Three blonde women, animated into bobble heads, dance around the Playboy mansion. They have perfectly curved bodies, smooth, unblemished skin, and platinum blonde hair that many girls would kill for. Their practiced smiles are glued to their faces as a rapidly aging Hugh Hefner joins the crowd. This is the visual stimulation as the opening credits for “The Girls Next Door” are shown. “The Girls Next Door” is a reality television show that first aired in 2005. It chronicles the lives of Hugh Hefner’s three girlfriends, Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson. It follows the girls through their daily lives within the house, the fabulous parties they attend, the work they do outside of the mansion, and their relationships with Hugh Hefner. The girls are interviewed on a regular basis to make comments about their plans and previous events. Thus, the viewers get an ongoing commentary and an up-close view of the dynamics in the Playboy mansion. Although it is an extremely entertaining show, the message it sends isn’t exactly encouraging. “The Girls Next Door” encourages and exemplifies the theory of enlightened sexism and feminism, enforces a strict form of patriarchy, and pits women against one another, which allows this practice of oppressing women to continue.
Enlightened feminism is an idea that Susan Douglas puts forward. It essentially suggests that all of feminism’s goals have been achieved so now it is appropriate for women to focus on their appearance and pleasing men. This is exactly what “The Girls Next Door” is doing. Their lives revolve around making themselves beautiful and attractive to men. Through appointments at salons, new, revealing, clothing, and dieting to get attractive bodies, these girls make themselves the icon of male desire. Their sexuality is an especially large part of what makes them attractive to men, and according to society, since all the goals of feminism have been reached, it’s perfectly alright to flaunt their heightened female sexuality. The film clip of the Fourth of July is particularly revealing, as far as this phenomenon. All the women are scantily clad is tiny bikinis (some even less) and are expected and praised for exhibiting themselves like a work of art for the many men at the party. Their power is specifically in making men want them, even if it is only based on physical appearance.
Although it is not shown in either of these clips, another goal that the girls desperately want to achieve is the opportunity to pose in Playboy magazine. Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends are not playmates, and therefore have never before been in the magazine. It is an especially significant goal to Bridget who has always dreamed of being a Playmate herself. The fact that this is such a steadfast aspiration of these girls implies that they believe it would bring them power. They see their bodies as marketable objects that serve the purpose of raising them to the level of men. If men desire their bodies, then they have a certain hold over them. Although I’m not sure if Bridget thinks so deeply about the subject, the underlying message, especially for young girls watching the show, is that having a hot body and being willing to show it brings women power.
However, while watching the show, it becomes very clear that these girls are not in power. Hugh Hefner is responsible for the wealth and livelihood of Holly, Bridget and Kendra. The girls live in his home, eat his food, and hang on his arms. They don’t seem to have serious career interests, while Hefner runs a company. In choosing to be his girlfriend and have the privileges the girls do, there are also strict rules put in place. The girls have a curfew and are expected to be in by 9 pm every night. They are not allowed to date other people and are not allowed to do overnights anywhere else, which seems odd considering that Hefner has 3 girlfriends himself. It is surprising that there are so many restrictions imposed on women who are apparently in control of their own bodies and lives now that feminisms work is over. Patriarchy is a system that is very obviously the ideology of the Playboy mansion. The girlfriends allow Hefner to have an incredible amount of control over their lives in order to be a third his girlfriend. The girls are also always portrayed as ornamental objects, and seem to mainly be for Hefner’s entertainment. As far as the progress of feminism, the Playboy mansion seems to be a Mormon commune accidentally placed in the 1900’s.
Shows like “The Girls Next Door” also foster a certain type of sentiment in the viewers. When we watch reality television that portrays women the way “The Girls Next Door” does, we seem to categorize women into two groups. There are women like the ones we are watching on television (Holly, Bridget, and Kendra) and there are us, the viewers. We elevate ourselves above them because according to us they are slutty, uneducated, dumb blondes. We put ourselves in what Douglas refers to as the “Smart Club.” However, by elevating ourselves we are degrading a different type of woman. In its essence, by putting down other women we are playing into a system that makes women look bad as a whole. In this way, we contribute to the system of patriarchy that women are trying so hard to fight. If women are subjugating other women to a lower threshold, then it is hypocritical to be upset that men do it as well.
“The Girls Next Door,” although incredibly riveting and addicting television, is a step in the wrong direction for feminism. It implies that power is gained through exploiting our bodies and acting stupid so that men can feel good about themselves. We trick ourselves into thinking we have the power in this dynamic, but how powerful can a woman possibly be when she is willing to share her boyfriend with two other women? Until we can face this problem of enlightened feminism directly, and publicly denounce these images and stereotypes instead of watching them out of interest, we will make no progress.