Feministing Reads: Beatriz Preciado’s Pornotopia

jpeg (1)Late one night in 2001, philosopher and occasional insomniac Beatriz Preciado was watching TV to fall back asleep when suddenly Hugh Hefner — also in pajamas, also lying in bed — appeared on the screen. He was giving an interview from bed, which seemed strange. Even stranger, though, was his explanation for founding Playboy, ostensibly the most influential magazine of the Cold War. Hefner described his efforts to escape suburban domesticity by alluding to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. What, wondered Preciado, did Hefner’s erotic and lifestyle publication have to do with Woolf?

This curiosity led Preciado to weeks of reading through the entire Playboy archive in a New York library. “Nothing was what I expected,” s/he wrote of this initial encounter. “There were more architecture plans, interior-decoration pictures, and design objects than naked women. What was the relationship between gender, sexuality and architecture? How to explain Hefner’s obsession with ‘male domesticity’ and modern design?” Preciado’s Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics, published first in Spanish in 2010 and released in English this October by Zone Books attempts an answer to these questions. Where their earlier Testo Junkie combined auto-fiction and the history of technology to theorize the “pharmacopornographic era” through intimate, electric self-experimentation, Pornotopia turns our attention to this era through accessing its architecture.

From its first issue in 1953, Playboy was never just selling its readers sex but a new experience of sexuality — one which involved redefining the traditional uses of domestic interior spaces. Hefner’s magazine, through its glossy architectural spreads and photographs, carved out a post-domestic habitat where, in Hefner’s words, “a single man had absolute control over his environment.” Where contemporary feminist language at the time spoke of escaping from domesticity, the manifesto of the playboy sought to reconquer the domestic as a “room of his own.” Hefner’s new masculine subject, the Playboy, required a home away from home to “play” with his sexuality.

For Preciado, Hefner’s defense of men’s right to the home emerges as one of “the most significant heterosexual counter narratives to the gender divisions of the Cold War regime.” Lamenting in an editorial that “the overwhelming percentage of homes is furnished by women,” Playboy questioned the gendered relationship between domesticity and femininity, hoping for its new man to recolonize the space women had “expropriated from him.”

Thus begins Hefner’s creation of utopian spaces — his designs for the “playboy penthouse apartment,” “kitchenless kitchen,” and “rotating bed” and his construction of Playboy clubs and mansions across the country in the 1960s — that were “undressing the private space in front of the eyes of North America.” Through Preciado’s study of journals, architectural blueprints, video, and photographs, Playboy’s multimedia operation is brought to life as a series of textual and material sites for the mass production and consumption of pornography — in other words, as the first postwar pornotopia.

This is not to say that Hefner’s alternative to the suburban family home  — which aspired to a new form of white heterosexual masculinity and patriarchal supremacy — was radical. To the contrary, his designs for the playboy’s penthouse and counter-narratives to suburban monogamy reproduced a “premodern distribution of gendered spaces” along with the era’s dominant sexist, racist, and homophobic discourses. The playboy, thus “liberated,” had to constantly avoid the suspicion that he was a homosexual or a communist, the two cardinal sins of the postwar era.

To enforce the “straightness” of the playboy’s character, the magazine’s photography of interior private spaces attempted to avoid implicating its reader in a potentially homoerotic gaze. The signature male pleasure of reading Playboy — “seeing without being seen” — was established by replacing the peephole, the crack, the window, the private fourth wall with a camera that intruded into “feminine” private spaces where women could be watched as they went about on daily tasks — hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree, for instance. The magazine, in combining the practice of reading with masturbation, was careful to always show women separately from men “in order,” as Preciado explains, “to set up a rigorous separation of the subject and the object of the gaze.” Yet a group of men looking at images of women together, like Hefner and his friends at the Mansion, still could not shake homoerotic associations. A complimentary female figure was called for, then, in Hefner’s urban bachelor-dom. But who would she be, if not a housewife, and what role would she play in his anti-family, post-domestic vision?

Enter the Playmate. She was, for Hefner, part of a crusade to re-sexualize the girl-next-door, the anonymous “nice girl” of everyday life. But just as the common reader of Playboy had to be guarded against accusations that he was a political dissident or sexual pervert, his Playgirl had to distinguish herself from being a “loose girl” or a sexual threat. She was, therefore, presented by Hefner as a “nice clean girl,” seduced by men but unable herself to control her powers of seduction. Glamorized in color photography resembling the pin-up paintings circulated during the war, the playgirl in the magazine’s centerfold was presented in such a way that to read her, coded as an exclusively masculine act, was also to striptease her.

Preciado’s concluding analysis of Playboy’s past — its spatial reconfigurations of leisure, gender and labor — also points to an understanding of our present. Though the magazine is no longer profitable today, and its pornographic ecology pales in comparison to the Internet’s, Hefner’s symbolic empire remains fertile. S/he writes: “The children of the postwar baby boom have grown old with Hefner, and yet, thanks to Playboy, their male sovereignty — supplemented by chemical and narco technologies, media proliferation, or simply money — has not been damaged a bit.” The time has come to seize the means of pornofication from the patriarchy.

Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

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