Why are Young Women Welcoming the Return of the Bunny?

The Playboy symbol is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. What does this signify?

It’s everywhere. In the smartest shops in Acland Street, and featuring in trendy Chapel Street in Prahran. On natty little terry short and the smart canvas gym-bag purses that are the currently the pinnacle of street-wear chic. The Playboy Bunny logo is back. The question is: what does its return mean?

I’m going to nail my colours to the mast here. When I see that Bunny, the image that comes to mind are of tall, large-breasted women with strap-on fur tails tottering somewhat unsteadily on spike-heels; their painted red lips stretched into a fake-looking smile as a diminutive, bathrobe-wearing Hugh Hefner snakes his wizened, overly tan arms around their waists.

The Bunny logo also makes me think of Gloria Steinem, who was young and pretty enough to go undercover as a Bunny Cocktail waitress at the Playboy Club in New York City. Though I wasn’t even born when her expose of the degrading and oppressive conditions women endured working in this supposedly glamorous job appeared in Esquire in 1963, I was impressed with her insights – published years later in a collection of essays – into the cost of Bunnyhood not just to the minority of women who don overlarge pink ears or pose for centrefolds, but to all women who live in societies where Bunnyhood is seen as a suitable career aspiration for young girls of talent.

This is what the Bunny logo means to me, and perhaps to other feminist-minded women and men of my, and more mature, vintages. And this is why I won’t buy anything that carries it. But Bunny-stamped items are selling well particularly – according to my local shop girl – to women in their teens and early twenties. The question is: why?

Perhaps the reason is simple, and actually suggests something quite positive. The traditional Playboy model is far more rounded and healthy-looking than the under-fed, under-slept female form idealised in so many women’s magazines. Maybe in wearing the Bunny symbol, what young women are saying is that they are proud of their womanly curves, and prefer them to looking like a heroin-addicted stick.

Another positive take on the Bunny’s return is that in donning this long-standing symbol of female oppression, women are reclaiming it as a sign of empowerment. In the same way that Gays reclaimed as a symbol of unity and pride the pink triangle that the Nazis used to brand and oppress them, young Bunny-wearing women are boldly proclaiming their faith in a world where Girl Power reigns and feminism – simply because it is no longer needed – is a thing of the past. In such a world girls can freely embrace both their femininity and sexuality without fear of – as one Girl-Power scholar puts it – its “usual worrisome baggage.”

A less optimistic interpretation, however, is that women’s embrace of the Bunny reflects their sense of disillusionment with – rather than empowerment within – the post-industrial world in which they are coming of age. Maybe, more than we realise, young women are tuning in when we older ones complain of unequal wages, sexual harassment, family-unfriendly policies and impenetrable glass ceilings at the workplace. Perhaps they observe when those zealously guarding the reigns of power either ridicule our distress, or ignore it. For such young women, the Playboy symbol may hold out the time-honoured promise that if they’re pretty, “put out” and otherwise play their cards right, there is a way for them to make it to the top of the status and income pile: on the arm of a wealthy and powerful man.

So which interpretation is the correct one? The evidence, in my view, is in favour of the Bunny as a symbol of Girl Power. Sure, there are differences in the way the Gay Pride movement reclaimed the pink triangle and the reappearance of the Bunny logo. The former was a self-consciously political act by a grass-roots activist movement, while the latter is nothing more than a marketing experiment. Nevertheless, there are natty shorts with the Bunny on it and many more without – ditto cute handbags – and significant numbers of young women are choosing to buy the former. Given what we know about the optimism of youth in general, and the disinterest of so many young women in a feminism they see as irrelevant to their lives, there is good reason to believe that in embracing the Bunny, young women see themselves as reclaiming male-centred ideas of femininity and female sexuality, and making them their own.

It’s hard not to admire them. Certainly, you can’t blame them. Given the choice of viewing the future in such a promising light or as hedged and barricaded by entrenched, often subterranean but always fiercely defended power and privilege, who wouldn’t choose the former? And isn’t the belief that such a world can exist, indeed does exist, a necessary prerequisite for actually bringing it about? “You go girls,” I want to cheer. And so I will.

I just hope they’re right.