When the infamous Playboy magazine announced that it would no longer publish nude photos of women a year ago, it was widely applauded by women rights activists.
However, while the activists claimed it was a coup against objectification of women from an outlet of such global prominence as Playboy, the magazine’s ban of nudity was a business decision.
It was in a bid to attract more mainstream readers and advertisers.
In any case, as the magazine acknowledged, it was far much easier access to online pornography.
But this week, Playboy announced that it is bringing back naked models with its Miss March 2017 edition, headlined, “Naked is normal.”
The business model it had envisioned appears to have failed.
When the news broke, I was with a merry-making gathering that included more than a couple of those open-minded and self-assured women in the development sector, often dismissed as the “NGO-types”.
They describe themselves as feminists. The arguments that the news occasioned were therefore predictable.
They volubly reminded the table of feminism’s call for equality and personal choice, especially as emphasized in its liberal view towards same rights, power, and opportunities for both women and men.
In retort, somebody mentioned the pop culture personification of Kim Kardashian, the American reality TV personality and socialite, who commands a huge following with youngsters watching pay-TV channels in East Africa and across the world.
As pertains to the supposed objectification, she has no qualms about nudity. She has occasionally bared all and gained some notoriety on Instagram with her “belfies” (bottom or buttock selfies).
She symbolises a sign of the times on the measure of women’s emancipation and agency which, ironically, demonstrates feminism’s gains. The rhetorical question was, does she do it out of choice? Are her antics in the public domain out of consent?
Then someone Googled and found that Sarah McDaniel, a young lady who found her fame through social media, was the first non-nude star to appear on the cover of Playboy after the ban.
When asked in an interview what she would say to critics who see the cover as just another example of objectifying women, she is quoted to have replied, “I see that statement itself as a form of attack on women. There’s always some prude who wants to shame a woman for anything outside of their puritanical views. Men like to look at women, and women like to look at men. Sexuality is such a part of our culture.”
Perhaps Sarah had a point. Looked at in another way, even allowing existence of institutionalized patriarchy, in as much as oppression subsumes any form of discrimination, poverty, and all forms of violence, it affects both women and men.
Hers, therefore, might easily have been the recognition of our mutual challenges and shared aspirations, in all our social orientations as gendered, as well as trans- and non-gendered.
And, to paraphrase the British-born Ghanaian-American philosopher and cultural theorist, Kwame Appiah, “for all sorts and conditions of men and women…at each level, [we are] various.” Patriarchy is hierarchical, even among men.
If we take this as a given, my friends were challenged to justify their feminism thus: is it not folly to assert that only feminists understand either the factors or suffering associated with the oppression of women, especially if the liberal strand of feminism opts men and the forms of oppression they, too, go through?
The re-invention of Playboy may have started it, but the tenor of the argument as the glasses amiably chinked among us was not to diminish feminism or glorify the magazine.
As it turned out, it was in recognition we owe it to each other to understand and prop up one another in our peculiar and unique situations as individuals in a collective – a kind of universal appreciation of our mutual human condition.
It is for this reason that, though involved in the continuing woman’s struggle as some in the gathering made known, they don’t label themselves feminist. And that was the point of the whole argument.