Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A feminist joto's take on Playboy

I was about thirteen years old when I stumbled upon a discarded Playboy magazine. It was on the floor of a public, single-stall bathroom. The cover of the magazine immediately peaked my interest. I reached for it and leafed through it as I went about by business. Admittedly, by that age I knew I was what older Latinas referred to as curioso, a questionable euphemism that some Latinx folks use to refer to jotos and gender non-conforming individuals—it’s akin to calling someone precious. And they were right. By then I knew I was somehow “different” from other boys: I found myself “crushing on” boys and not girls, developing friendships mostly with girls, and distancing myself from stereotypically masculine activities, including sports. Indeed, I dreaded the weekends, when my father would seize control of the tv, and I had to pretend to cheer for Club America, his favorite soccer team. But I did enjoy screaming “gooooooooooooool” whenever a player scored a goal.

And yet the contents of the magazine mesmerized me. I was still learning English then, so I paid little attention to the text. Instead, I perused the photo spreads, each of which led to a moment of solemn introspection: “Is this what I’m supposed to like?” I looked at the models’ breasts, “nada” (nothing). I looked further below, “tampoco” (still nothing). I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to feel, but I didn’t feel anything. Still, I remained captivated.

I continued examining the pictures carefully. The models were beautiful, glamorous, and radiated confidence. Their pictures made me wonder if I would ever exude femininity like them, a thought that confirmed I was curioso. By then at least ten minutes had passed, so I quickly tossed the magazine aside, cleaned up, and walked out. Today, I wonder if that discarded Playboy magazine answered other questions that questioning teenagers may have had.

In retrospect, perusing that Playboy magazine forced me to confront my sexuality and gender identity over the course of a bathroom break. No, I didn’t walk out of the stall screaming, “soy joto” (I’m gay). But as I forged my identity moving forward, I felt empowered knowing I enjoyed the performance of but wasn’t attracted to femininity—a topic I’ll discuss in a later post. For that reason, I have a somewhat positive attitude toward Playboy.

Some would argue, however, that Playboy magazine is inherently antithetical to feminism because it perpetuates women’s sexual objectification. But that argument is too facile. Look around! Contemporary capitalist culture is predicated on sexual objectification. Indeed, H & M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret, etc., ads rival many of Playboy magazine’s “soft-core” images. But Playboy magazine at least has the decency to admit it uses adult models for adult entertainment purposes. In contrast, many retailers’ ads sexually objectify (underage) women and men without “for adults” labels, and the retailers peddle the ads for mass consumption free of charge. Even our food ads employ sexual imagery to wet our appetites—remember these Carl’s Jr ads? I can’t recall the last time ate a hamburger in that manner. Thus, if Playboy undermines the feminist cause, so do a lot of soft-core ads, and it behooves us, feminists, to think twice about the retailers we patronize since our money may very well be spent on soft-core ads.

That is not to say that Playboy is not without problems. Indeed, one problem is its lack of diversity with respect to race, look, size, and ableness. Arguably, if Playboy magazine is going to continue structuring its consumers’ desires, it should at least structure them in a more inclusive fashion. And we should demand the same from advertisers. Personally, I’m glad I found that Playboy when I did because it cleared up important questions early in my life. If I had similar questions today, a Victoria’s Secret catalogue may suffice.

2 comments:

Omar de la Cruz said...

I found it really interesting reading about how browsing a Playboy magazine was such a revolutionary moment in your life. As you identify in your post, Playboy and similar publications are typically seen as anti-feminist and degrading. So to read that for you it was a useful tool in finding your identity and in appreciating femininity is pretty unique, I think. I also really liked your point about how people are quick to judge things like Playboy while not even blinking at seeing things equally as degrading or worse in fashion magazines, advertisements, etc. Although I don't think that this necessarily lets publications like Playboy off the hook for many of its practices. This certainly shouldn't be a race to the bottom, which I think is a position your post agrees with.

B. Williams said...

I also had a "Playboy experience" when I was young... although mine involved my neighbor friend stealing his dad's magazine from the mail and showing me his hidden prize later when I came over to hang out. When I think back on that experience I don't remember feeling particularly uncomfortable... rather it was part of the process of "coming of age" and budding familiarity with humans as sexual beings. Not to mention, compared to the pornographic imagery (and indeed "softcore" imagery prevalent in movies/advertisements) currently only a google-search away, Playboy was positively genteel.

Your argument for defending Playboy because it identifies itself as "adult entertainment" is an interesting one. I would tend to agree that adults should have the freedom to partake in the media they choose and engage in the erotic practices (including porn viewing) they would like, as long as no others are harmed. However, I struggle with whether to hold up Playboy as a model of best practices or to condemn them for further normalizing pornography in popular culture. For example, nowadays I find myself worrying about the proliferation of pornography that is explicitly violent and degrading toward women and the ease with which young people can now access that type of pornogrpahy. What sexual expectations are we setting for young men (or women...) who view this particular kind of pornography and what are we teaching them about the value of women as individuals?

Because I am not inherently anti-porn, and I am a proponent of free speech, I would argue that the strongest defense we have against a harmful porn culture and a misogynistic media culture are robust and comprehensive sex-education programs that go beyond "puberty" and "birds and the bees" talks. I would include in-depth discussions of abstinence, consent, mutual respect, and the realities of what responsible and respectful sexual practices (including dating and sex) look like.