Have you ever eaten too much candy and, although it was delicious, the second you stopped you felt empty and kind of sick and craving more too? That’s how I felt reading Holly Madison’s memoir Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny.
The book is about Madison’s 7-year shared relationship with Hugh Hefner, her starring role on the reality show The Girls Next Door, and the psychological fallout she suffered living at the Playboy mansion and also after extricating herself from that situation. The book was not good. Nevertheless, I consumed it with fervor and then felt terrible immediately afterward.
Processing this strange craving/empty feeling, I wrote to one of my besties: “I feel sorry for her that this was her vapid lived experience, but also sorry for our society that this is what we want to consume so fervently that it made the best seller list.” Highly hypocritical of me; I purchased the damn book specifically because I watched every episode of The Girls Next Door. I am the social consumer. I chose to eat all those jellybeans.
In true academic-bestie style, I got this back: “I guess you could think of books like that as a gateway drug that could eventually lure people into more productive reading. Or think of reading/books as a neutral medium, like television, that has some worthy content and some just for entertainment. I think in the 18th/19th centuries, novels in general were frowned on because the genre of fiction caused too much frivolous excitement rather than somberly educating the youth.”
Thank you bestie, for foregrounding this important idea: it’s not whether a book is “worth” reading, it’s how we think about and evaluate the scenarios and issues presented in the book.
Here’s my evaluation: Madison is a classic postfeminist, but she’s not a successful one. And this is quite unusual because the postfeminist characters we encounter in our media are almost always successful. Postfeminist characters do have flaws and setbacks, but are generally able to “bootstrap” from their “equal opportunities” in education, domesticity, and professional prospects, and excel in the most important postfeminist areas: looking young and hot, “making it” in male-dominated careers, and exuding inner confidence and happiness. Oh, and they’re usually hard-core ass-kickers too. Let’s see a couple familiar postfeminist faces:
No question, Madison is a postfeminist woman too. She aligns herself with and finds value in hegemonic beauty (long, straight hair, large breasts, thin, hairless body). And she explains that she “made herself beautiful” through plastic surgery and consumption of clothing, makeup, and beauty treatments. That could not be more postfeminist! Madison is also intent on climbing the capitalistic success ladder. She’s always looking for ways to improve her social and socioeconomic position through hard work (in her case, hard work is connecting with famous and powerful people who might then open modeling and acting doors for her).
And actually, you could very well read the arc of her memoir as a postfeminist success story: Madison takes herself from humble, small-town Portland (side note: Portland is neither humble nor small) and transforms herself, like her icon Marilyn Monroe, into the object of male desire. She then trades on that desire, translating it into four Playboy covers, a reality TV career, and a starring role in a Las Vegas show. The book ends with her dream wedding at Disneyland after the birth of her first child.
Yet despite her eleventh hour happy ending, the Madison we follow throughout the book is painfully unsuccessful at making postfeminism work for her. Her biggest strategy for success–moving into the Playboy mansion and becoming one of Hefner’s girlfriends–actually cuts her off from career opportunities and also makes her fragile and paranoid. Making herself over as the ideal woman leads to a deep depression and feeling as if she’s lost all individuality. Thus, the main content of the book is not Madison kicking ass and taking names (as the postfeminist woman would do when presented with either opportunity or obstacle). Rather, page after page is Madison recounting the devastating effects of no one complimenting her new haircut or of Hefner telling her she can’t be in Playboy because she doesn’t “photograph well.” Even when she gets out of her legitimately abusive relationship with Hefner, she immediately falls into another romantic relationship and another career path that directly replicates the pitfalls of her Playboy mansion life. In fact, these after-Hefner stories starkly contrast with what we expect from the postfeminist woman: taking charge of her life doesn’t immediately make Madison a powerful, kick-ass success story.
The seemingly surefire methods of constructing the perfect body and advancing career opportunities by being flexible and adaptable—they all backfire on Madison. She doesn’t gain confidence and strength and success by leaving Hefner either. Madison is not a fictional character and these parts of her life really happened. But, frankly, it’s not a narrative we’re used to seeing in our postfeminist characters, or our characters who work the postfeminist steps so hard.
Back to that too much candy feeling. Madison’s memoir explains ad nauseam how injured she was when Hefner didn’t like her red lipstick; when a bodyguard made fun of her Prius; when another Hefner girlfriend (Kendra) refused to wear matching skirts. These are salacious details but they are also annoying: they’re not markers of mental, emotional, or physical success by any means. And they gave me little reason to like or root for Madison. She is no Katniss Everdeen winning at the hunger games. She is no Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda. Madison is beautiful and financially stable and well-known, but she is without the fierce confidence and try-anything-and-it-will-work-out success that we expect–we crave–from our postfeminist characters.
Let me be clear: I’m comparing a real person to the unattainable imaginary construct of a postfeminist media character. Of course Madison falls short. We all would. That’s what makes the postfeminist woman so idealized and also such a false construct for gauging our everyday, real successes. So maybe it’s good for me to consume media about a postfeminist woman who fails with postfeminism. And perhaps what I should be thinking about is not Madison’s “vapid lived experience” but why I feel normal or satisfied after consuming properly postfeminist media. Madison’s book was both annoying and intoxicating, and I found that frustrating. But shouldn’t I feel the same when I read a book about an independent ass-kicker who always makes it happen for herself–and does it while looking amazing? Perhaps it’s not stories like Madison’s that should change, but rather my appetite.