by Mary Harrington
Monday, 4
October 2021

A gay man on Playboy fails to smash any stereotypes

Bretman Rock's cover feature is still distinctly feminine
by Mary Harrington

Playboy is smashing gender stereotypes. This month’s digital magazine cover was fronted by a man: specifically, Bretman Rock, a social media influencer from the Philippines who gained his fame on platforms such asYouTube and Vine.

He’s not the first man to grace the cover of Playboy. Other than Hefner himself, that credit goes to Puerto Rican trap artist Bad Bunny, photographed for a Playboy digital edition last year. But Rock’s appearance is self-consciously attempting to be subversive — he may not be the first cover boy, but he is the first man to grace the magazine while dressed as a ‘Playboy Bunny’.

Playboy and Rock both frame this as a victory for queer visibility. “For Playboy to have a male on the cover is a huge deal for the LGBT community,” Rock says. What’s less clear, though, is whether Rock has actually smashed any stereotypes.

Rock’s social media persona seems to centre on being both male and flamboyantly feminine. That he is male makes this superficially a challenge to stereotypes, but his objectification is still coded as feminised. And in this sense his platforming by the sexual revolution’s most iconic and culturally influential purveyor of masturbation-fodder tells us nothing new.

As transgender cultural theorist Andrea Long Chu argues in Females, “femaleness” in “its barest essentials” is “an open mouth, an expectant asshole, blank, blank eyes”. The stereotype is not smashed; the only change is that feminisation is now an option for males as well.

And if Bretman Rock is claiming for males the right to self-objectify in a feminised style, we might also reflect on what manner of ‘opportunity’ is being equalised. For insight, we can revisit feminist insights from the early days of the sexual revolution’s supposed ‘liberation’ of women and sexuality.

In 1963, Gloria Steinem spent a month undercover as a ‘Playboy Bunny’, and described the reality of what Playboy marketed as ‘the top job in the country for a young girl’ in her now-iconic essay A Bunny’s Tale.

Steinem described how tights, makeup and beauty sessions were paid out of wages. Bunnies were both incentivised to induce drinks-buying by flirting and pretending to find customers interesting, while also strictly forbidden to disturb the ‘aura of glamour’ that surrounded them by going out with customers away from the clubs. In total, the ‘Bunny Bible’ promised glamour and liberation, while imposing a system of rules, fines and surveillance that formed as constraining a metaphorical corset as the iconic Bunny basque did a literal one.

Fifty years on, everything is now pornography. That is, the tension codified in Hefner’s Playboy ‘Bunny Bible’ between elusive mystery and commercialised self-exposure characterises the whole digital economy. If you want to be visible in digital culture, the swiftest route there is finding a way to expose yourself for others’ titillation. As the highly public meltdown of ‘extreme eating’ YouTuber Nicocado Avocado shows, it doesn’t matter how self-destructive this is, provided it delivers a voyeuristic hit.

From this perspective, Bretman Rock’s appearance in the most iconic of all corsets strikes a blow less for liberation than for equal-opportunities access by all Gen-Z humans to this pornified mode of subsistence.

Congratulations, Gen-Z men: you, too, can now don the digital corset and sell yourselves as objects. Welcome to equality, 21st-century style.

Join the discussion

  • I am pleased that Mary did not mention the usual “meat avatars” in this article. I think she was working up to it in the final few paragraphs but it did not quite “materialise” in this one.
    Really, as I see it, these various fringe firsts, including the “Playboy Bunny” are just expressions of humanity’s experimentation with “self”. They are peripheral OK for column inches but not much else.

  • My favorite part of modern society is narcissists taking off their clothes in front of cameras and telling us they are freedom fighters.

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