The abduction scene is fantastic; six minutes of such sustained,... | Reviews / Movies | Coagulopath
The abduction scene is fantastic; six minutes of such sustained, unrelenting horror that it almost melts the lens. It might have been better to not actually show the aliens (they look like Baby Groot), but I’ve never seen such a good evocation of how a nightmare feels from the inside. Shadows: screams; reality slipstreaming away like oil; visceral helplessness. I felt like a mouse dying in a cat’s mouth.
It’s good that Fire in the Sky has that scene, because the rest of the movie isn’t worth a tinker’s damn.
It’s a poor man’s Twin Peaks (Twin Molehills?) about lumberjacks who witness a UFO, with narrative focusing mainly on how they unpack their experience. Will they come to terms with what happened? Will the townsfolk believe them? Will Flannel Guy #1 mend his feud with Flannel Guy #2? And so on.
On any reasonable scale of importance, “alien visitation” scores a 9.7 out of 10, and “personal dramas of a small-town yokel” scores a 1 or a 2 (unless the small town yokel is you, in which case you might bump it up to a 3). These characters are not interesting and almost cannot be interesting next to the narrative’s inciting event. We’ve seen aliens. We do not care about anything except the aliens. Can we talk to them? Reason with them? What do these fey goblins from beyond the void want? Maybe the movie’s point is that there are no answers. If so, it fails to fill that silence with anything compelling. It delivers a flat and unengaging soap opera instead.
The script is just wrong, and I wouldn’t know how to fix it. It has one interesting event, which happens at the start, and so most of what follows is setting up a joke that we already know the punchline to. This causes repeated problems. For example, the movie expects us to care whether the lumberjacks pass or fail a lie detector test. But we already know they’re telling the truth (we saw the spaceship!), so there’s no tension to the scene. It’s dead as a dynamited fish.
One of my favorite horror books is Picnic at Hanging Rock, which tries something similar. A mystery at the start goes unresolved, until a town almost shreds itself apart on the axle of that question. You should read it. It’s one of the classics that lives up to the hpye. Hanging Rock was able to blend form and content in a compelling way. The town in that story seemed to be collapse into weird cultlike denialism that was as creepy as the disappearance itself. You’re almost convinced that certain people know what happened, and want it forgotten.
Fire in the Sky, by comparison, is made of standard soap opera ingredients. It tries to tell a small, personal story, but does so against a speculative backdrop that’s far more interesting. Imagine a man filming a fly, with a nuclear bomb detonating in the background. Why would you zoom in closer on the fly? The film produces frustration, then momentary horror, then frustration.
It’s based on a true story. I wish I could send this movie back to my 12 year old self. He would have loved it.
I was obsessed with UFOs and alien visitations. I read every book I could, and could recite the “classic” abduction stories (Barney and Betty Hill, Allagash, Strieber, Vilas-Boas) chapter and verse. I’m surprised I didn’t remember the Walton account (which forms the inspiration for this film), but I’m sure I once knew of it. I used to stare up at the sky, and hope to see fires of my own.
Then I grew up, and did as the Bible commands: put childish things away.
Questions are an addictive drug. Once you start asking them, it’s hard to stop. Why do descriptions of aliens always mirror contemporary Earth technology and interests? In the Middle Ages, UFO sightings were of crosses or glowing balls. In the early 20th century, they looked like airships. Now that the “flying saucer” meme is firmly embedded in our cultural neocortex, that’s all they look like. The appearance of the aliens themselves tracks closely with how they’re portrayed in popular culture. Skeptic Martin Kottmeyer acerbically noted that Barney Hill’s abductors (as described by him under hypnosis) bear striking similarities to a monster in the previous week’s The Outer Limits.
And is it likely that an alien race would be bipeds with multi-fingered hands, two eyes, one nose, et cetera? Is it likely that we would be able to breathe their air, and they ours? How could a race of aliens clever enough to avoid detection by the combined firepower of NASA, SETI, and 12 year old Australian boys with binoculars be so clumsy as to be seen by Walton? Where does the invasive “probing” trope come from, if not our horrors of animal vivisection? Wouldn’t they be able to learn about our anatomy through radiographic imagery? And so on.
I still regard UFO stories as interesting (they’re too common and culturally universal to ignore), but they are probably a psychological artifact—the call is coming from inside the house. Aliens might exist somewhere, but barring a revolution in physics, I expect their civilization (or ours) to die in the shadows of space before we ever encounter each other. The only alien intelligences we are in contact with are the homebrew ones at OpenAI and DeepMind. And yet…
“Oh, those eyes. They’re there in my brain (…) I was told to close my eyes because I saw two eyes coming close to mine, and I felt like the eyes had pushed into my eyes (…) All I see are these eyes…”—testimony of Barney Hill
…The best UFO stories—and notice that I don’t specify whether they’re true—have a horror pulsing under the skin that leaves me enthralled. They’re signposts pointing to a very dark place: either out into the chill of space, or inside, into the wilderness of our minds. No matter where we turn, we cannot escape the horror of not being alone. “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”
Yoram Gross was Australia’s foremost animator. For three decades he... | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath
Yoram Gross was Australia’s foremost animator. For three decades he directed and produced cartoons such as Blinky Bill and Dot the Kangaroo, many of which I watched as a child. He made cheap and charming pictures about kids who never grew up.
Gross, too, was almost a kid who never grew up. This memoir from 2011 reveals a side to him that I never knew existed.
He was born in 1926, and spent a childhood in Krakow and then an adolescence on the run, fleeing from town to town as Hitler declared them Judenrein (“Jew-free”). He moved from hiding spot to hiding spot, was on Oskar Schindler’s famous list, discovered a mass grave of decomposing bodies, was nearly killed himself several times, etc. It’s a fascinating and disturbing tale, and shines a new light on his art.
Did Gross’s experiences as a Jew in Nazi Poland shape his kid-friendly films? He says they did, and I’ll admit that it’s now hard not to see Blinky Bill as Gross in koala form: chipper, happy, optimistic…and with his iconic knapsack slung over one shoulder, so he can quickly flee.
Gross had a quick wit, and an acute sense of empathy. One of his earliest memories is of seeing a strip of flypaper, heavy with the corpses of helpless insects. He felt sad that the flies would never see their families again. Anthropomorphism is common among children, but it’s usually directed at a cat or dog. It takes imagination look at a disturbing thing with glistening jewel-like wings and swivelling compound eyes and see a consciousness inside.
His emotional sensitivity would later help him as an artist, but first it helped him survive. An Animated Life is filled with picaresque ugly details of 1930s Poland. Such as how, if you were the Jewish student at school, you had to be careful around stairs. Someone might push you down them, because you’d killed Christ.
As Hitler’s fist tightened around Poland, Gross and his family developed an “ear” for knocks on the door. A polite knock? A neighbor on a social call. A hard, officious rap? The Polish police. A hammering fist? The Gestapo. He describes how a German officer entered their house one day uninvited, sat down at the grand piano in their living room, and began playing. Gross’s mother hesitently complimented his technique, and was ignored. The Nazi officer then closed the lid and ordered them to either sell or destroy the piano. Why? Because he was taking possesion of the house and didn’t want a piano in his living room.
Gross was lucky to survive. He met some nice people, such as family who fed him when he was starving; and some not-so-nice people, such as a corrupt “shmaltsovnik” who extorted his family for tens of thousands of zlotys. He outright picked death’s pocket several times, and his narrow escapes can have a sense of Fellini-esque absurdity.
One day, a group of a group of cops held him up. They were not duped by his blond hair and pretense at being a Catholic, and threatened to shoot him for some imagined offense. Gross begged to be let go—”I have vodka! I’ll share it will you!” They agreed with this plan, and Gross ran back home, wondering if he did have vodka in the pantry. Luckily, there was some. The men got blackly drunk, and forgot that they’d ever intended to kill him.
Gross entertained them by playing his mouth organ, which is another thing I learned in the book: Gross never intended to be a filmmaker but a musician. He backed into movies largely by mistake. How did he end up as the director of children’s movies about animals? Was this, too, informed by his experiences?
Animator Ralph Bakshi once said “The idea of grown men sitting in cubicles drawing butterflies floating over a field of flowers, while American planes are dropping bombs in Vietnam and kids are marching in the streets, is ludicrous.” For some of us, though, butterflies and flowers are a correct response to the horrors of war; as is studied lightness, and the mysterious world of animals. No kangaroo will push you down stairs because you killed Christ. Gross has a lot of trouble with religion in general, and the idea of a loving God (as do many Jews who lived through the Holocaust—“If there is a God, He will have to beg my forgiveness”), and there is nobody more devotedly atheistic than an animal. A Holocaust survivor drawing “butterflies floating over a field of flowers” might not be as surprising as it sounds.
Gross’s movies often incorporate incongruous sinister moments, dark pits of lingering shadow. Things such as the House of 100 Doors in The Magic Riddle and The Bunyip sequence in Dot and the Kangaroo still echo in my memory. The bush is bright and sunny, but lift up a stone, or put your foot through a rotted log, and see the crawling, chitinous underclass. Underneath everything is a dimension of slime and mold and bugs, holding the daylit world aloft on its shoulders.
And perhaps Gross never wanted to make children’s films at all. He started out as a musician, playing mouth-organ for a Polish radio station. In his earlier years in Israel, he made experimental, arthouse films. Some of these won awards, but are now very hard to track down. He moved to Australia in 1968 with his wife Sandra, and continued making obscure “film festival” fare. He learned simple stop-motion animation techniques, and then progressed to 2D drawings.
Gross wasn’t personally religious, but he did have a sense of Tzedakah—charity. In 1977 he made his first feature-length animated movie: Dot and the Kangaroo. A girl is lost in the woods, and is saved by a kangaroo, with whom she shares a special bond. The film was partly made out of a desire to depict Australia, and to give something back to a country that had been good to him.
Good intentions can backfire. Dot and the Kangaroo is the kind of movie that gets called “problematic” today. The film’s depictions of Aboriginal Australians are stereotypical. The bunyip, a figure in Wemba-Wemba mythology, is reduced to a horror movie monster. And Gross doesn’t appear to know a whole lot about kangaroos. The animated kangaroo that accompanies Dot is female. But the live-action kangaroo they filmed at the end is…uh…conspicuously male. Nevertheless, Gross was onto something with Dot. It’s one of his better-known films.
His other early films include the Mia Farrow-narrated Sarah/The Sixth Match, which might be his most direct treatment of the Holocaust, The Little Convict (starring Rolf Harris, hyuk-hyuk), along with a seemingly endless stream of Dot sequels. Budgets expanded modestly, from low hundreds of thousands to about a million dollars each.
I should say here that Yoram Gross’s films are not masterpieces. When I watch them, my prevailing thought is “I wish this was better.”
Even when I was a child, Dot seemed shoddy and cheap, with cut-rate animation and sentimental, mawkish storytelling. Gross did the best he could with the little he had, but both then and now, I have little love for his movies. I’m sorry.
I dislike Gross’s signature style, which is “animated cels over live-action backgrounds.” This saved money—the Dot and the Kangaroo cost just $200,000 in 1977, at a time when Disney films were budgeted at twenty to forty times that—but mires the film in an unbelievable half-reality that has no chance of ever engaging the viewer. It takes a lot of technical skill to seamlessly merge 2D-animation with live action, otherwise all you see is how wrong the pieces fit together. Dot and the Kangaroo is no Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s not even Cool World. Dot never inhabits the Australian outback. She floats on top of it, as unconvincing as a mustache scrawled on a billboard.
These films, however flawed, are a foundational brick in the childhood of many people. Gross opens the book by reading some appreciative Youtube comments. He seems pleasantly shocked that his work still continues to touch people. I was shocked by the idea of a Holocaust survivor on Youtube, reading comments by TAYLORLAUTNERFAN69 and xXNyanCatXx. Not that there’s anything weird about that. It just seems like certain worlds should never intersect.
I was curious to hear what it was like running an animation studio in 1977, and I wish the book had spent more time on this. From where did Gross recruit artists? Who sold him equipment? How did he negotiate distribution deals with European and American companies? How did he make it all work?
I’m guessing the answer was “right place, right time”. Animation was moribund in the 70s—even Disney was in the doldrums—and this allowed a tiny studio like Gross’s to hack away some market share. You could shelve Dot and the Kangaroo besides Pete’s Dragon and Bedknobs and Broomsticks and it wouldn’t seem out of place. The emergence of foreign markets allowed Gross two (or three or four) bites at the apple: if a film bombed in Australia, it might sell in Germany or somewhere. The stars were aligned for a studio like Gross’s to exist.
All of that changed in the late 80s and 90s. Disney got their shit together and went on a blazing hot streak. Don Bluth and Warner Bros weren’t far behind. The first CGI films appeared, along with technical masterpieces like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Thief and the Cobbler. Western TV animation resurged, and anime hit the mainstream: I remember the day I walked into the Mascot Blockbuster and the shelves were laden with weird but interesting-looking things like Captain Harlock and Vampire Hunter D.
Competition was suddenly much fiercer, and Gross was unable to compete either at home or abroad. He didn’t have the money, and Australia has never been a hotbed for top-shelf animation talent. The “Australian” animated film that most people remember, FernGully, was actually made in America. Gross himself increasingly began to outsource labor to foreign studios such as Colorland Animation.
Gross kept his studio afloat in the 90s by merchandising the Blinky Bill character, which raked in about three million dollars a year. It was a bittersweet way to go out—no artist wants an empire built out of school lunchboxes and T-shirts—but at least it put his creative work in front of a new generation of children.
Yoram had come a long way from making experimental art films about the Holocaust. This creative shift is seen in the Dot movies. Nine were made from 1977 to 1994: the last few were bombs, and their repeated commercial failures forced the studio to cut their losses and focus on Blinky Bill.
The movies have no continuity, aside from the fact that they star a girl called Dot. In some films, she is transported into the (cartoon) animal world by eating a magic root. In others she’s a cartoon from the start, with no explanation given. In a couple of films (Dot and Keeto and Around the World With Dot), she has a brother, in others she doesn’t, etc. They are most interesting for the live-action segments, which give glimpses into regional Australian life at the time. The outback parts were filmed in the Blue Mountains, where my grandmother lived for decades. I wonder if she ever saw Gross or his crew…
The last film in the ennealogy, Dot in Space, finally puts Dot in a fully-animated world, but that animation remains as cheap as ever. It looks like a TV special and has a running time to match—counting the intro and outro credits, it barely limps over the sixty minute line. The series had lost whatever small gravitas and dignity it had long ago, and fully devolved into a sequence of idiotic capers.
Dot (now drawn by Nobuko Burnfield) got a makeover, and her new design was visibly anime-inspired. But we’re talking 70s Tezuka-style anime, with big eyes and circular construction, not 90s anime. The Yoram Gross Film Studio was playing catch-up and still ending up decades behind the times.
Gross launched a single desultory attempt at competing with Disney. 1991’s The Magic Riddle is weird and twisted, and not always in a fun way. Essentially a Cinderella re-telling with lots of other fairy tails shoved in, the film has a very nasty streak: the stepmother is a revolting harridan, her daughters are brain-damaged floozies, etc. “Cindy” herself is virginally pure and possesses nary a whiff of characterization or agency. It’s like a film conceived with the purpose of giving Germaine Greer a brain embolism. The film made a modest amount of money within Australia but failed overseas. This and Dot in Space mark the point where Gross abandoned making feature-length films, and focused on TV. Some of his former employees did interesting things. Longtime Gross artist/writer Ray Nowland (who may or may not have had a falling out with Gross) broke away and made the cult obscurity Go to Hell!!, which rides the 90s aesthetic as far as it will go into the sunset.
None of the above is found in the book. An Animated Life has little to say on the topic of animation. It’s primarily a memoir of Gross’s childhood years, and his experiences in the Holocaust.
How could it be otherwise? Gross witnessed years of unimaginable, nearly unparalleled horror. A grave opened in the earth, its black and hungry mouth swallowed six million…and he lived. Death passed him by, like the angel of the Lord. That’s the story his publisher wanted him to tell. It would be anticlimactic to spend the back half of the book talking about how he drew a cartoon koala.
And yet I’m struck by the sense that Gross shortchanged his own life. He was much more than just a Holocaust survivor. I’m glad he made it out…but what about his remaining fifty years? A boy became a musician. That musician became a filmmaker. That filmmaker became an animator.
The Holocaust might be most interesting part of Gross’s life, but it’s also the part he had the least control over. Mostly he’s just getting tossed about randomly by the Fuhrer’s winds. He’s not a hero. He’s a survivor. They are not the same thing. This book is not a tale of perseverence in the face of adversity. It’s a record of bad things happening to a nearly helpless child.
The bitter pill we have to swallow is that most Holocaust survivors, Gross very much included, survived by being lucky. You see this play out in the book, again and again. A kind stranger feeds him when he’s starving, clothes him when he’s cold. Remember the story about the police who were threatening to shoot him? It was quick thinking to bribe the soldiers. But suppose his mother had forgotten to stock the pantry with vodka?
Here is a quote from Roger Ebert that I think about often. (from his review of Elephant Man).
Wilfrid Sheed, an American novelist who is crippled by polio, once discussed this distinction in a Newsweek essay. He is sick and tired, he wrote, of being praised for his “courage,” when he did not choose to contract polio and has little choice but to deal with his handicaps as well as he can. True courage, he suggests, requires a degree of choice. Yet the whole structure of The Elephant Man is based on a life that is said to be courageous, not because of the hero’s achievements, but simply because of the bad trick played on him by fate.
I do not regard survivors of the Holocaust as heroes, or figures of inspiration, simply because they lived. Where does that line of logic take you? That the people who died deserved it, for not being brave or clever enough? I’m sure high intelligence would mitigate your chances of escape, but the Holocaust was not an IQ test, and geniuses died in Treblinka 2 and Chelmno along with all the rest. Perhaps it’s as the writer of Ecclesiastes 9:11 said: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”
What about Yoram’s life after the Holocaust? The years when he had power, and expressed agency? There must be a story there, too. But as Gross passed in 2015, that story may remain forever untold.
The sixties were years of sexual revolution, but doesn’t “revolution”... | Reviews / Books | Coagulopath
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.