Tough Bunnies

By Richard Morin
Sunday, October 23, 2005

First surprise: Playboy centerfolds are tough, say two social psychologists who did a content analysis of the biographical text that runs with the photographs of Playboy's playmates.

Second surprise: There's text with those centerfold spreads?

For the record, your Unconventional Wiz is shocked, shocked! that women are still being objectified in skin magazines. He has not personally looked at a Playboy in more than 20 years, and then only to confirm the barroom claim of a Miami Herald colleague who said she had posed as a centerfold in her wild and crazee youth. (An exhaustive search through back issues confirmed that she had.) Anyway, I have moved on. And I had hoped the world had as well.

But apparently it has not. And that's one reason that James K. Beggan of the University of Louisville and Scott T. Allison of the University of Richmond decided to take a scholarly approach to the magazine's playmate prose. Even in this age of the Internet, with its easily accessible porn, Playboy claims more than 3 million subscribers, ranking it among the country's top-circulating magazines.

To ferret out Playboy's message to its, um, readers, Beggan began in 1998 to assemble a database that contained all the photos and text from the 204 Playboy Playmate pictorials that appeared in the magazine between 1985 and 2001. Much of it was distilled from a cache of Playboys he found gathering dust in a Louisville bookstore. (And, of course, in the interest of scholarship, he just had to rescue them from oblivion.)

Beggan and Allison, writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Popular Culture, found a pattern to the way that Playboy's wordsmiths described the women who graced the magazine's centerfold. They were typically strong, career-oriented, aggressive and, in a surprising number of instances, downright "tough." Adjectives suggesting vulnerability, submissiveness or passivity appeared less frequently.

But are these women really as they were described? Perhaps not, Beggan acknowledges. But it doesn't matter: "This is the image of them that is being presented to men. The Bible or Shakespeare teach important lessons; it doesn't matter who wrote them" or whether the story lines cleave tightly to historic fact.

Beggan, who's been a subscriber to Playboy for a decade, has enraged some feminists by arguing that Playboy doesn't treat women merely as sex objects and "is not really about men getting laid, but about teaching men how to be better men." Rather than poised Hefneresque swingers, he argues, Playboy targets "uncertain guys who are trying to learn" how to be more sensitive to women's needs.

After all, he says, the symbol of Playboy is a "furry bunny, not a tiger."

Notice how gas prices shot up virtually overnight after Hurricane Katrina -- but are falling much more slowly now?

We have only ourselves to blame, says an Ohio State University economist who studied how people shop for gasoline. Matthew Lewis found that the typical person hunts for the lowest possible prices when costs are rising -- but gets lazy and doesn't shop around when prices start to come down. As a consequence, gas station owners and other businesses have less incentive to lower prices when their wholesale costs drops.

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