Next month, as it has every autumn for the past 21 years, Playboy
magazine will do its own unique version of "back to school" by publishing
its annual College Girls issue.
No doubt we'll be introduced to Amanda (majoring in business),
cavorting in all her taut, pneumatic glory on some dorm bed, bedecked with
the pennants of whatever athletic conference ("Girls of the Big
East," "Girls of the Big Ten") has been chosen for this year's
theme. A pig-tailed, 20-year-old Kristie will saucily jut her
bottom at the camera and astonish readers with her plans to become a
I confess to having reserved a special place in my heart for the
Playboy College Girls issue ever since I first came across one as a
sixth-grader doing the obligatory illicit reading of my uncle's Playboys.
Although unlike the droves of frat boys who feast their eyes every year,
my own continuing fascination has less to do with the charms of the, er,
"co-eds" than with the curious dialogue the College Girls issue has had with
campus feminism over the years.
Ever since Gloria Steinem donned her bunny ears and then bit the
hand that felt her by doing an exposé of the loutish goings-on in Playboy
clubs, feminism and Playboy has been one of the great arch-enemy
pairings in American culture. Steinem aside, though, much of what has
fueled the Playboy-feminist stand-off has come from Playboy's
annual ventures onto campus, where, for many years, the bastion of American
"guyness" was guaranteed to be barraged by several hundred young women
chanting things like "Raise our salaries, not our skirts."
Looking back at two decades of Playboy and campus feminism, it's
worth taking a few moments to appreciate why, despite their notorious
enmity, Playboy and feminists actually did quite a lot for each other, and
why, in the 1990s, those early campus feminists might finally be able to
claim a victory.
In what surely has to be one of the more extraordinary pieces of
serendipity in media history, a nexus of sociological, cultural and
economic factors combined to give Playboy magazine a highly profitable
franchise. The flood of young, middle-class women into universities in the
1960s and '70s presented an unprecedented opportunity for a magazine that
had built its fame on publishing nude photos of the girl next door. The
so-called sexual revolution meant it was easier than ever to get these
women to take their clothes off.
In 1977, Playboy made its first foray into the ivory tower. Their
glee at finding such a cornucopia could hardly be contained. "Gophers,
badgers, wildcats, wolverines," went the headline, listing all the
various team nicknames in the Big Ten, "put them all together, they
spell ... women!"
Of course, that same opening up of educational opportunities meant
there were also a fair number of young women who, flushed with a newly
found feminism, were only too delighted to further their liberation by
picking up picket signs and chanting slogans.
At first glance, it might seem that these burgeoning young
feminists would amount to a fly in Playboy's beer keg. Au contraire.
Playboy so adored its protesters, it devoted the entire text of the
first few College Girls issues to detailing (and refuting) feminist
Inadvertently, the campus feminists of the 1970s gave Playboy
exactly what it was in dire need of -- an enemy. In the '60s, Playboy had
had great success selling its readers the image of the hip, edgy, happening
guy who grooved in his lounge suit with a group of adoring women and broke
with the obedient, fuddy-duddy family man of the past. Throughout its
history, the worst insult you could toss at Playboy wasn't "pervert," it was
"passé." And by 1977, when premarital sex was becoming the norm and hippie
chicks could be found dancing naked at every rock concert, the legendary
"Playboy man" was in serious danger of becoming just that -- a pathetic
caricature, in the words of pop-culture historians Jan and Michael Stein,
of a slime in a cheap suit, proffering syrupy cocktails to a
fast-diminishing covey of babes.
For their part, the young feminists didn't make out so badly either. After all, Playboy's raunchily offensive and ignorant interpretation of masculinity made it an easy target. It presented a rallying point around which young women could try their lungs and their newfound civil disobedience tactics.
But that was then, and this is now. Sadly for Playboy, those
ralliers of 1977 left the sheltered environs of the campus and went on to
discover that the world outside, with its hard-core porno films and its third world
child prostitution, was so downright nasty it made Playboy seem almost
harmless, like the dirty old man at a party who pinches your ass and runs
In 1998, as for much of the past 10 years, Playboy's visits to
campus and the publication of its College Girls issue will pass with nary
a picket sign or slogan from the feminist camp.
The disappointment is palpable on Playboy's pages. The College Girls
issue of 1997 is but a shadow of its cocky predecessors. Gone are the
swaggering boasts ("Veritas came to Harvard last November 29 in the person
of [Playboy photographer] David Chan"), replaced by rather dull profiles of
the, let's face it, rather dull young women pictured: "Wisconsin senior
Jessica Monroe enjoys flowers, dancing, and thunderstorms." The magazine
that once casually remarked on the 200 "co-eds" who showed up for one
campus audition now finds reason for triumphant crowing when the audition
line breaks 100.
The fact that the triumph was unwitting makes it no less profound.
This fall, campus feminists should take a moment to pause and reflect that
we've managed to deal Playboy a far worse blow than any protest could ever
launch -- we've ignored it.