In March of 2021, after living for a year in the relative isolation of a pandemic, when the look of my face in the mirror had become overly familiar and overly scrutinized, when the relief of a vaccine rollout was paired with an anxiety that seemed to whisper to me daily that now, in this final stretch, irony dictated that I would contract Covid, I began to watch the Playboy Mansion centered reality television show, The Girls Next Door. It was a welcome distraction, an extreme of a different variety. Instead of the world that I was dealing with daily, I was pulled into an extreme of denial, of control, of questionable sexual politics, all played off as the risqué and off-color jokes of a frivolous era. But it was when Holly Madison, known as Hugh Hefner’s number one girlfriend, said, “I don’t get jealous of other girls, because I was… raised in a cloning lab to be the perfect woman for Hugh M. Hefner…” that I really started to pay attention. It was a case of a thinly veiled joke that doesn’t quite land, one delivered with the eerily unwavering eyes and flat voice of someone numbed or held hostage by their experiences. It was a joke that appeared to speak to a truth that has been barely hidden, socially accepted, and yet rarely discussed. A joke that appeared to deflate the myth of Playboy.
The Girls Next Door aired from 2005 until 2010 and followed the misadventures of Hugh Hefner’s three girlfriends and their lives within the Playboy Mansion compound. While ostensibly a story about the growth and identities of three women, Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson, the show functioned as a fairly obvious PR stunt that served to reinvigorate the Playboy brand while also dispelling any unsavory stories or connotations that it had acquired since its inception in 1953. Sure, the show trafficked in often sophomoric humor about sex and gender and, much like the magazine, was built upon women’s bodies, but all of these things seemed to underline the accepted myth that the Mansion was a place of fun where inhibition had no place and, further, that posing for Playboy was, in fact, a form of liberation. It was this format and these jokes that were meant to overshadow the serious rumors and allegations that have dogged the magazine and Hefner for decades. In the world of The Girls Next Door this darker side did not exist. Or, at least, it didn’t until 2015, when Holly Madison wrote a memoir entitled Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny. With the publication of this memoir came the revelations that were often obscured by myth, the things that we knew instinctively, but never with any clarity. For Madison, the experience of Hefner and the Playboy Mansion was one of constant humiliation, verbal abuse, manipulation, and impossible body standards. But this of course makes perfect sense. We are dealing with a brand built on women’s bodies and the scrutiny placed upon them. A brand whose use of women renders them almost completely inconsequential; one that views them as mere objects to obtain in the quest to become the ideal man, a man based and built around Hefner himself. This tenet is essential to Playboy and can be seen everything, particularly in the composition of the notorious Playboy centerfold. One of the most crucial elements to a centerfold is an object that insinuates the presence of a man (a tie, a glass of whiskey, a cigar or pipe) placed in the background. This object implies that a man is never far away, that he is the true subject and spectator, while the woman a mere object. The woman, the actual woman, whose body is there, is rendered inconsequential, a mere adornment for the lifestyle of the man. And, unsurprisingly, that is much the way that Madison describes her time at the Mansion.
In Down the Rabbit Hole, Madison draws parallels between her time at Playboy and the fairy tales and fables embedded in our society. In doing this, she is exposing the fantasy as an illusion, and a detrimental one at that. Rather than living in lush and uncomplicated luxury, as the show would have us believe, we are shown a portrait of a man threatened by his own mortality and fear of inadequacy, whose massive ego was so burdened by his image that he insisted on parading around with a brood of women who could easily have been his grandchildren. She describes a man who lashed out regularly, creating a culture so isolated and so toxic, it was barely livable. Within the Mansion, there were strict regulations (a nine p.m. curfew, for example), an endless fund for plastic surgery that would render women nearly indistinguishable, and an insular world where women were pitted against each other for Hefner’s affections and approval. It comes as no surprise that Hefner is a misogynistic bully, but Madison’s account is noteworthy for its proximity to the world she is depicting. Throughout the book she details the mental and physical effects that living in such extremes can have on a person and as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think of what this brand, this show, and this story meant in the larger context of our society. It seemed to me to become not just about Holly Madison, who is a captivating and sympathetic protagonist, but to be a kind of illustration of the hurdles that face all women, a manifestation of our society’s most deeply held beliefs. The television show, as I viewed it in 2021, appears to have, despite Hefner’s best, and worst, intentions, become a sinister document of the ways in which women are forced to contort themselves to fit into very narrowly defined forms of femininity, dictated to them solely by male desire. Under all the manufactured glamour and seemingly dizzying excitement of a life of material excess, there was an underlying darkness that appeared to say, above all else, that this act of contortion, this manufactured beauty, will not protect you. The empty look in Madison’s eyes when delivering her lines, the hollow laugh, hinted at a reality darker than the show would admit.
Within the television show, I saw all the goals of the magazine realized, the surface celebrated, beauty venerated and accepted as depth. With Madison’s book, I saw the image of the magazine, of Hefner, and its effect on society, in a much clearer way. I began to think of it as an example of the ways in which women are meant to carry the emotional and existential baggage of a society. I thought of how we are often saddled with the responsibility of conforming to and alleviating men’s pain and if we honestly address the distress and humiliation caused by this position, we are usually met with accusation and disbelief. Madison forces us to confront these troubling patterns. Further, we are forced to come face to face with the absurd societal notions that conflate beauty with safety and value. Engaging with Madison’s story, we confront the pervasive myth that beauty grants women safety from predatory men, that beauty means one can’t or will not be exposed to pain and suffering, that beauty implies virtue and the idea that certain people, depending on their image or their actions, are more deserving of our sympathy than others. Holly Madison, through her work, complicates all of these ideas and chips away at some of our culture’s most stubborn and strongly held myths, allowing us a vision of vulnerability and honesty that can change the way we perceive and tell women’s stories.