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.

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  • blickblocks

    “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.”
    Don’t make the naive mistake of confusing children’s entertainment with adult simply because they’re both animated.

  • uberhausfrau

    actually, ive been meaning to make a post about the new “all grown up” dora the explorer doll that’s out. a doll based on a preschool show being shown as appropriate for “5+” doesnt need to have a budding chest, in my opinion.

  • nikki#2

    I think she is talking about trends here. Sexualizing young characters, outright porn for mature characters… Where is this going and where will it stop. That is how I read it.

  • A female Marine

    I think the idea that Playboy “gave up on human women altogether, and started putting actual cartoons in the centerfold” is off the mark.
    I seriously doubt that from here on out, Playboy covers will be cartoons because they just can’t find any women who fit their idea of a woman. I think it’s a clever (by Playboy standards) use of a famous ADULT cartoon character.
    I don’t think men will ever get tired of looking at real naked human women. (photoshopped or not)

  • Athenia

    I eagerly await Family Guy’s Lois’s Playboy photoshoot!

  • DeafBrownTrash

    the new make-overs of Dora the Explorer and Strawberry Shortcake (along with those Bratz dolls) remind me of this:
    http://www.boingboing.net/2009/11/02/portraits-of-child-b.html
    gross.

  • whaler

    google “hentai”

  • Gesyckah

    This was covered on a local news show a few weeks ago. According to the news (I can’t believe I just typed that) Playboy is seeking to reach out to a younger audience. Honestly, it nearly made me curious enough to pick up the issue. I’m also inexplicably happy about them choosing Marge instead of Lois Griffin.

  • Terrils

    I’d have argued – and the OP might agree – that the pron industry gave up on potraying real women long ago. Despite that real women (though only those in a certain percentile, and themselves often plastic-surgeried to the point of caricature) often form the foundation for the images, photoshop has ensured that nothing real remains to be seen. It’s terrifying to realize how marketing has made normal human features into flaws – and how very many people have fallen for it, to their own detriment

  • Roodies24

    This could be seen totally differently–I think it’s a silly and ridiculous photo spread that does more to make fun of porn and female objectification than it does to endorse it. (see the images here: http://git.to/8j) It reads as if Playboy is poking fun at itself by holding up a cartoon image–especially since it’s Marge and not, say, Jessica Rabbit–as sexy and sexual. Since Marge poses in typically come-hither ways, I can see the way in which she conforms to patriarchal views of female sexuality. But at the same time, the overwhelming emphasis of the photo spread seems to be on humor and her cartoon-ness, which renders the sexual aspects humorous as well. And because the sexiness and the objectification are funny, they are less powerful.
    On the more serious side, this spread could even be read as Playboy pointing out the way a seemingly nonsexual woman–Marge, the stereotypical TV mom–can be sexual, which is in it’s own way revolutionary. Or it could be a send-up of patriarchal views and expectations of women: Playboy is unintentionally asking, what does it mean when only cartoon characters can conform to our sexual ideals? Before lumping these images among other ones that objectify women, I think it’s more interesting to look at the ways in which they differ and perhaps contribute to a questioning of norms.

  • Terrils

    I think it’s important, though, to remember that there comes a point (well, it’s long past) when men aren’t actually looking at real women in any sense of the word. They’re looking at a creature all but entirely made out of photoshop. The problem (and I don’t mean to suggest you aren’t aware of it) is that this becomes the “ideal” with which no real woman could ever compete – not even the model the photoshop image was based on. Real women have enough pressure to be entirely plastic and false and at men’s sexual service in our culture; we need to resist this robotification in every way possible.

  • aleks

    women whose bodies look like cartoonish exaggerations of the female form
    Back to 101 . . .

  • Chasing_Hermes

    When my male friend recently told me about playboy’s decision to put Marge on the cover, my immediate response was, “Cool!”
    Marge is “real” in a very profound, albeit pixilated way. Sure, she’s a cartoon character–but in a long-running social satire that paints her in a complex, relevant way. Far from being static or “two-imensional”–she’s MULTI-dimensional, a part of the constantly-evolving social discourses that the show produces. She’s an overworked, anxiety-ridden mom (and consciously displayed as such), but she’s also feisty and vocal. And the Playboy context isn’t the first time that her sexuality is highlighted. I always loved that the show hinted at the couple’s spicy sex-life. Come on, we’ve all seen the scenes with Marge, heavy-lidded in her nighty, purring suggestively at an enthusiastic, tighty-wighty-clad Homer. I always thought that the show had a sex-positive bent to it.
    It might be tempting to say that Playboy is banking on the fetishization of Marge as a cartoon MILF, but I would argue that this is one of Playboy’s more subversive moves. There seems to be a problematic link in Chloe’s article that associates “cartoonification” with “dehumanization.” Animated characters (whether in TV, comic books, or other media) have more depth and relevancy than surface commodification. They are us.

  • lucierohan

    I wrote a short post on the feminist blog I belong to called “A Love Letter to Marge Simpson,” addressing Marge as a character and the absurdity of Playboy’s presentation of her in this issue:
    http://genderagenda.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/a-love-letter-to-marge-simpson/

  • A female Marine

    Um…that’s what I said. (“photoshopped or not”) I meant “real” as opposed to cartoons like Marge or Lois.

  • Mr M. Crockett

    This may well be seen as subversive, or as Playboy making fun of itself/the patriarchy, but, the sad truth is that if any of this is true, it happened by accident.
    What has happened here is simple. Soft core magazines have seen there circulations plummet in recent years. There is still no shortage of (mostly) men wanting to look at pron (delibarate, Googleproof typo), but, most won’t pay for it when they can get it for free on the internet.
    So, Playboy needed a gimmick. That’s all this is.

  • creebakthedestroyer

    I’d just look it up Wikipedia. It’s only a bonus if you go through life having never seen Hentai.

  • Phenicks

    Some women ARE naturally built that way- few and far inbetween may but some of us ARE naturally built that way. Let’s stop making fun of or saying a woman isn’t real because you don’t like her natural shape or its hard to get her shape without surgical enhancements. Some women just have really smooth flawless skin. All of them? No! But do they search for women who have that flawless look? Of course they do. I’m sure many if not most get some kind of surgical enhancement but it isn’t fair to make a blanket statement as if no woman on earch could ever possibly be shaped or look like that naturally.

  • Comrade Kevin

    Playboy used to, in its heyday, feature interesting interviews and articles, but with time it all more or less became soft core pornography that was airbrushed and unnatural before it became active practice on other, more socially acceptable magazines.

  • kandela

    Ironically Marge Simpson might be the closest to an average woman that Playboy has had on their cover.

  • Concerned Marsupial

    women whose bodies look like cartoonish exaggerations of the female form
    Having been underweight and underfat (or, as you kindly put it, “not-quite-human”) once, I really hate comments like this. In high school everyone thought I had an eating disorder and kept bugging me about it, even though I just had high metabolism. I don’t have a large chest, but some skinny women do, and I don’t think they would appreciate being called cartoonish.
    I realize that what I’m about to say will probably give someone a heart attack, but here goes: I have average body fat now since my lifestyle is not quite as active as before, but I am not used to it and while my body image is largely unaffected, I would prefer to go back to being slightly underfat for sheer convenience’s sake; the sensation of things bulging out is very foreign to me. When overweight women feel good about their bodies and comfortable in them, or prefer to be slightly overweight, it usually is applauded by feminists, myself included. But the idea that anyone would prefer to be skinnier than average for any other reason than internalized patriarchy must not occur to people very often, I guess.
    As far as porn goes, I think the main problems (aside from the issues that porn actors usually face) there is that it is catered mainly to the straight male audience, including so-called “couples” movies. And, of course, the huge double standard when it comes to girl-on-girl vs. guy-on-guy sex. But as far as the appearance of the women in porn, I was expecting to see completely airbrushed imagery before my husband and I started watching porn together, which was pretty recently. Of course, implants and blond hair are highly prevalent, but after all the posts i read on here and elsewhere, I was surprised to see things like blemishes, a missed hair here and there and protruding labia – you know, the same things that happen to the rest of the female population. And those were professional films with contract stars.
    I recommend Renegade Evolution’s blog on women in porn and their image. Maybe start with this post

  • kaija

    There are some examples in Playboy where the airbrushing is so extensive (or poorly done?) that parts of a photo actually look like cartoons/drawn on! So putting Marge Simpson in there is just the unreality taken to its extreme conclusion.
    My boyfriend gets Playboy and I read it on the toilet. We’re both pretty secure and open about our respective porn use/interests and able to separate fantasy and reality, while using fantasy to launch some good conversations about serious topics like gender roles, sexuality, cultural scripts and also fun ones like what we like/don’t like/things we’d like to try, etc.
    He really doesn’t like the Playboy “look” (too airbrushed, too artificial, too homogeneous…which is similar to what a lot of my male friends relate) and thinks most of the popular “hot” actresses don’t do it for him, but he’s also beyond the frat boy stage of life. He’s pretty astute in general about sexual and gender politics, and listens to my feminist rants/activism with interest and asks questions (though sometimes I am even tiresome to myself).
    I have to say that some of the articles ARE pretty interesting, and not much “worse” than Cosmo BS. Also the advice given in their Advisor column is usually pretty decent, ala Dan Savage (communicate instead of assume/mind read, don’t be a douchebag, respect your sexual partners, be honest about your wants and needs…).

  • Quinc

    I agree with the idea that playboy is more likely poking fun at itself here. I doubt that this is the result of any kind of evolution towards less realistic women, though that evolution does in fact exist. As the author explained, with the increasing use of photo shop I also have to wonder if they count as looking at real women.
    Somewhere along the line ‘realism’ was lost as a virtue in porn.
    Playboy is undoubtedly doing this mainly as a silly gimmick.

  • kandela

    I’ve never read Playboy but one of my all time favourite novels was first published as a serial in issues 2, 3, and 4: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. So I can believe that it is a far different magazine to what it started off as.

  • NellieBlyArmy

    I do find it interesting that they chose a cartoon character who is drawn with a relatively straight-up-and-down figure. They didn’t pick one that’s drawn like a Playboy centerfold or with “cartoonish proportions,” and I wonder what to make of that.

  • Toongrrl

    You made a point Kandela!! Me and my BFF, Amanda were shocked at this news!! We don’t see Marge posing in the nude in “Playboy” as well…Marge. It’s like putting a size 8 boot on a size 12 foot, can’t fit well. Marge seems to be a more realistic vision of female looks than say Lois, she’s not so stylish (don’t tell her I said that!), she is very sensible, and she is just plain awesome as a mom. Marge seems to have more in common with Wilma Flintstone, Irma Boyle (Wait Till Your Father comes home), Peggy Hill, and Helen Morgendorffer: they may be pleasant looking, observant in the domestic arts (not so much Helen), yet they’re not sex objects (they do have their sensuality and urge for pleasure) they’re not so much anti-stereotypes as they twist the stereotypes that exist (Wilma is an animated version of well-grounded and assertive Alice Kramden, Irma is a spin on Edith Bunker and would often provide comedy and some unexpectated wisdom with her conservative and serious husband, Peggy is a woman with many hats:mom, wife, rancher, spanish sub, guitarist, and a spunky woman all in one person, and Helen is a workaholic lawyer with Mama Bear tenencies. They’re all realistic visions of motherhood and I want to see them back in tv!!

  • ecd

    Actually, it is a fair statement. That’s exactly one of the points of this piece: no woman on earth can possibly be shaped or look like that naturally. None of these standard covers/ads/photoshoots feature women whose shapes or features haven’t been doctored in some way. Even if their “natural shape” or “flawless skin” already fits the [messed up] beauty standards we have going, it’s still not. good. enough. These women’s images are still doctored.
    No woman can ever hope to look like the women portrayed in these pictures because these images are not depictions of how these women really look.

  • Lea

    Using the world “cartoonish” to describe real women’s bodies- no matter how much plastic surgery they’ve had, no matter how many little flaws are airbrushed away, these are still, y’know, actual living people we’re talking about-is not okay.

  • Brittany

    What I don’t like about the Simpsons, Family Guy, The King of Queens, According to Jim, and every other sitcom you look at is that the guy is always fat, unromantic, and ignorant, and the woman is beautiful, smart, but a housewife. The guy is fine being a slob, but the woman has to be petite and lovely.

  • SaltyLilKipper

    I have never seen a woman who naturally looks like the women in mainstream porn. Yes, some women naturally have nearly invisible pores (I saw someone who had photoshop-like skin the other day). Yes, some women naturally have small-waists and large breasts.
    But there’s stills a huge difference between the way a woman with those traits looks in porn and the way a woman with those traits looks in real life.
    Breasts with implants in them look very different than natural breasts. Some implants are pretty “good” in that they can look more real, but the majority of the women in porn have breasts are very clearly surgically altered. They are often completely round, don’t move or hang in a natural way, and have a visible ridge around them. Breasts just don’t develop like that naturally. They come in all shapes and sizes on all different body types, but they don’t come looking like they have bags of saline or silicone shoved in them. They just don’t.

  • Toni

    To further elaborate on that. “Hentai” translates to mean strange. Most of hentai is very odd performing sex acts that porn stars psychially can’t. There are a small number of titles that are pretty animated versions of live-action porn films.
    I love anime, but hentai is a genre I typically stay away from since much of it is pretty disgusting and not just in a feminist sense.

  • SaltyLilKipper

    How so?