Playboy Bunnies to Princesses: A Fresh Look at Gender Politics from Writer Carina Chocano

Scripps students and members of the community alike gather in the Hampton Room in Scripps College for “Nasty Women: A Tuesday Noon Conversation with Carina Chocano,” to listen to Carina Chocano read excerpts from her book, “You Play the Girl,” and answer questions about her life and views on the current political climate. (Amanda Han / The Student Life) 

“In every sense, as a mother, as a wife, as a sexual being … it was hard to answer the question: What does it mean for a woman to be free and autonomous and really in charge of herself?”

And so began Carina Chocano’s examination of today’s sexual politics, put forth in her new book, "You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks, & Other Mixed Messages."  On Tuesday, Sept. 19, Chocano sat down in the Hampton Room with Piya Chatterjee, chair of Scripps College’s Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department, to discuss the changing landscape of feminism.

“I was trying to find a historical context for my feelings,” Chocano said. “What drew me was my curiosity about why I felt this uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. Why did this idea of what it means to be a woman in society feel so confusing?”

Chocano began as a television and film critic, but later moved to freelance writing. She is now a contributing writer for the New York Times. Her book is a close examination of her life, beginning with childhood.

“I start [the book] when I’m six years old," Chocano said. "I tried to go back to those specific times and really think about everything I was looking at.”

Discussing her exposure to Playboy magazines and models as a child, Chocano said that she “knew, and everyone else knew, that only girls were sexy. Sexiness was girls; it was exclusively female. Playboy’s idea of a ‘woman’ was a naked fairytale princess – a young, dumb, defenseless, easily trusting woodland creature … She could not learn, grow, or change; she could not really exist.”

This “Playboy culture” Chocano encountered influenced the way she later examined women’s often compromised roles in the world. In reference to Hugh Hefner’s infamous comment Chocano said “we are not interested in the mysterious, difficult woman – the femme fatale who wears elegant underwear with lace; she is sad and somehow mentally filthy,” unpacking the damaging feminine ideal.

“Society implies that in order to be listened to, a lady should be nice to look at; there should be no doubt as to her sexual desirability, though this will undermine her argument no matter sophisticated it is. We are not interested in sadness, sophistication, or experience; we secretly believe that female subjectivity is filth. And it’s not just sexual autonomy. It’s any kind of experience. Women’s adulthood is sexualized and made bad. Young, innocent sexuality is good, but you can’t grow. You can’t grow up. It’s about power.”

This conversation is one of three to come this fall that focus on feminism and gender through conversations with prominent writers and activists. The series was organized by Scripps’ director of public events and community programs, Corrina Lesser, who is passionate about spreading ideas through intimate settings.

“I think, as an audience member, you get something much more special when you put someone on stage with an interlocutor,” Lesser said. “It’s a chance to pair people up who you think will have something to say to each other. I really try to program events that I’m passionate about. I want to be able to stand behind my choices and provide a forum for creativity and conversation that I want to be a part of as a member of the community.”

The second conversation will be held on Oct. 12, featuring the editors of the anthology Nasty Women along with Chocano and Scripps’ Associate Professor Kimberly Drake.

Chocano also discussed the issue of modern pop culture, examining Disney princesses like Sleeping Beauty and Alice in Wonderland, who fill the lives of many young girls, including Chocano's daughter.

“As little girls, we’re trained to love these princess characters who are very unconscious most of the time – asleep – and we really like them because they’re pretty, quiet, docile, and passive. Alice is rude. She talks too much. She goes up against people. She questions them, criticizes them. I think we’re told early on that this is not a good way to be – that nobody likes her.”

But it’s not just Disney princesses: harmful media bombards young girls in many ways. 

“Almost all of the programs with girls in them have these bizarre social dynamics: she’s the smart one, she’s the pretty one … ," Chocano notes. "I’m really sensitive to all these narratives dividing women [and on] how women should hate each other. It’s what keeps us out of power.”

With an almost all-female audience Tuesday, one attendee asked how the concept of slut-shaming has evolved today.

“We seem to go from slut shaming and ‘women-aren’t-allowed-to-have-sex’ straight to transactional sex, performing for many, and trading bodies for money," Chocano responded, drawing from her experience as a journalist covering a conference on feminism and pornography. “I always felt there was something missing in between. The good girl and the whore have been combined as a kind of consumer product.”

Chocano’s refreshingly personal narrative style and keen observations are invaluable in today’s turbulent and nuanced field of gender politics, especially when limited examples of women’s lives are portrayed in the media.

“One of the reasons that I think it’s so important to have more women telling their own stories and not just putting out these same archetypes is that for young women, you never see the narrative move past a certain point," Chocano said. "The traditional 'happily-ever-after' happens at a very young age; at the end, you’re just supposed to get married in your early 20’s? It’s constructed as if that’s when your life ends, when you’ve barely been an adult. When does your life get to happen? We never see that. When we look out, we’re not given trajectories.”

Chocano is changing that.

“[Writing the book] made me understand my story. It made me feel like, ‘Yeah, I did have a trajectory.’ But I had to tell it myself.”