Review of Accidental Playboy and Some Thoughts on Feminism and Playboy Accidental Playboy: Caught in the Ultimate Male Fantasy
By Leif Ueland
Reviewed by Krista Jacob When Accidental Playboy: Caught in the Ultimate Male Fantasy first crossed my desk, I was less than impressed.
A cover photo sporting an unremarkable man encircled by sexy, scantily clad women did little to peak my interest, intellectual or otherwise; and the back cover's cast of all male reviewers lauding it as "outlandish and hilarious," "sexy," and "a moving journey through sin and redemption," made me wonder if this would be yet another kid-in-the-candy-store male report from the frontlines of mainstream porn.
But there was something in the subtitle, Caught in the Ultimate Male Fantasy that started me reading, and I'm glad I did.
It is here that we meet Leif Ueland, a modern day sensitive male with a low self-esteem and weekly therapist appointments. He is a freelance writer struggling to write a best-seller when the opportunity to document Playboy's search for the "Playmate of the Millennium" falls squarely into his lap.
Before his "journey" begins, he reveals with stunning honesty his sexual dysfunctions, a five-year stint with celibacy (not by choice), and intense inner conflict about what it means to be a man in our culture.
The fact is, I'm not especially sure about the male thing. That's not to suggest these are the words of a woman trapped in a man's body. But I'm not ready to state they're the work of a man trapped in a man's body, either, at least as currently defined. I don't really know how to explain it, other than the hesitancy I experience when faced with the male/female option on a form. I feel other.
A walking oxymoron, he is an unlikely candidate for a guy living the "ultimate male fantasy".
But, financial pressures coupled with good ol' fashioned, primal curiosity prevail and we accompany Ueland on a pornographic, transcontinental bus tour in search of Playboy's "Playmate of the Millennium".
As the playmate search begins so does his participation in the erotic world of beautiful, eager women vying for the title, "Playmate of the Millennium". Before we can say "sexist pig," he is patronizing strip clubs, gratuitously observing nude photo shoots, having one-night stands with playmate hopefuls, sneaking peeks at nude photos, and judging a New Orleans bikini contest, all previously taboo behaviors for this quintessential "nice guy". Yet, while he revels in this erotic experience, he is simultaneously repelled by the darker side of the porn/sex industry (economics, dehumanization of women, and aggressive, sexist male behavior) and sickened by his own participation in it.
His first-hand accounts of the Playboy search reveal how the harmless can quickly become harmful. In attempt to narrow the pool of playmate hopefuls, their photos are reduced to an insulting 1-3 ranking system accompanied by harsh criticism of their facial features, hair, and body parts. Ueland writes, "they (the women) seemed almost slightly higher than human," a poignant commentary about a magazine that claims to celebrate women's bodies.
All of this begs the question: how does a man who looks like Hugh Hefner find the nerve to promote such strict standards of beauty? It speaks volumes to the pernicious double standards that pervade our understanding of beauty, once again giving women the short end of the stick.
Ueland's behaviors will undoubtedly leave many feminists uncomfortable and some possibly outraged. However, this feminist found his honesty refreshing and, frankly, empathized with his desire to be sexual in a culture in which sex and sexuality are laden with violence, objectification, and corporate profit. Politically correct pornography seems an impossible (and unappealing?) notion; subsequently, the world of pornography is either pushed underground--relegated to locked bathrooms--or vilified entirely. Neither of these two options holds tremendous possibility for anyone's sexual agency. Further, if we want to change the sexual messages promoted by pornography, we first need to have honest conversations about these messages, which means that men (as well as women) must be allowed a wide range of sexual experiences and feelings as they relate to pornography. Hopefully, there will still be enough room for self-reflection, cultural analysis, and education.
Pornography needn't be entirely intellectual, but we could be a bit smarter about all of it.
Truth be told, I've grown very tired of the guilty, "sensitive male" types, paralyzed by their own guilt and fear, incapable of exploring cultural messages they've received from pornography. Their passivity does nothing to raise awareness about positive, healthy sexual representation. But, Leif Ueland's Accidental Playboy is a good first step on our way there.
Yet, despite his fairly comprehensive approach, there is another side of both pornography and feminism that Ueland misses completely: pro-pornography feminism.
In the first few pages, he is quick to lay out a rich feminist lineage of grandmothers and mothers (shaping an image of women who "did not need help from men, lapsed into foreign languages, and wrote books about Simone de Beauvoir"), including a great-grandmother who is a famous suffragette, but he stops short of telling us why this is relevant or how it might inform his own conflicts about riding on a bus where women are bunnies and men are dogs.
Feminism vs. Playboy is no longer a constant in the pages of feminist theory nor in the pages of Playboy itself. Feminists for Free Expression (FFE) joined Christie Hefner, CEO of Playboy and daughter of Hugh, at the Annual Playboy First Amendment Awards in 2000, and the organization has a history of an amiable relationship with the magazine. Old man Hefner has chilled on his feminist bashing and the magazine has interviewed important feminists like Erica Jong, Betty Freidan, Susan Sarandon, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jane Fonda. Furthermore, Playboy has included nude pictorials of unconventional beauties like WWF's Chyna and Sandra Berhard, challenging the narrow model of sexual beauty they are accused of promoting. Times have changed since Gloria Steinem first donned her bunny ears and gave Playboy a well-deserved lashing, but Leif Ueland doesn't seem to know it.
I think it's worth noting that Generation X/Third Wave feminists are a culmination of all the varying views on pornography(footnote), from religious to civil libertarian to anti-pornography feminism. Yet, many (dare I say most?) appreciate and support independently produced pornography as well as mainstream corporate pornography like Playboy, and believe they can be useful vehicles for women, both professionally and erotically. Some third wave feminists have come forward to tell about their own experiences in the sex industry and are much less concerned about the capitalist driven (meat) marketing of women's bodies and sexuality, but instead are critical of the air brushing and other photographic and surgical doctoring that makes standards for sexual beauty unattainable. (One need only see the pictorial of Sarah Kozer, a finalist in the reality show Joe Millionaire, to see the marked difference between even television and Playboy realities--imagine the difference between real life reality and reality a´ la Playboy.)
Leif Ueland's Accidental Playboy gives us a window view into the world of mainstream porn and a thoughtful man's place within it. He humanizes the women looking to expand their small lives through Playboy and the staff that is there to help them do it (including a former seminary student turned Playboy photographer). Accidental Playboy will perhaps challenge Playboy's large male readership/viewership to mix a little critical thinking and self-reflection with their porn.
Like pornographic images themselves, Ueland's anecdotes are shocking, funny, erotic and poignant. He writes with ease about sex and sexuality and in many places his writing is quite artful. Yet, his writing would read easier with fewer exclamation points and italics. The outrageous anecdotes do not run the risk of being understated!
His strengths are perhaps his book's greatest failure: his smart and honest analysis, coupled with his willingness to go where few feminist friendly men have gone before, left me wanting more from him. I wanted him to understand that feminism is not the monolithic picture he paints, and I wanted to hear what he thinks about it.
Ueland emerges from his Playboy journey, a smarter, less guilty, and more sexual man who manages to find peace with his own maleness. And who would have thought participating in the search for "Playmate of the Millennium" would have been the catalyst? Truth is stranger than fiction.
Krista Jacob, MS, is editor-in-chief and founder of Sexing the Political: A journal of third wave feminists on sexuality. She has a long history of involvement in women’s issues, including domestic violence, sexual assault, reproductive freedom, and women’s health and sexuality. She presents at state and national conferences on issues related to violence against women, third wave feminism, motherhood, images of women in the media, abortion, and adolescent women's issues. At present, she is a writer and lecturer.
Ms. Jacob’s written work has appeared in Just Sex: Students Rewrite the Rules on Sex, Violence, Activism, and Equality, (Rowman & Littlefield), The Minnesota Women's Press, and numerous feminist journals. She is the editor of Our Choices, Our Lives: Unapologetic Writings on Abortion.
Recently, Ms. Jacob was given the Humanitarian Award for Outstanding Alumni from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
If you would like to inquire about bringing Ms. Jacob to speak in your community or to set up an interview, please contact sexingthepolitical.