A Halo or Horns? The Playboy Club

Disclaimer: The following post will require that you be willing to engage in adult content, film theory, and iPhone apps.

The slippage of meaning in words is part of what makes it fun to talk.  Think Shakespeare and his irascible puns; think Conan and Colbert and their commentary; think Derrida and differance.  Okay, maybe don’t think about linguistic theory.  Think about sex.  And porn.  And erotica.  And titillation.  Yes, when they are in italics that means the word itself, the letters in a row—not what you’re picturing in your head.

Despite their slipperiness, I’d like to say a few words about how important it is to try to hang on to the distinguishing feature of words: that they really do help us get a grip on reality.  And keeping a grip on reality is really important if you want to have anything to do with it.

The Playboy Club---cultural examination or tantalizing temptation?

The Playboy Club---cultural examination or tantalizing temptation?

This fall, NBC is premiering a new show called The Playboy Club; lots of people are petitioning that NBC refrain from premiering pornography on mainstream network television.  Not a new idea, this petitioning of a network or corporation to refrain from selling or distributing material considered detrimental to society.  It’s at the very heart of American democracy that a lot of names on a piece of paper with lots of words on it has the power to effect change.

But—and here’s the key—the words need to have meaning.  They have to make mutual sense among the parties involved.  And herein is the problem with the above petition, and many others like it, that have identified a perceived threat to society’s health and tried to do something.  Using words to describe, to literally “write in the air,” something that they don’t mean…well, it means nothing.

Ok, so that was a bit of pedantic explanation.  Let’s break it down a bit.

1. The Playboy Club is not porn. It is a drama with lots of sexual content, but it is not porn. Porn is (and I consult the most reliable source on the planet, my iPhone dictionary app): obscene writing, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit.  And, although I don’t intend to entertain a debate about what qualifies as artistic merit, I can answer the follow-up in line, “What is obscene?” Well, again according to my iPhone, something obscene is causing uncontrolled sexual desire.  It is important to understand and uphold the distinguishing power of words.  One word (porn) indicates content that is designed to arouse and satisfy nothing but sexual desire.  Therefore, it doesn’t apply to a television “drama about a time and place that challenged the existing social mores and transformed American culture forever…[where] all that glitters is not gold.”

2. Furthermore, The Playboy Club is not endorsing porn.  Pornography is primarily a private indulgence—-hidden from view.  The show is examining the life and culture of [un]fulfilled sexual fantasies, which takes place in a specific place: a club.  A club is usually full of people.

Ok, so now that The Playboy Club is off the hook, is it innocent of all the damaging affects to society of which it stands accused?

The Jefferson Memorial----temple to words of liberty and great (ironic) example of "aura"

The Jefferson Memorial----temple to words of liberty and great (ironic) example of "aura"

3. No, The Playboy Club is not innocent of all charges.  By airing a show full of erotic and provocative dialog and imagery, it is tempting the audience to involve in sexual fantasy—and once involved, the viewer will want to realize (fulfill) the fantasy.  Since I spared you linguistic theory earlier, allow me to walk you through some basic film theory:

  • The very act of watching television creates a sense of “aura”–the type of glorification associated with heroes and idols and temples–around the content.  The figures are forever out of reach, ensconced in a beautiful shroud.
  • Human beings are physiologically and psychologically wired to want (1) to bring things closer and (2) to reproduce them—even more so now than in any previous era because of the ethos of immediacy and replication in which we now live and move and have our being.  See re-tweets, web cams, and FaceTime as exhibits A, B, and C in the affirmative evidence.
  • Our natural response, therefore, to something interesting that we see on television is “to pry [the] object from its shell, to destroy its aura [as] the mark of the ‘universal equality of things.'”  So says, Walter Benjamin, who theorized about this stuff back in 1936 when Hollywood glamour was at its height.

4.  Therefore, The Playboy Club does represent a risk for society’s detriment.  We’ve just looked at how we want to actualize what we see onscreen.  Why are there so many annoying commercials for cleaning products?  We see the product, want the product, buy the product, and the producers make more commercials so that we will again see the product, want the product, buy the product, and so forth.  Our first-world wealth and American independence empowers us to feel entitled in just that way.  And the same principle that sells Lysol plays out with dramas that have lots of sexual content.  The more we offer onscreen, the more people want it.

5. But, people are stupid and selfish.  When they want something, they don’t often check to make sure that it has integrity.  Men that want to be surrounded by beautiful women who will do any sexual act they please don’t usually stop to make sure that those women are there by choice.  They don’t often think about the repercussions for their personal relationships.  Women that want to be sexy and beautiful and petted by wealthy men don’t usually stop to make sure that the man will follow through on his promises, that he won’t beat her, and that she can leave when she wants.  And they, too, may never consider the repercussions for their personal relationships.

So, The Playboy Club may not be porn and it may not endorse porn, but its existence as a network television show will surely create a situation in which people will be set up to privately indulge their fantasies.  And the track record of humanity’s stupid and selfish traits indicates that such an indulgence will probably put many, many people at risk for exploitation, victimization, and personal injury–on both sides of the “fourth wall” that we like to think separates us from role playing and reality.  (This is not the show’s intention—otherwise, why would the same producer who brought us Law and Order: SVU be willing to back it?)

iPhone---is it a good things to have the whole world in our hands?

iPhone---is it a good things to have the whole world in our hands?

While the Playboy revolution of the 60s was important for pushing people to recognize themselves as sexual beings (versus the domestic automatons of the 50s), the shame that continues to surround the culture of sex keeps even 2011 sexuality hidden. And that hiddenness that covers the natural human insistence that our dreams come close and replay on loop, that hiddenness more than anything, is what empowers exploitation. It’s not the content itself that’s the threat; it’s our human propensity to reach out and grab hold of it, regardless of the effects of that action. The petition should not be about the “pornography” of The Playboy Club.  It should address the aura of the TV—the way we respond by extending our reach, ripping it out of the cultural conversation, and trying to replicate it in reality, as if we could hold the whole world in our hands.

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