Opinion

Why is Playboy intent on bankrupting itself by opening a Bunny Club in 2018?

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Harvey Day
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Playboy has opened a new Bunny club in New York City complete with “alluring Playboy Bunny hostesses, waitresses and cocktail servers.” But is this blast from the past really OK in 2018 - and is it what straight men even want? 

The Playboy Bunny has become “a symbol of the past”, Hugh Hefner told the New York Times back in 1986.

“I’m not having any sleepless nights,” he said about the failure of his Playboy Club enterprise. “If anything, it’s a little overdue.”

The late Hugh Hefner, a cartoonish and often unsettling figure of 20th century American life, admitted decades ago that his decadent lifestyle and entertainment brand based on scantily-clad women was dated; it represented the past.

But if you ask his successor and son, 27-year-old Cooper Hefner, he’ll tell you that Playboy and its vision of the world are as alive and vibrant as ever.

So much so that Playboy has opened a brand-new Bunny club in midtown Manhattan, where top-level membership will reportedly set you back $250,000 (£193,000).

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Hugh Hefner with his son and heir Cooper 

“The space will feature a lounge area, a game room and a full-service dining room, but by far the most attractive feature of Playboy Club New York will undoubtedly be the return of the Playboy Bunnies to Manhattan,” said the excited press release issued before the launch.

“The alluring Playboy Bunny hostesses, waitresses and cocktail servers have a worldwide, well-deserved reputation for their style and graciousness. The décor will feature elements from the sexy and sophisticated aesthetic of Playboy’s rich history integrated with the energy of New York, one of the world’s most exciting destinations.”

But the big question is: aren’t clubs like this now outdated in #metoo 2018? And just as relevant: do men even want to go to clubs like this anymore?

If you look at the economics of ‘brestaurants,’ the outlook doesn’t appear at all rosy for the new Playboy Club.

Last year, it was reported that the restaurant chain Hooters had shut down nearly 10% of its locations because of stagnating sales.

And the original Playboy club chain, famously exposed by feminist author Gloria Steinem who wrote about conditions in one of the NYC venues in 1963, closed the last of its clubs in 1988 – and successive attempts at rebooting the franchise haven’t proved particularly successful either.

Gloria Steinem undercover as a Playboy bunny

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Back on this side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, a scandal emerged this year when an undercover reporter alleged that hostesses were groped at a men-only annual charity dinner at the exclusive and swanky Presidents Club in London.

In 2018, when the public is being confronted with near daily, high-profile examples of men abusing their positions of power to assault and harass women, the new Playboy Club feels like a throwback to a seedy past we have no interest in reliving. 

And straight men, who are more and more rejecting typically ‘masculine’ things like stag dos, are much less likely to want to do things that are only designed for men.

So what are people’s reactions to this development?

Mike, a writer from London (who is straight), is in no doubt.

He told me: “This move strikes me as, at best, misguided and at worst, deeply offensive. Playboy as a brand made millions of dollars out of the exploitation of women, and surely as a society we’ve moved beyond the point where that is acceptable.

“I am presumably the exact target market for this place, and I would rather dine in a sewer than be seen walking into it. The idea of this being a high-end place a man would be proud to associate himself with and boast about visiting is baffling.

“Saying ‘Come to this place, it has pretty women dressed as rabbits’ is patronising as hell towards potential male customers (not to mention the fact that the bunny thing is literally dehumanising), and the appeal of hanging out somewhere that seems specifically unwelcoming towards female customers is pretty gross.”

He added: “This will fail. Could Playboy as a thing not have died with the grabby, grotty old bastard who started it?”

The Washington DC-based human rights organisation Rights4Girls, which works to end gender-based violence against young women and girls, said about the new club: “Sad that as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are exposing the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace, someone thought it was a great idea to bring back the archaic Playboy Club and ‘bunny’ culture of the ‘60s…”

While it seems pretty clear that male-dominated spaces like the Playboy Club, where the fundamental purpose is for men to leer at women’s bodies, are properly outdated nowadays, there’s still an interesting question about how men can express themselves sexually in 2018.

Because in truth, men don’t really need to go to strip clubs or buy Playboy magazines anymore when these things just can’t compete with the endless torrent of pornography at our fingertips. And more and more of our sexuality is now expressed in this private, online world, via pornography and sexting over messaging apps.

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In this realm, rather than in public strip club spaces, men are free to indulge their deepest fantasies – so why would any guy bother going to the Playboy Club, which seems pretty tame in comparison?

Now, this isn’t too say that online pornography is an ethically better choice than going to a strip club, like our fathers or grandfathers might have done.

No, in fact, the online pornography that most younger people have grown up with is often misogynistic (and often racist) and it typically confirms some of the most damaging ideas about what it means to be a man.

David Simon, writer of The Wire and porn drama The Deuce, recently discussed on the New Yorker podcast how he thinks this spread of pornography has had a detrimental effect on the way men treat women in the modern world – and especially how men treat women online.

In effect, we now have a duality in our modern sexual lives; a disjuncture between our public, respectable selves and our online sexual selves. So the very public sexual nature of the Playboy Club will more than likely be its downfall. 

There’s definitely an uneasiness about how to be a modern, sexual man in 2018 - but something so backwards-looking as the Playboy Club is most definitely not the solution. 

David Simon, with his The Deuce stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco (who found himself at the centre of the #MeToo discussion recently)

There’s another interesting way to look at this, however: by attacking the Playboy Club, aren’t we being anti-sex and don’t we run the risk of shaming women who have chosen this line of work?

Perhaps. Why should it be up to men to determine an appropriate way for women to make a living? It shouldn’t.

But when you look at the reality of the work the Playboy Club staff will be doing, you can see some of the inherent disadvantages.

“In this age of Me Too and Time’s Up we know that restaurant workers are among the most sexually harassed because they’re exempt from minimum-wage laws and dependent on tips,” Gloria Steinem told the New York Times. “Also seminude corsets and high heels are painful to work in.”

I think the uneasiness here with the Playboy Club comes from the fact that it’s designed (almost exclusively) to appeal to straight men, who are the least-marginalised and most-powerful group in society. Do straight men really need another space in the world to sit and leer and grope and drink and express their masculine power? In a few choice words: no f*cking way.

So what is this Playboy Club all about, really? Is it a last gasp of entitled male privilege? Or maybe a doomed attempt to stop the #MeToo tidal wave? There’s probably a little bit of truth in both of these.

But ultimately it probably comes down to cold hard cash. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal pointed out Playboy magazine has lost up to $7 million annually in the past several years, and has seen its circulation fall to less than 500,000 an issue.

Like a crumbling empire, Playboy is doing anything it can to survive. But, just like Hefner said, those days have been over for a long time. 

(Images: Getty)