We Are The Fire
On the death of Hugh Hefner
I cannot recall a time that I did not take a certain pride in my rebellions. That’s probably a good thing, given the tendency rebellions have to shape our journeys.
It’s bad form for the firstborn to come into this world a girl, thus I suppose that was my very first rebellion. I was expected to mind my place, and so made a habit of taking the things denied me. A proper young lady must not, I was told, and rather than rebel against the very concept, I — with all the audacity of a seven-year-old — made it a part of myself. By personifying the proper young lady, I did, and therefore, I could.
It was pleasing to subvert femininity in such a way. I recall many years later threatening my father, “I will do everything you’ve done and everything you’ve ever dreamed of doing, and I’ll do it better — and in stilettos.” I’ve made promises far more difficult to keep, but just the same — don’t scale a sea cliff in stilettos if you can avoid it.
The exploration of masculine-coded things to pilfer from and vandalize inevitably led me to Playboy. I was the bookish sort, the kind of person who wanted to stay in, lounging, talking about Nietzsche, listening to jazz, eating hors d’oeuvres and having high-voltage encounters — as Hefner had described in that first issue. It’s difficult to describe what it was like looking at this life that I was not allowed to have, a life I couldn’t even begin to imagine how to make for myself.
(“It’s so easy to get in the Mansion,” a friend would offer years later, after I got to L.A. “Just send me your picture, you’ll be in in no time.” I didn’t, but I’ll not pretend that it made any difference getting in through my writing. It didn’t matter. I was still expected to entertain, never to be entertained.)
I don’t entertain well.
I grew up surrounded by art, so Playboy magazine was not the first time that I saw women in the nude. But it was the first time that I took notice of women in the nude. Performing femininity meant that the women in its pages were immediately familiar to me, but there was a fun-house aspect to the images that was difficult to isolate. It took me some time to understand and more still to verbalize. You see, unlike many of the women in the paintings and sculptures around me — and even those sexualized on television — the women in Playboy were devoid of conflict. They were vacant.
It’s not nudity that offends me. It’s the vacancy, best summarized by something Hugh Hefner said in a 1967 interview about the Playmate: “She is never sophisticated, a girl you cannot really have. We are not interested in the mysterious, difficult woman, the femme fatale, who wears elegant underwear with lace — and she is sad, and somehow mentally filthy. The Playboy girl has no lace, no underwear, she is naked, well-washed with soap and water, and she is happy.”
I can’t say I chose to be difficult, mysterious, fatal and filthy, but being these things and knowing these characteristics were considered such a serious handicap made me commit myself fiercely to their preservation and refinement. I reserve the right to inhabit and exhibit my experience of conflict, sadness, vengeance, and refusal.
I could subvert the performance of femininity, but I drew a line at performing happiness.
Ultimately, the things I wanted most from the Playboy lifestyle were the things that were not meant for me — or any woman.
So, as with so many things, I stole what served and burned the rest. I still go through these stolen things, reexamining them alongside my own growing data set, and I still find things to burn.
We see more and more all the time.
Modern popular sex writing came into being with Playboy, and much of it today uncritically mirrors the libertarian foundation of the Playboy philosophy. By viewing the playing field as even, it can ignore the structural inequalities that make sex much more than merely a question of liberty.
This unstable foundation has enabled the co-optation of radical queer and feminist concepts to our detriment. On an even playing field, why wouldn’t a straight, cisgender man call out colleagues as slut-shamers when they tell him not to flag his Gorean kink at conferences? Why shouldn’t he argue that the subjugation of women is an orientation that should be protected?
On an even playing field, everything including harassment, abuse and assault gets evenly distributed, so cisgender men would know if an issue were serious enough to merit address, wouldn’t they? On an even playing field, everyone can say no, and power differentials and a history of abuse don’t impact a person’s ability to self-advocate, so why wouldn’t it be a submissive’s fault for failing to use their safeword? On an even playing field, we can do anything we like with our bodies, so why wouldn’t we allow capitalism to destroy them?
Can you hear the splash of accelerants, the scratch of a match? Can you taste the smell of sulphur? Take my hand.
We’re burning the playing field. We’re burning the notion of sex positivity, long since taken hostage to neutralize self-examination. We’re burning uncritical permissiveness. We’re burning evo-psych and the “freedom” that exists only for those who hold the most power.
We’ll keep the literature. We’ll keep the interviews. We’ll keep the recipes and the idea that straight, cisgender men should busy themselves with erotic labor if they want an erotic life. We’ll keep Vargas’ work. We’ll keep the disdain toward the State and its inherent white supremacist heterosexism that accomplished (if accidentally) Hefner’s much celebrated social justice triumphs.
We’ll keep a few things.
But this keeping — the fact that we’ve taken from Playboy and Hefner anything for ourselves is testament to our own resilience, not to him.
We aren’t bunnies, my dear. We never were. We don’t entertain. We don’t pretend we’re happy.
We take what we want. We are the fire.