A critique of the social and political importance of Playboy’s latest Equality Issue.
Last month, Playboy Magazine released its Equality Issue: ‘Once a Playmate, always a Playmate’. The Issue was photographed by the artistic genius Nadia Lee Cohen. Over the years almost 800 women have been awarded the title of ‘Playmate’. Only five were selected to be featured.
This included: Victoria Valentino (77 years old), Candace Collins (65 years old), Renee Tenison (51 years), Brande Roderick (45 years) and Rachel Pomplun (32 years old).
Initially, I was interested in the piece, as I am a big fan of Cohen’s photography. As a publication, I am not an advocate for Playboy magazine. I find it outdated and misogynistic. However, as I began to read more about the ethos behind the issue, I found myself considering the social and political implications of it.
As Jamilah Lemieux reports, the issue aims to promote the message that “all bodies are worthy of public reverence”. Such a view aligns with my own and so I took it on myself to look further into Playboy’s new project.
In this post, I will be engaging with academic Feminist Theory, which is outlined in Toni Calasanti’s Ageism and Feminism: From “Et Cetera” to Center (2006). I will use some of the core theories that it covers to illustrate the importance of the Equality Issue. I will also use this text to highlight the potential problems with such an issue from an academic Feminist perspective.
Ageism as a social problem
Since Marilyn Monroe’s first Playboy appearance as ‘Sweetheart of the Month’ in 1953, how the world thinks about female nudity has drastically evolved. Lemieux points towards the social construction of ‘sex positivity’, whereby many young women are leaning towards thinking of bodily autonomy to mean “having the right to enjoy and participate in what was once written off as objectification”. However, such a form of female empowerment often excludes older women.
Instead, within society there exists an inevitable view that old women’s bodies are unattractive. Naturally, there are exceptions. However, it is common to find that those older women who are considered ‘attractive’, have managed to maintain a ‘youthful’ look or look younger than they are.
Laws (1995) highlights that ‘cultural imperialism’ allows for old people to be subject to neglect and mistreatment both economically and socially. This can be exemplified by the “emphasis on youth and vitality that undermines the positive contributions of older people”.
Often age is perceived as a social contagion (Slevin 2006), which older people avoid by investing money and time into themselves to look younger. Alternatively, they may choose to continue to socialise with a younger crowd or date younger people to escape the reality that they are ageing.
As Ruddick (1999) explains, “successful ageing assumes a “feminine” aspect in the ideal that the good, elderly woman be healthy, slim, discreetly sexy, and independent”. Those who choose not to engage in methods of youth preservation are often thought of as lazy or ‘letting themselves go’. There is a heavy emphasis on personal failure when one fails to do so. Society makes women feel both fearful and guilty for allowing the failure to occur. Such rhetorics are aimed predominantly towards women after having children.
The beauty industry is a prime example of where older people are subject to such cultural imperialism. For women especially, the beauty market’s emphasis on maintaining youth with expensive wrinkle creams, serums, etc. demonstrates how older women or ageing women are subject to economic manipulation. So much money can be made through the insecurities of ageing or older women. These insecurities are manifested through cultural imperialism.
All in all, it is sufficient to say that there is little positivity within our social constructions concerning old age.
Ageism as an academic problem
Too often the focus on the theme of ‘Ageing Bodies’ applies only to young women and those transitioning into their middle-aged years. Cheryl Laz (2003) affirms that despite the extensive work feminist scholars have paid to ageing bodies, the discussion of old bodies is ‘sorely lacking’. This is because women of the ‘Fourth Age’; post-middle-aged, are commonly disregarded completely. Such exclusion in the discussion leads to these women’s political and social empowerment being stumped.
In Barbara Brook’s ‘Feminist Perspectives on the Body’ (1999), she draws attention to what she deems as ‘neglect’ of women’s bodies once they have reached menopause. She upholds that once women have started this biological change they are often paid no attention in the feminist discussion of women’s ‘Ageing Bodies’. This is problematic as women do not cease to be women once they begin menopause.
Toni Calasanti, Kathleen F. Slevin and Neal King (2006) contend with Brook that one of the biggest issues with many feminists is that they often treat age-based oppression as “a given – an et cetera as if to indicate that we already know what it is”. Instead, the majority of feminists lend most of their attention to the ‘ageing’ rather than the old. Such common practice within feminist studies is far too reductionist and has big consequences socially and academically.
According to the NHS, in the UK the average age of menopause onset is 51. For the sake of this post, we will think of middle-aged women to be between 45 and 65 years old. Therefore, this implies that on average, the majority of middle-aged women are also neglected from feminist discourse.
Accordingly, this means that there are two fundamental groups of women, who are commonly overlooked in feminist studies. Those belonging to both the Middle Age and the Fourth Age. In response, Calasanti, Slevin, and King (2006) reinforce the message that “age categories have real consequences, and bodies – old bodies – matter”.
Exclusion of older women in academia inhibits old age to be regarded and used effectively as a political location. In turn, this manifests as a loss of authority or autonomy for many older women. Politicians lend their attention to younger women through the pressure created via feminist studies, often forgetting about older women altogether. The scholarship of Feminism tends to suffer too.
How the Equality Issue tackles these problems
Applying this social and academic neglect to the Playboy Equality Issue, it can be argued that the Issue is actively engaging in standing up to both problems.
In terms of the social problem, the Issue unapologetically takes a stand against the social construction that older women’s bodies are unattractive. Displaying older women’s naked bodies is undeniably a form of protest.
Along with protest, it is also an attempt to transform this social mentality. The words of 65-year-old ex-playmate Candace Collins Jordan seem to echo those of Calasanti, Slevin, and King. Her motivations to be involved in such an issue are mainly “to show women that beauty and sexuality have no limits.” On the basis of this, the Issue is much more conceptual than just nude photography
Exposure is one way in which fears or dislikes can be reduced. This publication is a start at normalising older women’s naked bodies. Over time such a publication may help to change the mass opinion, especially if other similar magazines take this Playboy Issue as an inspiration.
Secondly, most featured Playmates are usually between 20-30 years old. Hence, allowing older women to take centre stage creates a platform within the media where other older women feel represented and respected. The loss of power, which many older women experience through ageing is regained in this Issue by putting them in an esteemed position.
Whether the majority of the public dislikes the publication or not, for Playboy to choose to celebrate these older women is a big enough statement. Playboy is standing up for older women and asserting their position on the issue.
Taking a closer look at the women involved in the Issue and the communities they represent, Victoria Valentino (77 years old) and Candace Collins (65 years old) both fall under the Fourth Age group. As for Renee Tenison (51 years old), there is be a strong possibility that she has or is experiencing menopause. Therefore, we could assume that she falls under the category of neglected women which Brook discusses in her book ‘Feminist Perspectives on the Body’ (1999).
Based on this, more than half of the women included in the Issue are figureheads of two groups commonly overlooked in academic Feminist studies. In terms of tackling the academic exclusion of older women, although the Issue does not directly engage with such Feminist scholars, it does bring the attention of them to older women and their bodies.
A change from a publication as internationally notorious as Playboy has and will continue to draw a lot of attention to the issue of representation of older women. Such media attention opens the topic up to public debate. In turn, public debate will place pressure upon Feminist scholars to reconsider their focus.
Moreover, if we are to take the arguments of Brook and Laz into account, that Feminist attention to the bodies of women past menopause is sorely lacking. Although Playboy is far from a Feminist academic institution and has no direct influence over it. Using its public platform to broadcast the voices and images of women from two academically neglected categories, gives them a chance to be heard elsewhere. In this way, old age is rebuilt as a political location, which counteracts the problem of ageism in the academic Feminist field.
Issues with the Equality Issue
Despite the Equality Issue having strong symbolic importance, naturally due to the nature of the publication there are inevitable issues.
Within Feminist Theory, the ‘Male Gaze’ denotes the depiction of women in the world through a masculine and heterosexual perspective. Often women are presented through this gaze as passive, sexual objects, which men are welcomed to look at.
Firstly, it is important to note that just because Playboy has released an Equality Issue, it does not mean that we should rush to glorifying the magazine. In terms of ethics, the damage which such a publication has created in terms of perpetuating the issue of the ‘Male Gaze’ is not reversed from one equality-based Issue. Whether these women are older or not, it still presents them through the lens of the ‘Male Gaze’, which remains sexist and outdated.
The fundamental problem is that those women who are representatives of the Middle and Fourth Age communities in the Equality Issue are also subject to what Julia Twigg (2004) describes as the ‘Gaze of Youth’. Akin to the Male Gaze, it restricts an older woman’s attractiveness to how youthful she appears. When we begin to judge the attractiveness of a woman based on such factors, Twigg argues that this is a form of inequality. Therefore, in some ways, this Issue is continuing the cycle of inequality.
Betty Frieden (1993) also points out that although “reporting on women who have aged “successfully” might help negate ageist stereotypes of old women as useless or unhappy”. It remains problematic in that it reinforces these middle-aged standards. Therefore, it is inherently ageist. Playboy’s Equality Issue is celebrating how youthful and feminine these women still look, despite their age. There is a very strong emphasis on the ‘despite’ part.
The consequences of such an Issue, which features women who have been involved in cosmetic procedures also acts as a promotion for engagement in these toxic beauty markets. As discussed earlier, these beauty markets profit from the insecurities of women, which are brought on by existing negative societal preconceptions about older women. Although this Issue strives to promote equality, instead it perpetuates the cycle of inequality.
Nonetheless, on the positive it is important to highlight that this Issue brings the question and problem of Ageism to the table. It has and will continue to create a platform for such political and social issues to be discussed further. Let’s see if this will be just another marketing stunt by Playboy or if they are truly committed to promoting equality.