Within just the past few weeks we have seen Burt Reynolds, that paragon of smirking 1970’s masculinity, pass away in Florida while the Playboy Club, that whimsical throwback to bunny ears and cottontails, has now been reborn in New York City. Each life change is, in its own way, an opportunity to glance back at sexual and societal mores that seem somehow both distant and strangely contemporary, and our viewpoints are likely composed of equal parts of attraction and repulsion.
The secret to Mr. Reynolds rakish and thoroughly self-deprecating charm was that he honestly seemed to enjoy being “Burt Reynolds”. Like the grinning boy who stares you straight in the eye while he has his hand in the cookie jar, Mr. Reynolds’ utterly guileless determination to be as sweetly naughty as he could be allowed him to manage the neat trick of being the man whom women wanted to both slap in the face and drag to their boudoir.
Looking at his movies and antics today, we are likewise divided by our attraction to his easygoing charm and our cringing reactions to his sometimes over-the-top sexism. However, Mr. Reynolds’ willingness to make himself the butt of the joke in both his movies and real life—who will ever forget his hirsute nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1972?—largely inoculated him from the taint of overt misogyny and permitted him to later age into more demanding dramatic roles that no longer required a sly smile or whinnying laugh.
The return of the Playboy Club to New York City seems equal parts a yearning for a more naively seductive style of sexuality and a nostalgia for a bygone time when men were men, women were women, and sex was less about lawyers, regrets, and diseases. During the Age of Aquarius, a period of time largely defined by a carefree desire to stimulate every available nerve ending, Hugh Hefner’s worldview both enabled the eternal adolescent within and disabled the guardians of traditional moral standards without.
As a vehicle for fantasy role playing and the exchange of cash for a peek at pretty young women who exuded a wholesome innocence, the Playboy franchise was a money machine for many decades. Ironically enough, however, what prompted its demise as a cultural icon and financial juggernaut was the ready availability of pornography that became, with the passing of the years, ever more explicit and gritty—the college co-ed next door eventually lost out to the grim hooker splayed in the alleyway. Today the politics of sex, of gender roles, and of gender itself have grown infinitely more complex, and the penalties for misbehavior and miscommunication have gone far beyond a knee to the groin or a “bad reputation”.
In addition, we have somehow managed to paint ourselves into a uncomfortable corner where our mass entertainment has devolved into soft-core pornography and even school children exchange sexually explicit selfies on their cell phones, yet we are told the cure to all that ails our culture and society is more sex-positivity because we are—hard it may be to believe—still far too prudish. Apparently, having the least self-restraint or standards is today a sign of unhealthy inhibition that must be eliminated in order to avoid allowing anyone to judge another’s behavior. What a world we live now. Is it any wonder that we gaze with perhaps the least bit of longing back to the days when double-entendres were risqué, a tuft of exposed chest hair or a hint of cleavage was titillating, and any hint of nudity had to be wrapped in opaque plastic lest a child see something that they should not?
Although our world may somehow be better off because mothers can now work out to regain their pre-pregnancy form on a stripper pole in the den, porn stars write their own magazine columns, and everyone can learn how to give a blowjob on YouTube, it could be the case that the ultimate attraction of the movies and persona of Burt or of the Bunnies in their costumes is that each provides pleasures that rely more on what is kept hidden rather than what is revealed. Perhaps we actually lust for just a bit more bashfulness as a counterbalance to the daily gynecology of our culture today.