A clash of clothes and convictions

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Katy Lafen | 15 years, 1 month ago

The round, innocent eye of the Playboy bunny was the first thing junior Rosaura West noticed about the shirt her friend gave her as a gift three years ago. She also liked the way the stark black outline of the rabbit's head contrasted with the tank top's light color. And, she says, "bunnies are cute."

West has become an avid fan of the Playboy brand since receiving that first shirt. She has purchased many other pieces of Playboy apparel, including five necklaces, three belts, nine tongue rings and six shirts — all of which sport the familiar outline of the bowtie-clad rabbit with long, pointy ears.

While this seemingly innocent bunny is acceptable to West and many other female students at Blair, some view the logo as a symbol of the sexual exploitation of women. From the very first issue of the Playboy magazine, which featured Marilyn Monroe in a black dress with a plunging neckline on the cover, the publication was designated as "entertainment for men."

Since then, it has become known for both pictures of nude women and the articles it publishes. While many claim the Playboy publication is a legitimate source of news, the Playboy brand has a direct and longstanding sexual identity, says Sheila Gibbons, editor of "Media Report to Women," a news and research journal about women and media.

Some see the growing tendency of young girls to dress in sexually explicit ways as detrimental to the past efforts of women who fought to be recognized as capable human beings rather than be dismissed as sex objects, says social studies teacher Mary Thornton. In the eyes of some, the popularity of Playboy apparel among students at Blair is just one manifestation of a growing ignorance of past feminist movements and threatens to undo their advances.

The bunny

Senior Corinne Bell has never felt dependent on any man. Growing up in a house of all females instilled in her the conviction that women are just as capable as men. "I don't need a man to fix the sink; I'll pull out the tools myself," she says. "I live for me, not for a male."

Bell is annoyed when she sees young women wearing shirts bearing the image of the Playboy bunny or any other overtly sexual message. She believes that they are demeaning and suggest that women exist solely for the pleasure of men.

Social studies teacher Lansing Freeman holds a similar view of the bunny. "That logo represents the denigration of women and indicates that they have only two uses: to be looked at and to have things done to them," he says. Freeman remembers one day several years ago when a girl walked into his Peace Studies class with the Playboy bunny displayed prominently on her chest. Freeman saw it as a learning opportunity — he devoted the entire class to a discussion on the bunny's meaning.

To West, the Playboy logo, which she wears to school several times each month, is nothing more than a fashion trend — she isn't interested in the Playboy magazine or company. But to her mother, it is an inappropriate expression of sexuality. "My mom always says that [the shirt] is degrading to women, but I know it doesn't mean I'm into porn or anything," she says.

The Playboy company often defends itself from critics like West's mother by arguing that the constitutional right of freedom of speech it them to market any type of clothing, says Gibbons.

Senior Corinne Hernandez does not believe that Playboy clothing degrades women and agrees with the Playboy company's argument to some extent. She sees the bunny as nothing more than a fashion statement that proclaims, "I'm not afraid to be sexy," she says.

While Thornton strongly believes in the right of freedom of speech, she feels that somewhere, a line has been crossed. "We fought for the right to wear what we wanted during the 60s, but the pendulum has swung too far," she says. In her opinion, clothing with underlying sexual messages like Playboy merchandise is mostly popular because of its shock value.

Indeed, West sometimes encounters comments about her Playboy clothing from other boys when she wears it to school. "They'll say stupid things like, 'Oh, so you're a playgirl now,'" she says. While these comments occasionally annoy her, they have not stopped her from wearing what she chooses. "The reason I wear [Playboy] is because I don't care what other people think of me," she says.

Freshman Deepthi Thummalapalli has a different attitude toward the clothing. While she once wore Playboy shirts to rebel against the conservative values of the private school she used to attend, Thummalapalli has since stopped wearing them. She now believes that the image she was displaying on her chest was "just wrong, and I'm not too proud of it," she says.

The f-word

Like other feminists, Thornton is bothered by the Playboy shirts. She senses a significant disconnect between generations and feels that the main problem among girls today is ignorance of the feminist movements of previous eras. It alarms her that so few of her students can correctly identify significant women's rights activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Gloria Steinem.

Bell feels that this lack of knowledge affects the behavior of her fellow students at school and believes that it marks a step back for women's rights. "I see girls getting their butts slapped by boys and wearing t-shirts saying things like 'knock me up.' We're just not walking around with the same air of dignity we used to," she says.

Senior Sarah Peitzmeier feels that the true meaning of the feminist movement has been lost in today's society. Feminists today are accused of "freaking out over nothing because they are so emotional and hormonal," she says. But to Peitzmeier, being a feminist simply means opposing sexism and supporting gender equality.

But senior Aaron Simon believes that feminism has become an excuse for women to blame their problems on men. He cites female talk shows like "The View," which he feels exist to fuel anti-male sentiment among women. "Basically what I see now is that feminism isn't standing up for women anymore — it's trying to put down men," he says. Because of this, Simon feels that the term "feminist" has developed a derogatory connotation.

This is one belief that has not changed over the years, according to social studies teacher Joann Malone, who was often called names like "bra-burner" for her role in a women's improvisational theater group that worked to raise awareness of gender inequality during the 1970s.

Now, Malone worries that if students are allowed to grow up not understanding the main principles of feminism, the progress made by the women's rights activists of previous generations might begin to erode. The first step, she believes, is to teach students to recognize the various ways in which sexual exploitation is disguised in society — like the Playboy logo. "If women don't understand how difficult it was to achieve the rights we have today, we could lose them," she says. "If we don't know our history, we are doomed to repeat it."

Katy Lafen. Katy Lafen loves the Beatles, the Rutles and Spinal Tap. More »

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