Steinem's groundbreaking article exposing the 1960s world of Playboy Bunny clubs is as fresh and relevant as ever

Fifty years ago this month, Gloria Steinem created a sensation with the first installment of her two-part series, "A Bunny's Tale". At the time Steinem was a decade away from gaining fame as the co-founder of Ms magazine, but her personal account of going undercover to work as a bunny at the Playboy Club riveted readers, giving them insight into a male bastion that few knew firsthand. "A Bunny's Tale" appeared in the May and June issues of Show magazine in the same year that Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar were published. That's tough competition, but in hindsight, it is clear that "A Bunny's Tale" complements Friedan and Plath and deserves to be honored, rather than forgotten as it has been, for the serious muckraking journalism it is. At the core of "A Bunny's Tale" is Steinem's belief that the sexual revolution will fail if men are the only ones allowed to define it. In taking on Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner and his Playboy Clubs, Steinem showed she could more than hold her own against an opponent with his own media empire. By 1960 Playboy was reaching a million readers a month, and in 1963, when "A Bunny's Tale" was published, the Playboy Clubs were flourishing. Hefner, who had started Playboy in 1953, was at the height of his influence, and not content with making himself rich. He had in 1962 begun penning monthly essays that he insisted would be "the Emancipation Proclamation of the sexual revolution". Steinem was unimpressed. She did not hesitate to treat Hefner's emancipation claims as bunk. She went after him where he was most vulnerable, showing readers what it actually meant to work at a Playboy Club.

"A Bunny's Tale" takes the form of a diary and moves from Steinem's initial decision to adopt the alias of Marie Catherine Ochs to her last day on the job when she overhears another Bunny say of a customer, "He's a real gentleman. He treats you just the same whether you've slept with him or not." In between, Steinem learns the requirements of being a Bunny. On the club's orders, she is tested for venereal disease, and after being hired, she is told which club members she can date (Number One keyholders) and which she cannot (all the rest).

Her new status leaves no room for doubting how she is viewed. A guard greets her by calling out, "Here bunny, bunny, bunny!" The club wardrobe mistress stuffs a plastic dry cleaning bag down the front of her Bunny costume to increase her cleavage. Finally, the job doesn't come close to paying the $200 to $300 weekly salary the Playboy Club advertizes that Bunnies earn. At every turn, Steinem and the other Bunnies are nickeled and dimed. They must, she notes, pay for the upkeep and cleaning of their costumes as well as the false eyelashes they are expected to wear. The club also takes 50% of the $30 in tips they make on food and liquor bills that are charged. It's a no-win trap for the Bunnies, whose vulnerability Steinem captured by sharing their ordeal. In taking this approach to her article, Steinem was doing what many new journalists did in the 1960s when they made their personal experiences central to the events they reported on. Tom Wolfe took this path in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Norman Mailer in The Armies of the Night, and Hunter Thompson in Hell's Angels. In Steinem's case the great challenge was resisting the temptation to lash out against those who were alternately patronizing and exploiting her. She had to know that when "A Bunny's Tale" appeared in print, she was going to be accused of exploiting her good looks. A homely woman, as the Playboy Club made clear in its ads, could not be a Playboy Bunny. Since "A Bunny's Tale" first appeared, it has taken on a life of its own. In 1985 "A Bunny's Tale" was made into an ABC television movie starring Kirstie Alley, and today Steinem's story, which she retitled "I Was a Playboy Bunny" when she included it in a collection of her own writing, retains its freshness.

In the college writing class I teach, I often assign "A Bunny's Tale" to students who want to do first-person reporting. The majority of them begin by not knowing who Gloria Steinem is and being unfamiliar with Ms magazine. None of that matters though after they have finished "A Bunny's Tale." They are thrilled by Steinem's daring, and they recognize a kindred spirit when they read her.

 © Guardian News and Media 2013