Christie Hefner, Sarah Palin, and the meaning of feminism

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009 · 29 Comments »

Last year I got into several disputes over whether it was appropriate for Sarah Palin to consider herself a feminist. Most people, including me, consider her abortion stance anti-feminist, but is that alone enough to disqualify her? She clearly embraces the feminist message in other respects, and self-identifies as a feminist.

(Notice, of course, that I’m using the traditional definition of feminism as: “1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes; 2: organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” This is not the same thing as the neo-feminism so popular today, which equates feminism with whatever political agenda is in fashion at Daily Kos. I’m also putting aside the argument that you can’t possibly be a feminist if you’re also a Republican. It’s true that the modern GOP has been hostile to women’s rights, but people’s political loyalties are complex. You might as well say that Michael Steele can’t possibly believe in racial equality.)

At any rate, I’m willing to accept Palin as a feminist — a politically conservative feminist, to be sure — who, paradoxically, holds an anti-feminist view on abortion. But for many people the abortion thing was, and is, a bridge too far. Can’t be a feminist if you’re anti-choice, they say. Automatic disqualifier. Okay, I reply; but what about feminists who hold other anti-feminist beliefs? Where do we draw the line? As I said in this thread:

…Based on my own life experience, the notion that “pro-life feminists” are, by definition, less rigorously feminist than, say, the most callous of pro-prostitution feminists, is not one I can accept.

Some of the most woman-hating women I’ve ever known were pro-prostitution feminists. Some of the most patriarchy-enabling women I’ve ever known were pro-prostitution feminists….

I think the “embryo is a person” argument is flat-out wrong and flat-out dangerous, and I will oppose anti-choice laws until my dying day. But I recognize that women can hold that view at the same time that they believe in women’s equality.

We are all full of contradictions, and none of us is perfect in our feminism. I guess that’s where I’m coming from.

I was reminded of all this the other day when Ann Bartow wrote a post on Christie Hefner. “The Odious Christie Hefner” is how I think of her, since she’s a prime example of the kind of woman-hating pro-prostitution feminist I had in mind back when we were arguing over credentials.

Christie Hefner makes a big deal out of identifying as a feminist: she gives money, she sits on boards, she makes noises about women’s rights. She also, of course, has spent her life profiting from the sexual exploitation of other women. Playboy magazine was always a shrine to patriarchy; under Christie Hefner’s direction it became a giant Borg ship of bunny-eared misogynistic objectification, a vast enterprise selling everything from stripper outfits for toddlers (get ‘em started young!) to hardcore porn videos. The ubiquity of the Playboy brand has been a key factor in the normalization of pornography — or perhaps I should say the pornification of normality. Margaret Atwood once observed that if aliens tried to understand human civilization from magazine covers, they would conclude that only women have bodies. That was a few decades ago. Now the aliens would conclude that not only are women the only people with bodies, but all the women are porn stars.

But Playboy is guilty of more than just being a capitalistic vampire squid. They’ve been firing on the ideological front as well. One of the most noxious things Christie Hefner did was hire Camille Paglia as Playboy’s in-house anti-feminist pundit. And make no mistake, Paglia is definitely anti-feminist; she calls herself a feminist purely as a marketing ploy, to get people to pay attention. “Oh, look! A feminist who says that patriarchy is good and women are happier being oppressed and that ‘no’ really means ‘please fuck me!’ Cool!” Paglia spent years shoveling that horseshit in the pages of Playboy, particularly her claim that second-wave feminism was puritanical and anti-sex. This is all part of the game, you understand: it’s how patriarchy fights back. Feminists say they don’t want sexuality that is warped by misogyny; patriarchalists say that means feminists don’t want sex. See the sleight of hand? Sex = misogynist sex. In the world of Playboy, there is no other kind.

Playboy has also fought the feminist revolution with its “show us yer tits” series of famous women. For decades, female entertainers have been heckled by drunks demanding that they disrobe. You could be Joni Fucking Mitchell singing “A Case of You,” but some asshole in the back will still yell “show us yer tits,” thus reminding you and everybody else that while you may think you’re a fancy-schmancy singer-songwriter who can give Dylan a run for his money, underneath the clothes you’re just a pair of tits. And that is the psychological essence of every single Playboy feature on women-in-the-news. As women have branched out and become high achievers in sports, cinema, education, law, and politics, Playboy has been there at every step of the way to yell, “show us yer tits!” Think you’re a famous director? Show us yer tits! An Olympic gold medalist? Show us yer tits! Rhodes scholar? Champion athlete? Show us yer tits! A collection of Playboy back issues is like a serial killer’s trophy room: photographic mementos of all the uppity women who’ve been reduced to masturbation fodder.

And yes, of course the famous women who’ve posed have done so willingly. That’s because they’ve been persuaded by the anti-feminist backlash that to do so is “empowering,” which is proof that there is almost nothing propaganda can’t do. No idea is too absurd, no suggestion too preposterous that a good propaganda campaign can’t make it seem perfectly logical and appealing. Look, if posing naked were empowering, then the rich men who run the world would be lining up for it. We would be awash in naked dick shots of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Barack Obama; magazines would be filled with male politicians and financiers and moguls with their bits hanging out. Softly lit, perhaps; head coyly tilted, bunny tail on the ass. Power.

Anyway: back to Christie Hefner — who, by the way, really is powerful, seeing as how she’s richer than God and is friends with President Obama and has zillions of connections. No bunny tail on the ass for her. If this horrible woman gets to call herself a feminist, then I have a hard time seeing why Sarah Palin is beyond the pale. This isn’t about supporting Palin politically (I don’t); it’s about being consistent with our feminism.

But look at what Salon does with the Christie Hefner story: despite acknowledging the extremely problematic nature of Hefner’s life work vis-a-vis feminism, Tracy Clark-Flory never denies that Hefner herself is a feminist. Here’s her final graf:

Some criticize her for failing to stage a feminist rebellion from within, instead pushing Playboy to edgier pornographic extremes. But she unflinchingly faced the reality of sexual desire — in all its politically incorrect glory — and found a way to live with it. Hefner hasn’t fought male fantasies, but she has campaigned to improve women’s realities.

Which is a hell of a lot more measured and generous than anything Salon ever published about Sarah Palin.

29 Responses to “Christie Hefner, Sarah Palin, and the meaning of feminism”

  1. Ann Bartow says:

    Violet, thank you. My post got linked at both Jezebel and Salon and the trolls that decided they simply MUST straighten me out in consequence have been a rather bitter plague. You are a true sister.

  2. Violet says:

    Oh no, are they emailing you?

    I thought your post was great. Actually it ticked me off so much I didn’t want to write about it, but then Salon picked it up and I knew I had to vent or I would a splode.

  3. Ann Bartow says:

    I hate that everybody instrumentally wants to assume all there is to Playboy is that stupid magazine. It’s an insignificant fraction of the Playboy Empire, which is primarily built on racist and degrading porn.

  4. Violet says:

    It’s an insignificant fraction of the Playboy Empire, which is primarily built on racist and degrading porn.

    It’s funny how Salon can just blip right over this and still end up saying that Hefner has “campaigned to improve women’s realities.” Well, not the women in the porn videos of course, who may have been prostituted abused sex slaves. But other women.

  5. Dana says:

    This was quite an interesting read to stumble upon. There’s a lot of meat here to chew on but this caught my eye,

    “That’s because they’ve been persuaded by the anti-feminist backlash that to do so is “empowering,” which is proof that there is almost nothing propaganda can’t do.”

    There is something demeaning to women suggesting that the reason (the *only* reason?) women opt to take their clothes off is because someone else influenced them to do so, and not because of their own volition and desire for (fill in the blank).

    Women are free agents, capable of independent thought and will quite apart from feminists, and/or anti-feminists influence. To assume one or the other is the sphere of influence is narrow minded and belittles the gender across the board.

    Your assumption that if this were indeed about power, we’d have nekkid shots of Warren Buffet is absurd because frankly, the naked male body does not have the visual power, presence and allure that the female body does. If so, the marketplace would be as overrun with porn for women as there is for men. One defintion of power surely is being able to influence others and make them bend to your will. Naked women do this to men. It is power. The power may come from something rooted in anger or hurt or whatever, but take off the clothes and power happens. Playboy’s sales should confirm this.

    I think it’s puzzling when feminists underestimate women and the motives that drive us.

  6. Violet says:

    There is something demeaning to women suggesting that the reason (the *only* reason?) women opt to take their clothes off is because someone else influenced them to do so, and not because of their own volition and desire for (fill in the blank).

    Nope, it’s just a social observation. I’ve been alive forever and having lived through the feminist backlash, I personally observed how pornification was re-branded as “empowerment.” Same old bunny suit, but now it had a Feminist Empowerfulment label sewn in.

    Women are free agents, capable of independent thought and will quite apart from feminists, and/or anti-feminists influence. To assume one or the other is the sphere of influence is narrow minded and belittles the gender across the board.

    All human beings are products of their society. Even women! Yep, it’s true. And if you’re proposing that women’s very own completely independent volitional desires just, by purest chance, happen to coincide precisely with patriarchy and the male-created world of pornography, then I’m going to suggest you think a little harder.

    frankly, the naked male body does not have the visual power, presence and allure that the female body does.

    And this, you believe, is an essential fact of nature? Not in any way connected to the society we live in or your own social expectations or conditioned responses or anything else, right?

    I appreciate your commenting, but I suggest — and I mean this in all sincerity — that you first read the entire archives of this blog: I Blame The Patriarchy. You will gain a fun and fascinating education in feminism and some basic sociology. Then come back.

  7. datechguy says:

    I have to admit I find her acceptable position ironic.

    Then again she has one out with me, considering her father and what she must be taught, what else is she likely to believe?

    My youngest has a classmate, nice girl, but her father owns the local strip club. How do you think she looks at it? She likely looks at it as normal, it’s what her dad does.

    That kind of reinforcement is very hard to undo.

    So I give her a slight pass, at age 50 one would expect her to maybe grow out of it, but I really think she not only doesn’t know better, but could not help be not know.

    What should our reaction be? I don’t approve, I understand.

  8. Violet says:

    What should our reaction be? I don’t approve, I understand.

    Actually, that pretty much is my reaction: I don’t approve, I understand. That’s how I cope with feminists who hold beliefs I find ridiculously anti-feminist.

    Really, my approach to some pro-porn feminists is very much like my approach to some pro-life feminists, like Sarah Palin: basically I’m thinking, you’re nuts, you’re totally fucked up on this issue, but I know you’re trying and we all have our issues and points of view and internal histories. And I leave it at that.

  9. dale says:

    Dana:
    “Your assumption that if this were indeed about power, we’d have nekkid shots of Warren Buffet is absurd because frankly, the naked male body does not have the visual power, presence and allure that the female body does.”

    Violet already addressed the above, but I wanted to add that the ancient Greeks would beg to differ.

    Not to Dana, but just in general about feminists hating Palin because of her being pro-life. What I don’t understand is if Palin-hating feminists are pro-choice, why is Palin’s choice to be pro-life such a problem for them? Sure, she’s not giving the benefit of choice to other women, but doesn’t pro-choice by definition have to be more tolerant than that?

  10. Michele Braa-Heidner says:

    I agree with Violet, Dana needs to do some actual reading and research!! Wow, her ignorance is astounding!!

    “The image of woman as we know it is an image created by men and fashioned to suit their needs…. The male has already set himself as the human norm, the subject and referent to which the female is “other”or alien.” Kate Millett

  11. monchichipox says:

    “pornification of normality”

    best thing I’ve read in months. It’s the same old same old. Kind of reminds me of the upper middle class white girl wearing a burka and claiming it’s empowering. Yetask them if it’s so empowering why not move to a Muslim country.

    It’s the same thing with Christie Hefner. If it’s so empowering let us see you in high heels with a bunny tail on. Or lets see you as the next centerfold. Better yet how about you star in the next gangbang video Christie? As soon as you do I’ll send some man a gift subscription to your magazine.

  12. anna says:

    So men just aren’t ogle-worthy? Funny how gay men don’t seem to think so. There is plenty of porn and prostitution aimed at gay men, but very little for straight women. People who talk about women’s rights to be sex workers never seem to wonder why only straight women and gay men want the job. Aren’t there any fat old ladies in Nevada who could use some pussy eating from a hot young stud?

    Conservatives want women to wait until they are married and tell girls that sex before marriage makes you a flower without petals, a chewed up piece of gum. Meanwhile boys are instructed to wait only so they don’t dirty somebody’s future wife. All par for the course in abstinence only education.

    Then liberals come along saying “We’re sex positive! We want you ladies to enjoy sex!” But the catch is that the sex acts touted- stripping and poledancing, taking it up the ass- generally result in an orgasm for the man and not the woman. I mean if you like that sort of thing then feel free, but recognize that many women don’t, and that pressuring women into burlesque, for example, because it’s so empowering and calling them frigid prudes if they don’t like it is not sex positive. It is bullying. And you’ll notice men are never asked to reciprocate, never told that posing in porn or stripping or taking it up the ass (for a straight guy with a dildo) is a great fun empowering way to explore your sexuality, something only a prude would object to.

  13. octogalore says:

    Excellent post. I think one of the problems the Broadsheet folks have is the third-wave conflation of feminism with “all liberal causes,” therein leaving out conservative women. Even as a radically pro choice feminist who’s fiscally conservative, I don’t fit some of the definitions of feminism put out by this group. I don’t know if Sandra Day O’Connor would.

    And yes, Christie Hefner (who spoke at my business school, and was surprisingly dull) has built her ability to do celeb-style philanthropy on the backs of other women.

    I think Dana has a point that, while it needs some nuance, is getting lost here. The comparison to Obama or Buffett taking it off is only viable up to a point. In our culture, women can derive power from sexuality more than men can, by your own definition of power: “richer than God and is friends with [important person] and has zillions of connections.”

    The point to be made, IMO, is that: it’s not the kind of power that is sustainable or respected or that can build a future except in a tiny minority of cases. Nobody who already has societal power as defined above (athletes, actors) will gain anything worthwhile from exposing oneself in Christie Hefner’s publication. And taking this step will in most cases harm, not help, ones ability to build either perceived or self-driven power.

    I say “most cases” because I represented a disabled attorney who had posed in Playboy and said the positive attention made her feel attractive and not “missing anything” as a woman, and she said she received mail from women with a similar disability stating that her story and pictorial had inspired them. Of course, one could argue that the inspiration was driven by the societally-dictated norms rather than anything organic. But it’s hard, standing outside these women’s situation, to make a specific judgment about how legitimate their feelings were.

    But all that said, looking at it across all women, the proposition Hefner stands for that sexual objectification is a worthwhile platform for women to feel good about themselves and for other women (like her) to enrich themselves based on this, is not a feminist one. As long as men are encouraged to obtain value (money, power, security) in sustainable ways that allow for promotions, long-term careers, building skills that don’t depend on youth, and women are encouraged to obtain value based on ephemeral display-oriented attributes, the power imbalance will stick. That’s the antithesis of feminism. And while I disagree with many of Palin’s political views, she seems to understand that particular issue and so to my mind, she’s much more of a feminist than either Hefner ever was.

  14. octogalore says:

    As a side note, while shopping for a Halloween costume with my daughter, we saw Playboy-brand costumes for dogs — capes and onesies with little Playboy bunnies. An interesting complement to the costumes for young girls that were on display. As my husband put it, for any of the girls’ costumes above around age 10, the best way to describe each was to add the prefix “slut-” before each one — witch, cheerleader, vampire, etc. Coincidence?

  15. quixote says:

    Dear God. The worst hell to which you could assign someone who believes that Playboy has anything to do with the “reality of sexual desire” is to spend eternity inside their own heads.

  16. Gender2010 says:

    I am a pro choice feminist and I accept Palin as a feminist. Thank you Violet for opening up this important conversation.
    The anger from feminists toward Palin ( a pro Title IV sports oriented woman who has a stay at home husband and is completely at home in her own sense of self) puzzled me.
    I asked myself How do we expect to take our place at the political table equally with men if we skewer those of us who have reached the brass ring?
    Palin did appoint a pro choicer to AK supreme court. The Democratic party has a pro lifer now as party leader- Tim Kaine.

  17. Gender2010 says:

    Typo: I meant Palin is pro Title IX. (team playing is essential for women to get ourselves into positions of power.)

  18. Violet says:

    Of course, one could argue that the inspiration was driven by the societally-dictated norms rather than anything organic.

    And that is exactly what I would argue. Humans will play any game put before them, and play to win. The problem is with the game.

    Of course women experience a sense of power and validation when winning at whatever game society has set, whether that’s being the chief concubine in the harem or managing to pop out the male heir, or being the most popular prostitute in the brothel or the highest paid stripper. Or the winner of the local beauty contest. Or the housewife who bakes the best pies. Or the Christian woman who stands by her man no matter what.

    The problem is with the game.

  19. Aspen says:

    Hater of porn, Salon, and the rest of dood nation here. Salon is the suck. Anyone who has glanced at their comment section knows it is massively infested with MRA filth, which they refuse to moderate. I’m not surprised they publish pro-porn editorials. Any articles that would dare present women as having any interests other than sucking dick get severely trolled and hijacked in the vile comments section.

  20. Violet says:

    Dale said something upthread that I should address, but I’m not sure what she meant to say:

    What I don’t understand is if Palin-hating feminists are pro-choice, why is Palin’s choice to be pro-life such a problem for them? Sure, she’s not giving the benefit of choice to other women, but doesn’t pro-choice by definition have to be more tolerant than that?

    That last sentence is puzzling.

    Pro-choice means believing women should have control over their own bodies, including their pregnancies. It’s fine for Sarah Palin or any woman to be personally opposed to abortion, but it’s not fine for them to impose this stance on other women. If you don’t want to have an abortion, fine. If you think it’s a terrible thing, fine. But you don’t get to tell me what I can do with my own body. That’s the pro-choice position.

    Now, if Dale is referring to the rather weird hostility some people showed towards Palin’s own personal reproductive choices — ridiculing her for not having an abortion, etc. — then that’s something else. I agree that such hostility is wrong-headed and just plain ugly. That’s not being pro-choice; that’s just being a raging asshole.

  21. octogalore says:

    “The problem is with the game.” — agree. Whether individual situations may be empowering for individual reasons that may not all be gendered — after all, there are men who find physical display empowering as well — doesn’t refute this. The messages women are sent, and in turn send, in the context of porn, can’t be neutral in an environment that isn’t neutral.

  22. TA says:

    Thanks for reading the Salon piece, Dr. Socks. Couldn’t have brought myself to do that (and the “show us yer tits!” paragraph is a powerful distillation).

    For me, the definition of feminism is the traditional one you cite, PLUS an understanding that equality AIN’T HERE YET. So many faux feminists take that as a starting point down a totally twisted path: “I believe in equality, and therefore I support women’s choice to (insert whatever patriarchy-approved act of submission)! I’m totes a feminist!”

    I can support the WOMAN, of course. I make those least-bad “choices,” too. But I don’t fool myself into thinking I have agency.

  23. Adrienne in CA says:

    …it’s about being consistent with our feminism.

    That’s the trouble — it’s complicated. A person can think, speak or act in some ways that are Feminist and in other ways that are anti-Feminist at the same time.

    Fond as I am of consistency in general, I haven’t been able to come up with a one-size-fits-all rule. Not even for the parameters I consider essential to Feminism. Add to the problem that different people define The List of essential Feminist attitudes differently. Like any philosophy, Feminism has its purists and its pragmatists.

    Based on the information at hand, if I were to rate these two women on a scale where Feminist is at the top and Anti-Feminist is at the bottom, I’d put Palin over Heffner. I couldn’t really say more without knowing a lot more about them. Although I suspect that it’s simple greed that’s clouding Ms. Heffner’s principles. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it” is an equal-opportunity weakness.

    For me, Feminist isn’t an on/off state. It’s analog. The “Yes You Are” essay is a beautiful starting place. I begin there, and end up settling for a case by case appraisal.

    *****A

  24. gxm17 says:

    Adrienne in CA says: Although I suspect that it’s simple greed that’s clouding Ms. Heffner’s principles. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it” is an equal-opportunity weakness.

    Excellent point, Adrienne. Greed is a patriarchal ideal: Winning is everything, win at all costs and the guy who dies with the most toys wins (and women are just living dolls). Greed is a virtue in our society. And Ms. Heffner is a very virtuous woman.

  25. Violet says:

    The “Yes You Are” essay is a beautiful starting place. I begin there, and end up settling for a case by case appraisal.

    That’s pretty much what I do, too. If a woman self-identifies as a feminist and declares her belief in the equality of the sexes, then I consider her a feminist — unless her behavior or life’s work forces a reappraisal. (Camille Paglia, for example, has demonstrated thoroughly that she’s an anti-feminist who’s just making a game of calling herself a feminist.)

    I don’t automatically exclude “pro-life” women because I’ve seen how powerful the propaganda is about the horror of abortion, especially when directed at young girls who are in the process of forming opinions and beliefs. When I was growing up, girls my age were being bombarded with messages about feminism but also about how horrible abortion was. I personally know girls and women who ended up considering themselves both feminists and “pro-lifers,” because in their minds abortion isn’t about women’s rights but about the rights of the embryo. They’re completely muddled and wrong, of course, but having seen first-hand how they got that way, I understand what’s going on in their heads.

  26. jen says:

    I know I’m a little late to party but this (below) is one of the most brilliant observations I’ve read in quite some time.

    “A collection of Playboy back issues is like a serial killer’s trophy room: photographic mementos of all the uppity women who’ve been reduced to masturbation fodder.”

    Thanks so much for the insight. Absolutely brilliant.

  27. Comment of the week, by god | Reclusive Leftist says:

    [...] in between all the thrilling Dicks Gone Wild news, but it’s germane to the topic at hand: Christie Hefner, Sarah Palin, and the meaning of feminism. The post is really more about pornography and sexual objectification than the meaning of feminism, [...]

  28. sonia says:

    well, to avoid going mad trying to decipher what feminism is and who embodies it, I judge women on a sort of scale. Like, something isn’t either feminist or not, it’s “how helpful is this to meta-patriarchal life?” like-what sort of shade of helpful is this person or action.

    I think Sarah Palin is helpful in certain ways-her strength, her capability, showing publicly a role that lots of women have been great at for a long time. I think she should be honored for her competence at clearly having been successful in many male defined areas as well as raising her kids. but she’s definitely not someone I’d expect to have a high level of a sort of spiritual awareness about pro-woman-ness. ?

  29. Quote of the Day « Anti-Porn Feminists says:

    [...] by antiplondon in Radical Feminism, bin the bunny, pro-sex anti-porn, quote of the day. trackback Reclusive Leftist on Christie Hefner and Playboy (as part of an article on feminism and conflicting/complex political [...]