This review was first published on Daily Review on 23 February 2018
A woman steps off her balcony into her bedroom and starts listing the kinds of things women living in fear of violence routinely do to stay safe. What is your escape plan? Have you hidden a knife in the cake tin? Has he put a tracking device in my child’s teddy bear?
The Woman (Emily Barclay) has drawn the audience into a mindset where constant vigilance and safety checklists are an everyday part of life. All women do it to varying degrees to guard against randomly violent men all the time, but it’s magnified for the clients at the family violence legal service where the Woman works.
Lethal Indifference (a Sydney Theatre Company production at the Wharf 1 Theatre directed by Jessica Arthur) unfolds as the unnamed Woman delivers a one-and-a-half hour monologue as she moves around the bedroom. The claustrophobic domestic scene initially seems a perplexing choice, then you realise it only emphasises the way violence infiltrates every nook and cranny of women’s lives. There is no safe place.
Barclay, the actor, is unmistakably heavily pregnant, and she changes clothes, cools herself in front of a fan and checks her phone as if she’s readying herself for bed. But she tells the audience a bedtime tale that’s a horror story rather than the kind of fairytale she might want to read to her soon-to-be-born child. Bit by bit, she recounts the fate of Reema, an Indian woman brought to Australia by her taxi-driver husband. He locked her up, raped her and, when she fled, hunted her down and brutally murdered her.
Barclay performs engagingly and intimately, making the most of every moment, taking us effortlessly here and there, from the Coroner’s Court to the office where she works in communications pitching cases to journalists and tweeting hashtag violence against women, to the final death scene in another bedroom. The play, by the much awarded playwright Anna Barnes, is written in the kind of stream of consciousness, loosely structured, personal essay style that is popular now.
Small details – buying a snack in a servo station, witnessing a couple fight over a phone, a day handing out leaflets for the Greens where she details her outfit of frilly socks and shirt and heels – are offset with statistics about family violence and the unfolding story of Reema’s efforts to escape. It’s the sort of style that many people love – and Barclay honours every moment and detail – but, when it is not done with great skill, it’s a style that (for this reviewer at least) can feel overly mannered, even when it is pretending not to be.
The layering of small detail after detail, the purposeful mixing of the consequential and deadly with the frivolous and banal, the insertion of the narrator into the centre of the story, all these things are meant to convey a sensitive, ethical and feeling witness. It attempts immediacy and verisimilitude but in the process, the craft – the deliberate and careful sifting and choosing of which detail and why – can seem buried.
Barnes’ play makes the good point that male entitlement and the need to control exists on a spectrum. From the Labor boys who shove her off ‘their’ handing out spot, to the private detective and Ajay’s squad of friends who hunt Reema down. The problem is that if it’s every man and every women, if it’s all of us, how do you make that #yesallmenandwomen story dramatic? How do you make us care about this one woman’s story? How can we understand this one particular monster?
We’ve been talking about male violence for a while now, and this play is a significant part of the conversation. It’s a systemic problem and it’s a structural problem, as Barnes points out. Barclay gives it everything, but making a riveting drama out of a systemic problem takes enormous skill.
Photo: Prudence Upton
This review was first published on Daily Review on 16 February 2018
ABBA are too often dismissed as those comely Nordic popstars who defined Eurovision camp while singing of heterosexual love and heartache. To do so forgets the group’s music has only been outsold by those other four megastars of pop, The Beatles. And ABBA arguably left an even greater imprint on pop. Madonna, Kylie, Taylor – ABBA is all over all of them. Like the Swedish seasons, they could do darkly melancholic as well as they could do light (What’s The Name Of The Game? The Winner Takes It All), particularly after ABBA’s married pairs consciously uncoupled.
The reasons for ABBA’s success are not unlike that other famous Swedish brand of four upper case letters. Walking into an IKEA display room is like being in an ABBA song: everything is beautiful, clean, perfectly placed and infused with dashes of Swedish folk notes. But the effect of pared back simplicity is painstakingly achieved with the carefully layered placement of hundreds of elements. ABBA made not so much a wall of sound, as a room of sound that, like an IKEA showroom, could sometimes seem to contain the whole world.
But that’s where the analogy ends. For while about five percent of the IKEA catalogue is built solidly and beautifully enough to stand up in twenty or thirty years, the ratio is reversed for ABBA’s back catalogue. The word ‘perfect’ is carelessly tossed around these days, a mostly meaningless phrase that seems to function as an antidote to a world of petty meanness. But ABBA really did do perfect pop songs. Lots of them. And ones that aren’t easily recreated at home, which is really the best reason to see this latest production of Mamma Mia! (touring Australia and now playing in Sydney).
This latest Australian production has Natalie O’Donnell as Donna, mother of the bride-to-be Sophie – the character O’Donnell played in the original Australian production in 2001. Donna was left heartbroken and washed up on a Greek Island 20 years ago by Sam (Ian Stenlake). When he returned and found out she’d gone off with another other man, he went home, married and became an architect more successful at building homes than keeping his own home together.
He’s back on the island with the two men Donna consoled herself with all those years ago – London banker Harry (Phillip Lowe) and wandering commitment-phobic writer Bill (Josef Ber) – because Sophie read her mother’s old diary and wants to find out just who her father is. Anybody could be that guuuuy… (See what I mean? You can’t spend a few hours lost in the ABBA oeuvre without picking up a gorgeous thing you didn’t know you wanted or even needed: before you know it it’s in your trolley and you’re at the checkout making it yours).
It’s the older cast members who really inhabit ABBA’s songs. Jayde Westaby as Tanya, Donna’s four-time married friend and uber cougar, is phenomenal. Her take on Does Your Mother Know? is a masterclass for the cast’s younger members. The production’s gender flipping of the song (the original has an older man singing ‘you’re so hot/teasing me’ to an underage girl) pulls it back from the wrong side of awfulness. Here, Westaby is well matched by beach bum Pepper (Sam Hooper).
Alicia Gardiner (Offspring’s nurse Kim Akerholt) plays Rosie, the third member of the Donna and the Dynamos trio. When Sam’s arrival sends Donna into a spin, her two friends console her with a gorgeously funny take on Chiquitita. In fact the best numbers of the night – Dancing Queen, Super Trouper – are so good because, like ABBA, they make the most of beautiful female harmonies overlaid with that room full of sound.
Sarah Morrison, as bride-to-be Sophie, makes Honey Honey as sweet as can be, but her musical theatre delivery style often seems to be from another production. There’s an old-fashioned trill to her voice that – on the best interpretation – is matched by Sophie’s old-fashioned fantasy of a white wedding.
Mamma Mia! is all about the wedding and love matches – the Bechdel test has never been failed so badly. While the three older women all suggest there’s more than one way of being in that demographic – single parent, serially married and defiantly unhitched – the unhappily unmarried must eventually marry. But not before Donna wards off some slut shaming: ‘I haven’t slept with hundreds of men’. Or before ‘headbanger Harry’, the original weed fiend who spent his middle years as an investment banker, finds love with another man. Sophie, as seems her birthright, is left free from matrimonial chains, for the time being.
The costumes stay on the right side of lurid – a little bit Priscilla, a little bit Ibiza. The band brings out the big sound for the big tunes – Dancing Queen, Waterloo – but at times if felt as though it was holding back, like it was the house band for the gambling cruise ship Sophie’s beau, Sky, wants to circle the island. ABBA’s power was that their music was so forcefully seductive it could compel millions of people to move with a few opening bars. With a bit of rock music, everything is fine/You’re in the mood for a dance… That’s why we come.
Weddings aside, Mamma Mia! is also, in the end, a story about mothers and daughters. At the hens’ night Donna turns the love song Super Trouper into a love song for her daughter ‘cause somewhere in the crowd there’s you’. If you have one in your life, take your own Chiquitita (see what ABBA does to you?).
A didgeridoo plays, a dark ceiling is lit with starry effects, a simple Afghan mat is laid out, a few chairs sit either side. Tall stacks of brown filing boxes are neatly lined up backstage. Aunty Rhonda Dixon Grovenor, a Darug/Yuin elder, walks on stage and maps out the peoples of the Sydney region. She has just established her authority to welcome us to her country. And she tells us she’s ashamed of the way we treat people who come here looking for refuge: “It’s not our culture to treat people this way”.
Tribunal, conceived and produced by Fairfield-based theatre company PYT 1, asks us to imagine what a truth and reconciliation commission presided over by an Aboriginal elder would look like. As Aunty Rhonda welcomes charismatic Afghani performer Mahdi Mohammadi to the stage, there’s a touching coming together of two cultures as he drapes an Afghani scarf over her resplendent possum coat. Their conversation is interrupted when a Department of Immigration functionary (actor and academic Paul Dwyer) takes over to re-enact the bloodless real-life interrogation Mahdi faced when he first arrived in Australia by boat.
The Department’s tick-a-box questions – a format that already assumes criminality, and is embedded with limited presumptions that can’t possibly capture the complexity of a globally-lived life – come from the actual transcript of the long interview Mahdi underwent. Aunty Rhonda takes over again, drawing out the Mahdi’s much more interesting story. A member of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority, his family of 15 fled to Russia when he was a child. After watching the attacks on the World Trade Centre on television, his father brings the family home, believing the US would defeat the Taliban and that they might finally be safe.
Life in an Afghanistan Mahdi has no real memory of turns out to be a fettered one, where male and female university students aren’t supposed to mix. The boys risk punishment anyway when they drop their phone numbers on the desk of girls they like. Mahdi forms a theatre group whose shows are based around Hazara women. He realises now it was a ‘feminist’ theatre group. His performers are charged with crimes against sharia law and Mahdi flees in fear of his life.
Other stories are told. PYT’s artistic director, Karen Therese, performs a verbatim monologue – full of unaffected ums, ahs and long pauses – that is the real-life testimony of her friend, an Australian human rights lawyer. He tried but failed to help another family whose boy was sexually abused in detention. As he calls them “my family”, the lawyer’s emotionally porous borders reveal the source of his own post-traumatic stress and regret.
A former Red Cross worker Katie Green performs strongly, detailing the hardest job she ever has had – working as a Melbourne-based refugee caseworker. She starts by giving voice to words of Afghan asylum seeker Khodayar Amini, who set fire to himself as his bridging visa was about to revoked. She then relays the tragi-comedy of going through a carwash on her way to the airport with an Aldi bag stuffed with $30,000 worth of notes, divided into envelopes for the 70 asylum seekers whose arrival in Melbourne the department had just given Red Cross notice of.
It’s an emotional and, at times, difficult show to watch. It’s also hard to imagine a more important topic for theatre to tackle right now. It might seem churlish to take issue with the dramatic structure of the play – one where Mahdi the human being, for all his energy and likeability, is squeezed somewhere between the Immigration Department’s criminal narrative, and the heroic halo refugee advocates want to place on his head. Green recounts an awkwardly didactic story of Mahdi’s visit to Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea, where he is horrified to see local men pretending to eat out of a vagina sculpture. In this sense, Mahdi’s character on stage seems unable to live as he may want to as a human being: as a complex, ordinarily flawed individual, someone with the sort of freedom that he – and we – might really want to fight for.
These critisims aside though, this play is at least beginning to tell stories we are otherwise oblivious to. In a world where millions are glued to reality television shows depicting faux detentions, sadistic big brothers, made-up survival games and confected deprivations on glossy islands, this show gives us the real thing.
This review was first published on Daily Review on 16 January 2018
“No. No, they still remain in Europe.” They are seven of the most powerful words spoken in My Name is Jimi, and they are spoken quietly by the grandmother of the show’s star, Jimi Bani. You might know Bani from characters he plays in Redfern Now, The Straits or Mabo (where he played the title role of Eddie Mabo). This time he is playing himself, the man in line to become the ninth chief of the tribe of Wagadagum, from Mabuiag Island in Torres Strait. Along with his grandmother and mother, he has brought two of his brothers and eldest son along to tell stories of their home.
His grandmother Petharie Bani’s words come after the tale Jimi tells about her adventures with his grandfather, chief Ephraim Bani. His grandfather was something of a polymath – a painter, filmmaker, composer, dramatist and pearl diver – and he also wrote down the island’s language and went to Canada where became a master of linguistics. Petharie and Ephraim also went to Europe, where they saw the tools and masks that had been taken from the Island by anthropologists such as Alfred Court Haddon. They were told the objects would be returned if Ephraim built a safe place to keep them, and so he came home and built a cultural arts centre on the island. They are still waiting.
It would be wrong from this description to imagine the show (a Queensland Theatre production) is weighty and earnest; this story, which takes up much of the play’s middle, is offset with constant humour and lightness. The evening opens when Jimi and his besuited brothers walk on carrying super 8 cameras – his father would make films of the family when Jimi was a kid, splicing their pictures with pictures of the same scene without them in it, making them disappear. Jimi quickly has the audience’s guard down by doing the same trick with us – making us appear on the screen at the back of the stage before being replaced with a scene of empty seats.
Jimi and his brothers then break out dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band’s Shake your Booty – Jimi, while not a small man, glides so smoothly he would make Hugh Jackman look like a klutz. When he comes to the story of the stolen artefacts, Jimi does a very funny imitation of the Cambridge-educated Haddon wearing a funny academic gown and hat while dissecting the islander’s own costume. Haddon’s lecture on the island culture, prattling on about “cheerful friendly folk” and claiming the island teenagers are using MySpace in 2018, show his insights are no better – and perhaps worse – than a holidaying newspaper travel writer.
The show is visually stunning. Small dioramas of the island are placed at the back of the stage, and Bani and the cast use the cameras to project scenes and stories from them onto the stage’s screen. There is a bedtime story about the island girl who cried too loudly and was taken by a tall skinny monster with diamond-shaped legs (another story about something precious being stolen). When Jimi introduces a song about how the clouds tell them what day fish will be plentiful in a certain spot, the family sing while his brothers tell the story with the cameras and diorama, and we are brought into the island world of long white clouds and fish underwater.
Jimi’s grandfather and father are now gone – the stories of their loss that are dealt with briefly and might have been more powerful being confronted with more directly. Jimi explains it’s his job to keep the island’s fire – its culture – burning. When Jimi’s son starts taking phone calls on stage and becomes increasingly lost in a digital world, Jimi’s brothers tell a story about an island boy who looked across the horizon and daydreamed about land across the water. Jimi’s grandfather warned him that technology was about to take over, and that they must learn to use it wisely. Jimi listened to his grandfather and his show does just that. We are lucky that Jimi has asked us to listen to him too.
This review was first published on Daily Review on 15 January 2018
Enter the Whist performance space at Carriageworks and guides invite you to move around and inspect the sculptures placed around the room. You walk around touching black and cream, marble-like material shaped into cubes and strangely curved objects. Some appear partially submerged under the floor.
The show is created by the UK-based experimental dance company AΦE in consultation with a psychoanalyst from the Freud Museum, so perhaps they are supposed to be visual representations of the unconscious, the ego, and superego. Who’s to say? It doesn’t particularly matter, because they really only take on a meaning when the next part of the show begins.
The guides return and fit you with goggles and headphones and you move around again looking for the real-life counterparts to the objects that pop up on your screen. Find a match and a 360-degree film starts, each one based on stories from Freud’s real life case studies. As you look around the scenes, the eye set monitors your eye movements.
I was reminded of the eye tracking technology used by online sites, as well as the scenario imagined in Veronica Roth’sDivergent novels, where teenagers are put through a virtual reality test that gauges their responses to determine the tribe they will belong to. You’ll be relieved to know the stakes aren’t as high here, but if like me you tend to an anxious disposition you might feel unnerved that the usual voyeurism of theatre is now heading in both directions. As you look around the Whist artists and analysts are, apparently, looking into your mind.
What you don’t look at is apparently as important as what you do look at. In a decayed room, a picture on the wall shows a reclining nude: if I look too long at the triangle of pubic hair will I be diagnosed as a weirdo? If I don’t look, will I come out as a repressed prude? What if I linger too long on that blood? Will they think I’m a serial killer in the making? The immersive scenes are curious and low level disturbing, and they also pass swiftly – I could easily have stayed longer in this strange world. At the end a number pops up on your screen. You return your headphones and goggles to guides, who have now become fortune tellers standing behind a bench laid out with cards. You pick one, write your number on the back so you can later follow the directions to a website to find your reading.
As it turns out I have some issues around … triangles and square frames. I wasn’t too surprised, but I wished the psychoanalysts could have followed me after the show to diagnose further deep disturbances. Visiting the bathroom I promptly lost my card and my cloakroom pass. I briefly panicked until I realised it was just really really dark and I found them again.
Outside, I immersed myself in the Saturday morning markets. I was so busy focussing on the goats milk halloumi stand and the bunches of dahlias for sale, I didn’t see the hole in the ground. I tripped and fell face down, traumatising every member of inner city Sydney’s aging hipster population with a flash of Saturday morning underpants.
At the train station I realised I’d left my travel pass locked in the car, now parked at home. Even without a professional diagnosis I’m clearly currently performing well above average in the human mess competition. But don’t let that deter you: this show is a treat for the voyeur in all of us. And it will happily feed the narcissist that – if we’re being honest – lurks somewhere in most all of us too.
This review was first published on Daily Review on 14 January 2018
The opening scenes of Circus Oz’s Model Citizens poke fun at suburban conformity. The cast dresses in a uniform hospital blue colour, three members return as ballet-dancing sheep, and it wraps up with a satirical song by Freyja Edney about buying into organic food and tolerating diversity but not wanting it in ‘my backyard’. Entering the scene early on is the pink haired, tattooed non-conformist Mitch Jones, who is stripped of his colourful outfit by the rest of the cast and dragged into the blue team, where the life of a citizen means being tied in literal and metaphorical knots and straight jackets.
The cast play childlike adults, leaping from and playing with giant domestic objects full of sinister danger – irons, matchboxes, knives and scissors. This act belongs to Jones, with beautiful set pieces by Annalise Moore and Jarred Dewey, who play a gorgeous alpha couple who dance and loop around each other on a pair of giant steaming irons. The first act’s climax comes from Jones, who is forced by Jake Silvestro to build a stack of giant credit cards – a visual play on the endless credit chain that holds some individual’s lives together. But when the cards come tumbling down, it equally reminded me of the credit crisis that led to the housing collapse in the US.
Musician Jeremy Hopkins steps out from behind the screen at the back of the stage to play a suburban dad at the barbecue, singing a very funny ode (set to the turn of Waltzing Matilda) to his Weber. He pats himself on the back for cooking once a week and asks who’s going to “come a negative gearing with me”. It’s all visually clever and witty, but playing in multicultural and suburban Parramatta, I wondered about the choice of satirical target. Wouldn’t the satire have had more bite if it was turned on the corporate behemoths or ethically drained political class? Or even on the politically right-on cultural class that Circus Oz comes from? That might be walking a real tightrope.
During the second act lights are turned down, as is the symbolism, and the pure circus comes out. All the performers are extraordinary but, as seems appropriate in the present moment, it is the women who really shine, individually and collectively. Tara Silcock’s routine in a Martini glass, spent mostly on her back as her feet spin and twirl umbrellas, is a highlight. She beams charismatically throughout the show and acts genuinely and endearingly surprised with herself as she acknowledges the audience at the end of this scene.
The women are also responsible for the night’s most impressive show of strength. In a prop-less scene, the five female cast members elegantly walk over and down each other’s heads and shoulders and hands; the act ends with Edney singlehandedly suspending the four other cast members.
A good hula hoop routine never fails to awe, and it is also Edney’s turn holding up ten or so silver bangles that is hard to forget and one of the biggest crowd pleasers. Other scenes that aren’t easily forgotten are Alexander Weibel Weibel beautifully playing the violin while his feet play with more strings below and he walks between loose tightropes. His scene ends when he puts down the violin, turns into a human star and does 360 degree turns on the ropes.
In the show’s final scene the greasy competitive corporate ladder has been turned horizontal and become co-operative, and the entire cast works effortlessly together to swing and move each other through the steps in a heart-in-throat scene. When the cast and crew come out for a bow, it’s astonishing to discover that the show’s beautiful score has been provided by just the musical director Ania Reynolds and Hopkins, with intermittent support from Weibel Weibel. In a show that rejects spreading conformity and the mass-produced, it’s a demonstration of the big things can be achieved by a small team working closely together.
Photos: Jamie Williams
On the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, the ABC asked me to consider his legacy. I wrote that it was second wave feminism that drove sexual liberation for women, while Hefner was more interested in controlling women. This article was first published online by the ABC on 29 September here.
On a warm weekday afternoon in Sydney recently, I rested on rocks by a Sydney ocean pool and noticed a young girl, perhaps 20, maybe 22, dancing topless at the pool’s edge, under the clock for swimmers tracking lap speeds.
She was striking poses for the three or four boys and one girl she was with. One of the boys was capturing her on a camera at her direction.
She was glorious: an athletic Miley Cyrus-lookalike. Every now and then she dived into the water, emerging to pointedly shake water from her hair and legs. She prowled the pool deck, the centre of her group’s attention. I kept stealing glances at her, as did the smartly-dressed patrons drinking on the hotel balcony above, and the handful of swimmers and sunbathers around me.
It was, in a way, a classic Playboy scene: water, beautiful girls, men dressed in smart casual, alcohol. And it was this scene I thought of when I heard of Hugh Hefners’ death. Superficially, my poolside Miley looked like a Hefner woman: minimally dressed, playful and libidinous. But unlike Hefner’s bunnies, she didn’t seem to be in anyone’s employ.
I didn’t know anything else about her, but it was easy to invent back stories for her: she had an Instagram account with tens of thousands of followers and dozens of sponsors; she was a businesswoman making soft core porn for regular grateful clients.
At the very least, she reminded how many young women like her are not just comfortable in their sexuality, but revelling in it and acutely aware of deploying their power. But despite the superficial links with Hugh Hefner, there’s little else connecting the world he created and Sydney’s Miley.
In many ways, she has much more to do with the legacy of second-wave feminism than Playboy. Even if the initial radical aims of women’s liberation — that women’s sexual liberation would lead to widespread social and political liberation — have, as it turns out, morphed into a much more modest aim: women taking back the control and production of their sexual images from men.
Feminism wasn’t anti-sex
When Hefner passed away this week, journalists credited him for practically singlehandedly starting the sexual revolution: “As much as anyone, Hugh Hefner turned the world on to sex” the Washington Post’s Matt Schudel wrote on his passing yesterday.
On the ABC, Hefner was given credit for “revving up the sexual revolution” and helping “to slip sex out of the confines of plain brown wrappers and into mainstream conversation”.
This story we’re asked to believe is that Hefner lifted the lid on a repressed 1950s culture and, later, fought against a censorious, anti-sex feminism. But the idea that sex and nudity was a dormant thing Hefner “discovered” would be news to the libertines, pornographers, writers and painters of erotica and, well, lovers throughout history.
And the notion that the women’s liberation movement — which, from its inception, was linked to sexual liberation — was actually a primly puritanical force against Hefner’s Dionysian utopia is a powerful, but equally erroneous one.
It’s true that a not insignificant strand of women’s liberation argued heterosexuality (at least under patriarchy) was an incurably oppressive condition, and a separatist approach was the only true route to liberation. But for many second-wave feminists — buoyed by the pill, liberalising attitudes to abortion, and the belief that communal living might free them from stultifying nuclear units — sexual liberation and women’s liberation were inseparable.
Some of the most-read pamphlets of the early women liberation era dealt with sexual pleasure, such as Anne Koedt’s The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm. Germaine Greer was against censorship, and posed nude for the underground magazine Suck, legs above her shoulders to allow the best view of her pubic hair and vulva (although she was betrayed by the men on the editorial board, who failed to live up to an agreement to pose nude themselves).
The undercover bunny
Perhaps the notion that Hefner was a pro-sex champion against the stuffy feminists stems from Gloria Steinem’s now famous 11-day undercover stint as a playboy bunny in 1963. Though just 28 when she wrote the expose, Steinem’s essay bristles with intelligence and humour and sass.
She doesn’t moralise about the bunnies’ trade — selling sex — rather she forensically exposes the appalling industrial and OHS conditions bunnies are working under. They are charged for make-up and $2.50 a day for costume “upkeep”, she wrote. They received demerit points for dirty tails or tights with runs. The club and busboys would keep half (and sometimes all) of their tips.
She writes scenes that might have inspired Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. She visits an arrogant male doctor for internal examinations, blood tests and an X-ray before the club would hire her. She is taught the bunny bible rules; a ban on fraternising with regular customers, while being obliged, on pain of being fired, to give full names to, and attend private parties with, Number One keyholders.
Private detectives were hired to trap bunnies by offering payment for services off site, and they had to meet husbands and boyfriends at least two blocks from the club. To sell more drinks, bunnies were encouraged to be personal with customers and make eye contact, but they were left to fend off the sexual harassment that resulted.
A sexual revolution with men at the centre
Hugh Hefner did do much to mainstream sex, and to make it something unashamedly associated with pure pleasure. But he did so, first and foremost, for men. For women there were regimes of control — from regulation three-inch shoes and suits made a rib-crushingly two inches smaller than a bunny’s measurements.
Bunnies weren’t supposed to have histories, or sexual desires that weren’t directed towards selling more drinks for the club and pleasing top customers.
Second-wave feminists extended the claim for sexual liberation to women. And they made the much more radical argument that sexual liberation could be the basis of social and political liberation. Women’s liberationists wanted sex to blow the system apart. They didn’t succeed, of course, in finding the kind of sexual liberation that would lead to liberation from alienating work or from the nuclear family. How to care for children in the libidinal chaos that might ensue, however desirable, was a particular problem.
But Hugh Hefner, dying amid all the wealth and glamour of Playboy Mansion, didn’t, in the end, succeed in controlling sex either. Sex, as Freud taught us, contains contradictions and excess. It contains both revolutionary and oppressive potential. Feminists are still trying to reconcile these two. We probably never will.