have my own motivations with this shoot and I’m going to get what I want out of it! Zis iz Playboy!!! She haz to be naked!” He eventually storms out of the shoot in what Hess dramatically refers to as the final stage of coercion: “abandonment.”
I haven’t seen Munn’s contract, so it’s impossible to say for certain, but the published photos don’t deviate from the agreed upon terms that Hess outlines: “side boob and underboob” OK, “nipple, butt crack and vagina” not OK. Maybe that is beside the point, as it’s clear that Munn felt uncomfortable during the shoot and incapable of making a fuss: She writes that she was “afraid to speak up and yell at everyone because it would ruin the shoot” and says that when it was all over, “I wanted to break down crying.” There is no question the atmosphere on the shoot sounds awful; there is also very little that registers as surprising about that.
I realize this is treacherous territory. It’s all too easy to fall into the “she asked for it” argument — you know, the one where Munn is treated as one of those women, the kind who trade in their sexuality and therefore deserve to be disrespected and abused. The rationale on this disturbing extreme of the spectrum is: Don’t want to be exploited? Don’t pose for Playboy. On the other extreme, there is the “she was coerced” argument, which instead paints her as powerless and undermines Munn’s personal agency. Certainly she was pressured, but “coercion” implies something different, something barely short of “force” — and that is hardly fair in this case. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in-between, where Munn neither “asked for it” nor found herself a helpless victim.