The naked truth

Anna Quindlen

March 12, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

YOU NEVER know what will make people laugh.

In my office I can count on the Ninja Turtle, the one with the button that says "I Read Banned Books," and the baby picture of my daughter that looks like Mao Tse-tung on an off day.

But nothing has ever tickled people like the April issue of Playboy on my desk, the whoopie cushion of periodicals. Everyone giggles. Everyone wants to know why I am reading it. The big lie: for the articles.

The truth: I am looking at pictures of naked women.

L The pictorial is called "The Women of the Women's Colleges."

I have seen naked women from women's colleges before, during dormitory life at Barnard. But no one wore undergarments like these.

"They were all intelligent and conscientious about sisterhood and women's issues," says managing photo editor Jeff Cohen in the accompanying text.

Now even I'm laughing.

One lone Smith woman appears, waxing philosophic about metaphysics and wearing a see-through blouse. Some of the other women once attended women's colleges, but don't anymore, or attend colleges that once were women's colleges, but aren't anymore.

All of this leads to the suspicion that women at many women's colleges were not interested in Playboy.

That's not entirely true. At Bryn Mawr, where cars were leafleted with pose-for-Playboy fliers under cover of darkness, the issue sparked a lively debate about the esthetics of nudity and freedom of expression.

At Mills, senior Sarah Ratcliff decided to write an article about the pictorial for the college newsletter, although the Playboy people she interviewed tried to persuade her to pose.

"Mills College would be so proud of you for making a positive statement about the diversity of women," she quotes Cohen as telling her, while they discussed such intellectual issues as the definition of "clothed" and whether she would step into some lingerie.

The pictorial plays on those old saws about smart women, that they don't like men and that they can't be attractive if they're intelligent. (Can "The Women of Desert Storm," to prove that you can be a soldier and not be built like Norman Schwarzkopf, be far behind?)

They've made one poor woman look especially silly; she's got her blouse open, but she's wearing horn-rimmed glasses. Subtle message: a serious girl, and with breasts!

I don't know, it just seems to me that in 1991 there's more to life than being the toast of the body shop. ("Jackie, get a load of this one -- she's Phi Beta Kappa!") Women who want to prove that it's possible to be attractive and intelligent get a good haircut and go to medical school.

The magazine is the fantasy of a man who's spent most of his life in pajamas, and boy, does it show. The April issue already seems like an artifact, something I found in a box of my brother's old stuff, beneath the Pee Wee League trophies.

Flashback to a time when every boy had a contraband copy of Playboy and a faint round mark on the leather of his wallet from a condom so old that it was 3 percent effective.

That was before MTV, HBO, and VCRs, before most of what was in Playboy appeared in newspapers, general-interest magazines and the Victoria's Secret catalog. Miss April's big turnoff is "people who don't smile," which seems a little 1959 in the age of global warming and AIDS. Shock to the system: The sex bomb of my childhood is irrelevant.

The Playboy spokeswoman tries to update the image. She says earnestly, "Playboy believes feminism means freedom of choice." She says there are no women from certain colleges in the pictorial because the photographers went where they thought women would be willing. She volunteers that there was once a pictorial called "The Women of Mensa." I missed it.

At Wellesley, a college official said that students felt they had better things to do than worry about Playboy, and that some thought the whole thing was just plain silly. That seems to be what everyone who comes to my office thinks.

"Women of the women's colleges?" said one friend. "They found women smart enough to go to women's colleges and dumb enough to pose?"

Well, sort of, I said, but they really respected their minds. We both laughed. Playboy, the humor magazine. You never know what will make people laugh.


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