The passing of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner prompted both positive and negative eulogising. From one perspective, he was a revolutionary who helped to dismantle the long-standing secrecy and shame surrounding sexuality. And from another, he simply popularised the objectification of women for the gratification of men.
The most surprising detail to emerge after Hefner’s death was that Brooke Shields had featured in a Playboy publication called Sugar and Spice when aged only 10 years old in 1975. Photographer Gary Grosse received $450 to take the photographs of the heavily made-up Shields posing naked in a bathtub. The Sugar and Spice series of books in which the images appeared promised “surprising and sensuous images of women” from contemporary photographers, coding them as “artistic”.
The ongoing controversy about the images, particularly once Shields was old enough to realise that she did not want them in the public domain, affected Grosse’s career as a fashion photographer and he eventually became a dog trainer. Yet the fallout from the exploitative images did not significantly tarnish the Playboy name or Hugh Hefner. Shields featured on the cover of Playboy in 1986 at age 21.
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Today in the United States it is a felony in most jurisdictions to publish a nude photograph of a model aged under 18. However, laws about publishing images of minors were not as definitive historically and internationally, particularly if a model’s parent gave consent.
As the internet has become ubiquitous, we have become much more aware of the existence of child pornography and of the paedophiles who seek it out. Viewing and trading sexual images of children is not only a criminal act, but one of the most widely reviled behaviours possible. But pornography and popular culture have often exploited the line between girls and woman with the fetishisation of girls or women who look young.
Pornographic magazines and video have often used the trope of “barely legal” to present young women who are dressed and styled like schoolgirls, often in suburban bedrooms or school settings. As US historian Hanne Blank wrote in 2008, the depiction of “cheerleaders, students, babysitters and sorority girls” in this type of porn means that “the immaturity symbolism is insistent”.
While clearly most people are at the peak of their physical attractiveness in their youth, the fetishisation of young boys for a heterosexual female audience is nowhere near as common as the obsession with young girls within culture aimed at older men.