The sixties were years of sexual revolution, but doesn’t “revolution” imply a rotation of three-hundred-and-sixty degrees? In other words, you’re back where you started?
As the decade progressed, second-wave feminists began to suspect they were agitating gender dynamics without actually changing them. Did the pill just enable men to have destructive fuck-and-chuck relationships? Would no-fault divorce be taken advantage of by all-fault men? Was pornography another avenue for the exploitation of women? Would all of this social turbulence settle with Tarzan still on top and Jane still at the bottom?
Consider Hugh Hefner, and consider Playboy. In the 50s and 60s, Hef cultivated an image as a progressive titan, publishing fearlessly about race and sex and drugs. His first interview was of Miles Davis. His lithographic abysses of skin were sold as a form of female sexual liberation.
Playboy Enterprises operated a line of gentleman’s clubs, which hired attractive female help known as “bunnies”. Advertisements were everywhere: as a bunny, you would travel the world, meet celebrities, and earn up to “$200-$300 a week”—a fantastic sum for a young woman with no qualifications in the sixties. Gloria Steinem (then a freelance writer) became curious about the reality of a bunny’s life, and applied for a job at one of Hef’s clubs.
Steinem’s adventures down the rabbit hole were published in the the May and June 1963 issues of Show. They are now regarded as early examples “New Journalism”, personal accounts where the reporter’s voice melds with (and becomes) the story. A Bunny’s Tale pre-dates Hunter S Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and Normal Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago by about five years, although obviously Sinclair, London, and Orwell published similar material in book form decades earlier.
Things start the way they continue: deceptively. Steinem fills in an application at the Club’s 59th Street office, giving her age as 24. The hiring manager cautions that this is awfully old to be a Playboy bunny but she might squeak in under the wire. Good news for Steinem, who was almost thirty at the time.
She gets the job, and then comes Bunny School: which is a crash-course in mixology, deportment, and how to perform the “bunny dip” without splitting your corset. Steinem was really annoying here, to be honest. She’s just smug as a peach, and the article has a tone of “Isn’t it funny that an overeducated Jewish gal like me is doing something like this?” We get contempt-dripping anecdotes about how dumb and shallow the other girls are. The applicants take an exam, and Steinem makes a point of mentioning that she got the highest score despite answering seven questions wrong on purpose. She may not think much of the girls, but the more experienced bunnies still have much to teach her.
There’s more to bunnying than stuffing your corset and hoping clients don’t pinch your tail: the job has multiple layers to it. Your technical job is to do typical “hired gun” type stuff like greeting customers, running the hat check desk, and waitressing the floor. Your theoretical job is to represent the Playboy brand. Your actual job is to inspire men to drink as much alcohol as is medically possible.
Steinem must navigate these conflicting requirements. Bunnies are forbidden from dating Club members—a private detective agency is shadowing them, making sure they don’t do this—but Steinem hears of a girl who was fired for not going out with a high-status Club keyholder. Sometimes you can refuse to tell a customer your last name, but other times, you can’t. Rules apply, until they don’t.
Years ago, Andrea Donderi wrote a now-legendary comment about “Ask Culture” vs “Guess Culture”. Essentially, in Ask Culture you are allowed to ask questions. In Guess Culture, however, you are supposed to intuit and “feel” your way around issues—you actually get penalized for asking questions, because they mark you as a social simpleton. “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.”
The Playboy Club is Guess Culture: Hard Mode. Steinem has a Bunny Bible with all sorts of rules she’s meant to follow, but those aren’t the actual rules. The real rules are as invisible as phlogiston, and must never be spoken aloud. Girls are just supposed to know them.
One unspoken rule is “build a good rapport with the busboys”. Bunnies need tips. An efficient busboy will clean your table and make it look presentable for new customers. A faster turnover of customers means more money in your pocket. But if you get on a busboy’s bad side, he can find all sorts of ways to fuck with you—like pocketing your tips, and insisting that the customer stiffed you. You will have no way of proving otherwise.
Some other things Steinem noticed about bunnying.
- It’s physically exhausting. Hours range from “long” to “what the fuck”. She describes being on her feet from 7:30pm to 4:00am, and then having to go to a photoshoot at 11:00am. She loses five pounds. Her feet swell. Some of the other girls recommend rolling bottles under her feet, to relax the arches.
- Is she allowed to take a break? Again, that’s the “Guess Culture” thing I mentioned. You might be allowed or you might not be.
- It’s expensive. Bunnies get nickeled and dimed to death. Each girl has to kick in $2.50 a day to cover costume maintenance (a hard sneeze can break the zipper), and $5 a pair for nylons. The Playboy Club, of course, will not compensate anyone for anything, although there is a 25% bunny discount at a local beautician.
- Steinem does not earn the advertised $200-300 a week or anything close. Bunnies make a flat $50 a week (NYC’s minimum wage), plus maybe $30 a day in tips, of which the club takes 50%. Hat check bunnies have it the worst. They make no tips, and are paid $12 a night. Steinem doesn’t now how this is legal, and maybe it isn’t. Later, she encounters a girl who made $200 in one week. Steinem regards her as a freakish lottery winner.
- Bunnies are not above ripping off the Club. On her first night, she gets a dollar tip. Like a rube, she asks a fellow bunny who she should give it to. She’s told to store it in “the vault”—ie, stuff it down the front of her corset, out of sight.
- Bunnies trash-talk the clients constantly behind their backs. One of Steinem’s new friends refers to Club keyholders as “suckers”. Another indicates she preferred working at the Chicago club because the men there were stupider, and more inclined to think they’d gotten “in” with you.
- Bunnies break the “don’t date keyholders” rule constantly, particularly in the case of rich ones. There are ways to make money from men that technically aren’t prostitution. Maybe he will buy you an expensive fur coat, and you will be so smitten that you will ask for his apartment number.
- Bunnies will stuff the front of their corsets with socks, tissue paper, and spare bits of hose. Plastic garbage bags are frowned upon, because it won’t allow your skin to “breathe”, meaning you’ll sweat more and (it’s theorized) your boobs will shrink.
There is an atmosphere of suspicion hanging over the bunnies. They come and go, and are not to be trusted. In particular, Hefner is terrified that the bunnies will start “merchandizing” themselves and get his clubs busted for prostitution. Private detectives will occasionally approach off-duty bunnies and pose as johns, offering them hundreds of dollars for sex. Girls that accept are fired, and added to a company-wide blacklist. Yet at the same time, they are clearly supposed to use their physical appeal to get men to buy drinks. The subtext is clear: bunnies are supposed to appear available, but not actually be available. As Dworkin once said, the only fiction in pornography is the smile on the woman’s face.
As a bunny, you lie a lot, and are lied to in return. Steinem is told by a (male) doctor working for Playboy Enterprises that she must receive an internal examination before the Club can hire her as a waitress. This sounds so obviously suspicious that she calls the Health Board to check, and sure enough, New York has no such requirement.
Any nightclub of any size is a Darwinian jungle, with management as the apex predators. They survive by winnowing deserving and undeserving humans as ruthlessly as Dachau in 1933. Essentially, your position in the club (or even whether you’re allowed in the door) depends on where you stand in what I call the Nightclub Pyramid.
The top of the Pyramid? Rich men. Nightclubs love guys who drop a thousand dollars on bottle service, who tip $100 just so they’ll have an excuse to flash the gangsta roll in their pocket. They rely on rich men to survive.
(Also in this group are status-rich men—ie, club promoters, D-list celebrities, and the owner’s annoying twerp brother. These do not contribute to the club’s bottom line in the same way, but are nevertheless considered rich-man adjacent).
The next level? Beautiful women, who are necessarily to attract rich men. This can be problematic, because such women (or at least the subset that go nightclubbing) are capricious. If a club has bad vibes they just bounce: beautiful women are desired everywhere, and club doors fly open for them. Without beautiful women, you don’t have rich men, and then you don’t have shit.
Most nightclubs hack the system by hiring beautiful women. The Playboy bunnies occupy a confused social position: they are nominally high status, but work at the club’s mercy, and are vulnerable to economic exploitation.
(If you’re wondering about the rest of the Nighclub Pyramid, the third level is “plain women”, the fourth level is “whale shit”, and the fifth level is “poor men”.)
Steinem soon discerns that there is no career track for Bunnies, and no upward mobility. Despite the superficial glamor (and the fact that a PI agency is stalking you), it is a waitressing job with an uncomfortable uniform. Steinem soon quits because she has an article to write (and also, they’re beginning to ask questions about her failure to provide a social security number for her fake identity), but turnover is high in any event. A lot of girls seem to entertain dreams that they’ll meet some dashing and unattached movie star, but this is like Hefner’s “posing for Playboy helps your film career!” line—at a certain point, you’re a sucker if you believe that will happen.
Despite all of this, it does seem like an action-packed and distinctly unboring job. Probably a step up from working in a secretarial pool or selling Avon or whatever most women did in 1963. Even dissatisfied bunnies are dissuaded from unionizing by the fact that it’s an extremely attractive job. If bunnies enacted a strike, the club could fill their positions in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
I often felt that Steinem was portraying it in the worst light possible. I did find an article by Chialing Young King (breezily referred to in A Bunny’s Tale as a “Chinese Bunny who stuffed her costume with gym socks”), who has markedly more positive memories. She says it was sometimes possible to make $500-1000 a week, and that Hef’s sleazy enterprise was actually the sexually and racially liberated paradise it pretended to be!
But Steinem’s message rings loudly and convincingly from the pages, particularly in a post-Manson, post-Altamont world: always question the counterculture. Don’t let people piss on you and call it rain. Guys are not reading Playboy for the articles, getting naked is not a cheat code for sexual empowerment, and the Easter bunny is not real.$i;?>
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