Sex and the Simpsons: Marge’s Playboy cover

margeplayboy.jpgLast month, the announcement that Marge Simpson, everyone’s favorite overworked and underappreciated cartoon mom, would grace the cover of the November issue of Playboy, caught some observers by surprise. I was not one of them. After all, Playboy has always depicted women as cartoonish and two-dimensional: the only thing that really sets this particular cover girl apart is that she has blue hair and eight fingers.
Women with cartoonish proportions and features are and have long been Playboy‘s bread and butter. When you open up a copy of Playboy, or of any other mainstream soft core porn magazine, the images of women you’re likely to find there are a far cry from reality. Surgically augmented breasts, topiaried pubic hair, uncomfortable-looking poses and often-overzealous airbrushing are porn industry standards and the result is that flipping through a copy of Playboy can leave you with a sneaking suspicion that the women staring seductively back at you aren’t quite real. Given its long-standing tradition of printing photos of women whose bodies look like cartoonish exaggerations of the female form, it was only a matter of time before Playboy gave up on human women altogether, and started putting actual cartoons in the centerfold.


Playboy and its mainstream print pornography rivals aren’t alone, of course. For years, mainstream porn films and online porn have brought us a vision of women, and particularly of women’s sexuality, that is little more than a caricature. In porn, women are always ready – no, always dying – for sex. In porn, women are aroused by degrading sex acts, like being coerced into sex or slapped in the face with a penis or being ejaculated on. In porn, women achieve orgasm after a mere twenty seconds of penetration preceded by absolutely no foreplay. Unfortunately, in the absence of accurate comprehensive sex education, and with internet porn now readily available, mainstream pornography is an increasingly influential source of information – or misinformation – about sex, for young men and women. And while the pornographic depiction of female sexuality might apply for a few women, it doesn’t ring true for most; even those of us who are otherwise pro-porn acknowledge that mainstream pornography’s depiction of sexuality, both male and female, has little basis in reality.
It’s not only in pornography that images of women are cartoonified. Just a few weeks ago, Ralph Lauren came under fire when its post-production department doctored a photo of the already slender model Filippa Hamilton until she looked more like a bobblehead than a human being. Digitally stretching, slimming or otherwise altering images of women until they look not-quite-human is an advertising industry standard. Actual cartoons, unlike human women, can be drawn without “flaws” like wrinkles or lines, and don’t require airbrushing or Photoshopping to “improve” them. By putting a cartoon on the cover, Playboy was probably able to slash its postproduction budget for the entire month of November, a welcome respite at a time when magazines revenue is falling at an alarming rate.
And of course, while Marge Simpson may be the first cartoon character to grace the cover of a soft porn magazine, the sexualization of cartoon characters is hardly unusual. Recent makeovers of beloved children’s cartoon characters have caused outrage and concern among parents and media commentators alike. The updated versions of Strawberry Shortcake and Dora the Explorer look several years older, and distinctly more feminine, than the originals. They’re curvier, they’re wearing makeup, and Dora has traded her practical sneakers for dainty ballet flats (not advisable footwear for exploring). And while Dora and Strawberry Shortcake aren’t likely to be found on the cover of Playboy any time soon, it’s clear that as a result of their makeovers, they’re not little girls any more.
Cartoonish images of women are everywhere in our culture, from sprayed and shellacked newscasters to bleached and bronzed pop stars. Could it be that Playboy was simply the first to accept a grim but inescapable reality: that soon, no amount of spray tan, hair dye, surgery or Photoshop will be enough to make human women match pornography’s plastic ideal of female beauty? Perhaps she’s just a one-off, a never-to-be-repeated cross-promotional event for Playboy and The Simpsons. Or perhaps Marge Simpson, curled up naked in a Playboy bunny chair on the cover of the November issue, is only the beginning.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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