Playing with fire

The spread of Playboy merchandise is an attempt to normalise a brand that encourages the oppression and degradation of women
Wed 9 Jan 2008 10.00 GMT

It was while doing some last-minute Christmas shopping that I was most recently reminded of the banality of the brand. I was in Covent Garden, seeking inspiration from what I had remembered as a fairly original gadgetry store, but was in the process of being let down as I approached the shop front. One half of the display featured a tiresomely lacklustre range of what no one would want, while the other half had apparently been infested by a plague of Playboy bunnies.

Nevertheless, I entered the shop – and had my original suspicions confirmed. Immediately tired of pointless plastic planes and novelty mugs, it was the Playboy merchandise that quickly drew my attention. Not because it was in the slightest bit beguiling – the moronic symbol blandly printed on all sorts of undesirable objects attempted to scream, “look at me, I’m ever so risque,” but croaked instead the rather un-catchy mantra, “I do have a personality, honest. Look! A bunny. It means I like sex and sexy things … like bunnies.” Here was a range of Playboy shot glasses – for the timid student who needs to get drunk to make friends. There, a Playboy bedside lamp for awkward, dimly-lit fumblings. And look, a T-shirt with that bunny head again. Tell the world you’re sexy by wearing a T-shirt! Isn’t life fun!


Intrigued by the increasing normalisation of what is, after all, an enterprise that deals primarily in explicit pornography, I Googled the clothing label and discovered that they have their European flagship store on London’s very own Oxford Street. I know this is old news, but having been out of the country when it opened, that momentous event unfortunately passed me by. It seems that Playboy has used the fortune it has earned from putting cameras between women’s legs to transform itself into just another clothing label – sitting happily among H&M and Topshop. Indeed, so banal and everyday has the brand now become, that while shopping for trainers in Wood Green, north London today, I spotted a pair of fluffy pink slippers sitting idly alongside the children’s shoes in a leading sports shop. What a happy day for the pornographers, when their vapid offerings are considered so inoffensive that even children can be encouraged to want a pair.

Unfortunately, though, while the merchandise itself might be vapid and banal, the message it delivers is anything but. Having built an empire on the objectification of women, the promotion of female sexual subservience to men, the reduction of women to animal playthings, as well as on the standardisation of aesthetics and beauty and the entrenchment of the pornographic concept that women are material, disposable products available for male gratification, Playboy has now, rather successfully, managed entirely to normalise its brand and turn its vicious morality into “just a bit of fun”. As long as the logo is normal, then it is also normal for woman to be bending over for the camera. Pornography, and everything it involves, ceases to be a sleazy sideshow, which I am not arguing necessarily can be, or should be, erased, and becomes acceptable. Women cease to be sex objects on the top shelf and become sex objects full stop. It’s just a bit of fun.

Of course, I’m not naive enough to suggest that there aren’t plenty of women who enjoy pornography, who enjoy being in pornography and who don’t find that it demeans them or other women. Nor am I naive enough to suggest that there aren’t porn “stars” who hate their jobs and cast their bodies to the wind like empty shells, their souls having died long ago. However, my point is not this top-shelf industry, but the normalisation of it that Playboy’s mainstream merchandising is effecting. Playboy has given itself a clean image.

With such a clean, acceptable image, the logo can then be used not only to encourage normal people to buy Playboy’s “normal” products, but can be used to endorse other products too. The Total Satisfaction holiday resort, which Julie Bindel analyses in her illuminating article, is endorsed by Playboy TV and provides western tourists with a round the clock servant, who will service them in any way they require. The servant – or prostitute – will be one of the poor local women who sell their bodies to wealthy tourists for extra cash.

Just don’t call them prostitutes, begs Total Satisfaction, who run the brothel. This is a normal, acceptable piece of fun for lads who like a good time. It’s not prostitution – what are you thinking? Just ask Playboy TV. They’re squeaky clean, remember – they sell fluffy slippers. So, when Total Satisfaction reassures its customers in their frequently asked questions, “although we try to ensure that you have no problems, the girls are human and we cannot monitor them 24 hours a day,” the customer might secretly be irked by the fact that their partner can’t be kept locked up every minute of the day. However, they can ultimately feel relieved that they aren’t in fact supporting prostitution, oppression, discrimination and the very real destruction of people too poor to live any other way. Instead they can feel happy that this is all quite safe and normal. After all, Playboy said so.

Playboy merchandise is trying to pull the fluffy wool over the public’s eyes, which is why it is crucial that shops and consumers recognise what they are buying into when they support this brand. It is essential to recognise the inherent dangers of Playboy’s attempts at normalisation and to highlight the very real connection between the clothes now available on every high street and the oppression and degradation that the label encourages through pornography and the endorsement of businesses such as Total Satisfaction. The bunny might seem cute and cuddly, but it breeds like rabbits and it’s getting everywhere, spreading some very nasty diseases as it goes.


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