I grew up during the height of “the Playboy generation”—the late 60s and 70s, when the “free love” counterculture movement was co-opted by the 1950s “Mad Men” society that still peddled jokes and cartoons about secretaries being chased around desks. When I was a teenager in the 70s, Playboy magazine was delivered monthly to our house for my father’s subscription. There were three daughters in our household, two of us teenagers. We absorbed, by watching our parents’ behavior, the default message that we lived in a both a man’s house and a man’s world, and that his pleasures and aesthetics were never to be questioned or challenged. I remember seeing the magazine sitting on my father’s dresser as I passed by into the walk-in closet where I ironed his linen handkerchiefs and dress shirts (one of my household chores). I occasionally flipped through its pages; and at one point, when I was sixteen, realized that the young women depicted were, perhaps, only six or seven years older than I. Neither of my parents saw any cognitive dissonance between raising teenaged daughters and having Playboy magazine sitting in plain sight in the house, and therefore, neither did I. Until many years later.
Let me be perfectly clear: there was NEVER any sexual or physical abuse in my family household; there was, rather, an all-pervasive privileging of paternal needs and subjectivity. The fact that daughters are people who learn from their parents how the world works and what being female means was unacknowledged both in word and deed. My parents never showed any awareness, to us at least, that mixed messages about female worth might distort their daughters’ sense of self-esteem. Consequently, while I cannot speak for my sisters, as the eldest I learned to take as a given that I would always be judged primarily on my body and appearance and only secondarily on my intellectual gifts. When I flipped through my father’s Playboys, I knew that my own teenaged body could never meet the measurements of the Playmate of the Month’s. When I read the “profiles” of the Playmates of the Month, I was learning that I should never aspire to be a serious professional (not to mention a feminist who critiques patriarchal norms).
Since the exposure of the predations of men like Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby, the #MeToo cohort has emerged not with a vengeance, but with a long overdue sense that the pain women have endured as patriarchal objects matters—that the young women who were forced into the dimensions of America’s omni-porniverous society are also people, equals with feelings, aspirations, and subjectivities of our own. Any woman over forty grew up in the shadow of Playboy’s mandates. The people who now ask why women didn’t come forward twenty, thirty years ago should acknowledge the twisted dynamic that taught us to mistake groping, grabbing and even assault for tributes to our attractiveness at best or, at worst, simply “the way things were.” When Hugh Hefner died last year and the accolades poured in about his racial boundary-breaking and intellectual pretensions, we might have focused more fully on how his magazine, “clubs,” and their imitative offshoots legitimated, capitalized on, and mainstreamed a masculinist culture in which the “sexual revolution” was co-opted into a new license for men to grab and grope, or even expect sex on demand. Playboy-America let millions of ordinary husbands, brothers and fathers tell themselves that they were simply aesthetic “connoisseurs,” tasteful consumers of the upwardly mobile “good life”—cigars, brandy, Rolexes, stereos, cars, beautiful naked women. Our entire society was steeped in this ethos, and it was only out of this cultural surround that feminism began to break ground in a noisier and more visible way.
Men like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Jeffrey Epstein acted with the entitlement built into American society. They got away with such behavior because the structures of consumerism, the control of media and corporate boards, were implemented and controlled by powerful men, and women were, frankly, terrorized into silence by economic insecurity. By the time Anita Hill bravely stepped forward during the Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, we might have chosen to put away Playboy culture forever. But it was still endemic, and, in the 1990s, still considered “hip” among white power brokers (see Trump and Epstein “partying” together with a group of professional cheerleaders). Despite her professional stature, Professor Hill, a black woman, was never going to carry the day on that nomination. However, twenty-eight years later, neither did Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, when she reluctantly stepped forward to testify about Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged behavior. Watching elderly white Senators Grassley, Hatch, and younger middle-aged Republican men (and a few women) of the Playboy Generation disregard her heart-rending testimony was a fulsome reminder of how deeply we are still entrenched in entitlement patriarchy.
The dozen-plus women who came forward about Trump’s sexual harassment and, in one case, alleged rape of a thirteen-year-old girl, in the weeks before the election were swatted down with his blanket denials and (empty) threats of lawsuits. Like his media-mentor and Fox promoter Roger Ailes, Trump said “they are all liars and I am telling the truth.” We live in a patriarchal country where the women are always the liars, no matter how many victims there are. It’s profoundly disappointing that the many credible women who reported sexual abuse at the hands of Donald J. Trump were brushed aside. Since then, a few powerful men have been held to account; but one could argue that they are merely release-valves on the pressurized system that allows it to continue to operate. Others are punished, while Trump is still in the Oval Office and the Republicans (and even the Speaker of the House, herself a slave to the imperatives of attractiveness) refuse to impeach him.
As many others have written, the Trump presidency* is a symptom of deep sickness in American society. Undeniably, racism; the tricking of the working class into continuing to believe in trickle-down economics despite ALL evidence to the contrary; the protection of obscene wealth for the few at the expense of the vast majority of the country; the cruel scapegoating of immigrants when the real danger to the American worker is substandard pay, outsourcing and automation.
With the re-emergence of the Jeffrey Epstein criminal prosecution, with a focus on how the legal system (through Alex Acosta) let him off the hook once, not long ago, we should keep in mind that we’re witnessing a long slow death-rattle of sixty years of the Playboy-American “lifestyle,” interwoven with post-war capitalism at every level and sutured to luxury product advertising, social aspiration, and the glossy pages that taught generations of men that they could first pleasure themselves with the “playmates,” and then, if they were acquaintances of men like Epstein, with young girls who worked as sex slaves. Epstein’s death has brought an end to his personal criminal liability. But the structures that sustained and made it so profitable are still very much intact. We have only seen the tip of an enormous iceberg.