Grids Next Door

By Cindy Hinant

The grid proposes a utopian space and imposes a system that permeates our popular culture. The influence of grids has been widespread; the Playboy Mansion and the culture around Playboy Magazine can be viewed as an extension of the grid’s morality and logic.

It signifies order, objectivity and the possibility of a utopia. Over the years, grids have provided a dominant model for art, architecture and design. As such, they represent a major patriarchal development of modernism. Le Corbusier writes in his 1924 foreword to The City of To-Morrow:

Machinery is the result of geometry. The age in which we live is therefore essentially a geometrical one; all its ideas are so orientated in the direction of geometry. Modern art and thought—after a century of analysis—are now seeking beyond what is merely accidental; geometry leads them to mathematical forms, a more and more generalized attitude.[1]

The grid paradoxically carries a democratic promise in its all encompassing and dominating order. It creates equality as no line is given privilege over another. The grid suceeds in functioning like a monochrome, as a flat surface that rejects composition and hierarchies.

While the monochrome functions as a picture plane into an infinite void, grids describe an infinity that invades the viewer’s space. Rosalind Krauss states,

Logically speaking, the grid extends, in all directions, to infinity. Any boundaries imposed upon it by a given painting or sculpture can only be seen—according to this logic—as arbitrary. By virtue of the grid, the givenwork of art is presented as mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric.”[2]

The grid is thus a visual model for the projection of ideal worlds.

The Grid as Social and Psychological Utopia

Superstudio, an Italian architecture group, developed proposals that would expand the grid into the whole of the globe. In Superstudio: The Fundamental Acts/ 5 Stories by Superstudio (1972-73), they describe a grid network as a universal, all-over space where there is permanent nomad ism and where “the grass of your neighbor is no longer greener than yours.”[3] The structure of this space is non-hierarchical, every space is equal, people move as they choose and with no regard to property or boundaries. In fact, each space is equal to the next so there is no reason to either move or stay in the same place.

A Journey from A to B.
There will be no further need for cities or castles.
There will be no further reasons for roads or squares.

Every point will be the same as any other (excluding a few deserts or mountains which are in no ways inhabitable). So, having chosen a random point on the map, we’ll be able to say: my house will be here for three days, two months, or ten years. And we’ll set off that way (lets call it B) without provisions, carrying only objects we’re fond of. The journey from A to B can be long or short. In any case it will be a constant migration with the actions of living at every point along the ideal line between A (departure) and B (arrival)…[4]

Superstudio uses the grid to mediate and give equality to space. The Fundamental Acts is an anti-architectural pro posal. There are no identifying structures other than natural landmarks. It is a space for free movement, free love and free education. It is an “environment for love at first site,” where two people can be deeply in love for variable lengths of time.[5] The grid is designed to meet all the needs of its inhabitants and create a social structure of complete freedom and equality.

The Grid as Moral Parable

The Disney films Tron and Tron: Legacy feature a utopic fantasy also based on the grid. The virtual grid world from the original 1982 Tron is an alternate, digital reality that ex ists within the company ENCOM’s computer mainframe. In this alternate universe, people (a.k.a. “Programs”) appear in the likeness of the “Users” that created them in the real world. In this film, the grid is used to show the virtual world, The Grid. With plot discrepancies from the original aside, The Grid was created in 1989 by the character Kevin Flynn, the software engineer of ENCOM. It was designed to be the “perfect system”. As Flynn did not have enough time to manage his virtual utopia and live in the real world, he created a virtual clone named Clu to help him manage The Grid.[6]

After some time a miracle occurs within The Grid. A new, virtual life form emerges from nowhere. These “iso morphic algorithms” or “ISOs” are self-generated programs that Flynn believes have the potential to unlock all of the mysteries of life. Clu, who has been programmed to re move all imperfection, destroys all of the ISOs (except one who escapes); he sees them as mistakes within The Grid.

The grid in Tron: Legacy functions not only as the prominent visual organizer of the film but it also defines the morality in the plot. According to the programs, all that fits within the grid is perfect, everything else is not. Only the Users (humans) Kevin Flynn, and then 20 years later, his son, Sam, can see that the ISOs are special and valuable in their difference. The true beauty in The Grid was its ab normality. In both versions of the film, evil is epitomized by a grid-as-machine that runs amok due to corporate greed. Tron consolidates the worst fantasies of Orwell’s 1984 with the late capitalist narrative: individual vs corporation.[7]

Utopias refer to an ideal, perfect and harmonious system. However, our experience of utopias cannot be separated from the dystopic. Utopias require its partici pants to give something up in order to create harmony and uniformity. When someone finds fault in that repression, it is then defined as a dystopia. In Tron, they repressed the ISOs; in Logan’s Runthey gave up old age; and in Nazi Germany they strived to eliminate everything not Aryan.[8] The utopic grid is an oppressive tool of modernist expan sion. Therein lies its inherently patriarchal function and its contradictory nature.

The Playboy Brand

The Playboy Mansion can be viewed as a hyper version of the American Dream. Hugh Hefner’s empire presents the desire for beautiful women, new cars and mansions with swimming pools as attainable goals. Playboy has a compli­cated brand image; it was the first American publication to show women as sexually motivated beings. The magazine wanted to show that women had sexual desires and did not have sex merely because of loyalty to their husbands. Although not widely known today, Hefner and Playboy were advocates of the women’s movement, civil rights and anti-censorship acts. They actively supported sex educa tion, contraception and abortion rights through monetary support and exposure in the magazine’s articles.

Playboy set out to change stereotypical ideals of mas culinity. Other men’s magazines at the time portrayed man as a rugged, tough, outdoor creature. Playboy portrayed the modern man as a sophisticated and highly cultured being who liked literature and jazz. It has been argued that the primary function of the naked women in Playboy was not to arouse, but to confirm heterosexuality within this new, liberal masculinity. Barbara Ehrenreich explains in Playboy Joins the Battle of The Sexes,

The real message was not eroticism but escape, literal escape from the bondage of bread-winning…When, in the first issue, Hefner talked about staying in his apartment, listening to music and discussing Picasso, there was the Marilyn Monroe centerfold to let you know there was nothing queer about these urbane and indoor pleasures.[9]

The naked women in early Playboy, while centerfolds, did not necessarily take center stage. The magazine was a popular venue for emerging, avant-garde writers, illus trators and musicians.[10] Thus the old cliché of “buying Playboyfor the articles” holds true in many cases.

Although Playboy started as a liberal proposal for a new, American lifestyle offering sexual liberation for both men and women, in the end, the brand would promote traditional, puritanical desires. If any radical change oc curred in American culture from Playboy’s influence, only men would enjoy it; women continued to play the role of either the interchangeable whore (bunny) or the faithful wife. Hefner would later state that the ultimate goal, after experiencing sexual liberation, would be a monogamous relationship within marriage.[11]

The Playboy Mansion: Life on the Grid

The Playboy Mansion is an iconic site emblematic of American male desire. Hefner resided in the Chicago man sion from 1959 until 1974. It was the ultimate bachelor pad where playmates and bunnies roamed abundantly. The Chicago mansion reflects the newly sexual, liberated man proposed by Playboy, where men were not bound by the constraints of traditional courting rituals and marriage. The brass plate on the door with the phrase “Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare (If you don’t swing, don’t ring)”[12] summed up the energy of the house. With its famous round, rotating bed and underwater bar, this was a site for never-ending parties, complete with cocktails, drugs and a minimum 2:1 ratio of women to men.[13]

The California Mansion, or Playboy Mansion West, is a Tudor Gothic mansion in Los Angeles found by then girlfriend, Barbi Benton. Hefner describes his new home as “A new Playboy Mansion for a new decade…I have found the place where I would live out my life and do my best to create a heaven on earth.”[14] Hefner, then almost fifty years old, aimed to create a self-contained paradise that included an aviary, swimming pools and gardens in the 6-acre Playboy compound. While the Chicago Mansion represents the swinging bachelor, a.k.a. the new modern man, Playboy Mansion West reflects the underlying puritanical values present in the brand.

Playboy Mansion West is the supersize version of a conservative, 1950’s suburban household. It portrays the American dream of having a wife and owning a house and car, but on a larger scale. This ideal is in fact modest; the decadence represented in the Playboy Mansion is mostly in scale or quantity, not in quality. For example, Hefner requires that every time he eats a sandwich it be made from Wonderbread using the middle slices from a brand new bag of bread each time.[15] This is a millionaire’s 99¢ luxury. It maintains the puritanical work ethic of the 1950’s:good clean fun, free from excess. He quite literally wants a run of the mill, white-bread lifestyle (only more so).

The women around Playboy, like Hef’s slices of Wonderbread, are bland and interchangeable. This sounds like angry, feminist criticism, but is in fact a crucial element of the brand. The real appeal from Playboy is that any girl could be a centerfold; they do not have to be extraordinarily beautiful. Playboy prefers not to hire professional models. In fact, many of the first girls were working nurses or secretaries.[16]

Hefner kept up the appearance of a swinging bachelor lifestyle in the sixties and seventies with a long string of “Personal Playmates” (although he maintained many serious relationships throughout this period).[17] In 1989, he gave up the bachelor image entirely when he married Kimberly Conrad. Hefner and Conrad quickly adapted their lifestyle to that of a traditional marriage. The Mansion parties became more regulated, casual nudity ceased and children’s toys replaced sex toys. Conrad says “I want this to be more like a real home. The girls still come over but they’re wearing their bathing suits. I think that’s nice.”[18]

Throughout the nineties Hefner became an advocate for monogamy and a return to traditional, conservative American values. He stated, “In my heart, I think I have always been [a traditional family-values kind of guy]. I think I have come full circle to living life very similar to my parents.”[19] Finally, Hefner admits to his puritanical ideals.

After his separation from Conrad in the late nineties, Hefner traded married life for an organized structure of rotating girlfriends. He has had as many as seven official girlfriends at one time, but usually has about three, always with one “#1 Girlfriend.”[20] This organization allows for the illusion of a swinging bachelor lifestyle within the constraints of institutionalized marriage. The “Girlfriends” (an official Playboy title) live in a tightly controlled environment. Along with the swimming pools, decadent grounds, and a full staff, this utopic vision comes with a rigid structure of rules and regulations. The girls get an allowance of 1,000 dollars a week plus a budget for hair and clothes for events. They abide by a strict set of rules including a 9:00 PM curfew. The girls must present themselves in a wholesome, clean and innocent way that supports the Playboy brand.[21]

Hefner structures his life around a careful schedule in which he knows what to expect every moment of the day: Sunday is classic movie night; Tuesday is Monopoly night, Wednesday is sex night, etc. This desire for order and routine also results in Girlfriends who conform to a similarly organized system. Hefner’s girlfriends talk about their sameness in terms of cloning. In 2005, then-girlfriend Holly Madison joked, “I was raised in a cloning lab to be the perfect woman for Hugh M. Hefner.”[22] Later, after their break-up, Madison complains about her look-a-like replacement Crystal Harris, “If you look at Hef’s girlfriend now, she basically looks like a clone of me.”[23] Hefner’s Girlfriends truly are doppelgangers, if not actually biological twins. Hefner’s well-tanned girlfriends circa 1998 are aptly named Sandy, Mandy and Brande (Sandy and Mandy are twins) and exemplify his desire for repetition and uniformity.

In their proposal for the Continuous Monument, Superstudio states

The desire to render the world clear and distinct has left regular paths upon the human face and the world creating systems based on one and the same time upon man and upon geometry.”[24]

Hefner’s girlfriends submit to this geometry, becoming part of the grid system; they come out of the same assembly line like ideal products of the American Dream. They are blond, young and unexceptional. If they do not naturally fit within Hefner’s grid he pays for their bleaching, tanning, dental work and plastic surgery.[25]

Subversive Illusions in The Grid

The women who choose to be Hefner’s girlfriends do so for a variety of reasons. It provides financial security as well as an opportunity to be in the centerfold, which gives a larger payout. Some see it as a path towards success (strippers, models and sex workers can receive much larger paychecks if they are known to have been a Girlfriend or a Playmate).[26] It can also put the girls in the media spotlight (although few have visible careers beyond the role of Girlfriend). The reality show Girls Next Door features the Girlfriends; it has drastically changed both the visibility of Hefner’s girlfriends and the fan base of the brand.

Since the launch of the reality television show The Girls Next Door in 2005, Hefner’s Girlfriends have become celebrities in their own right. The first five seasons feature Kendra Wilkinson (the sporty one), Bridget Marquardt (the smart one) and Holly Madison (the leader and Hef’s #1 Girlfriend). The show follows the Girlfriends as they go shopping, get dressed for parties and enjoy the luxuries of the Playboy Mansion. It shows a now eighty-something Hefner as a father figure (or sugar daddy). The Girlfriends are portrayed as young, ambitious girls with career-minded goals.

Many young women see the Playboy Mansion as a place to project their own desire for material wealth and success. Former Girlfriend, Bridget Marquardt, says “Hef’s life has always been a fantasy for men; this is the first time it’s become a fantasy for women.”[27] Women were not originally the intended core audience for The Girls Next Door, however, it’s fan base is predominately women aged 15-40. These fans changed the demographic interested in the entire brand.[28] Daphne Merkin writes for Elle Magazine,

The show is an updated version of an erotically muted and old-fashioned fantasy—or, to put it another way, it’s about mutually accommodating (or mutually exploitative) fantasies of what men and women can expect from each other circa an idealized ‘50s prototype.[29]

The women in the Girls Next Door are seen as empowered because they have chosen this oppressed lifestyle. It presents this set-up as a fair trade; Hefner has an endless supply of cloned beauties and the women enjoy their own fame and success.

In the authorized biography Playboy: Mr. Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, Steven Watts explains the show’s popularity by its retro appeal:

It offers a pre-feminist fantasy of women being provided for, loved and showcased by an elderly, wealthy gentleman…[The show] has a secret momentary appeal to even the most hardened feminist advocates of gender equality…The Girls Next Door, in its own unorthodox fashion, makes a statement about female empowerment. These three young women make deci sions and struggle to shape their own lives.[30]

There is a long tradition of oppressed groups appropriating terms or conditions of its oppressors, like the African American community adopting “nigger,” or women artists using their own body as a site to repel objectification. Playboy Enterprises© has managed to commodify this trend and has created a culture of young girls who see the “girls next door” as role models, and the Playboy icon as cool and subversive. In the last few years Playboy merchandise has become increasingly popular among young women. The Playboy logo, once proudly displayed by young men in locker rooms and on car windshields [31] can now be found on Swarovski crystal necklaces, make-up and pet clothing. The Playboy© Bunny has been tramp-stamped on co-eds across the nation.

Contradictory Proposals

Grids provide a model for the contradictory proposals of equalitarian, free love spaces, as well as aggressive, totalitarian societies. The same characteristics that make the grid open and democratic also create a space that is oppressive and controlling, thus is the paradox within any utopic vision. Similar contradictions can be found within Playboy. The same attributes that attract women to the brand and to the utopia of the Playboy Mansion also restrict them to an objectified, repressed role.

Liberal feminism allows for any position to be considered empowering. Women in the sex industry can argue that their employment is liberating because they have chosen this field and believe they are in control of their own fate. Feminists can also chose to carry out traditional roles of housewives for the same justifications. The choice to be a sex worker or a housewife can only be liberating if it takes place within a in a culture that proposes these careers as choices, not as inevitable positions. The utopia, which I am choosing here to equate with a grid, proposed by Hugh Hefner, does not allow for alternatives. Either you submit to the perfection of the grid, or you’re out. The perceived women’s empowerment in The Girls Next Door represents a failure in contemporary feminism.


[1] Le Corbusier The City of To-Morrow and Its Planning New York: Dover 1986 p.7

[2] Krauss, Rosalind “Grids” 1978 The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths Cambridge: The MIT Press 1986 p. 18

[3] Superstudio, “The Fundamental Acts” in Exit Utopia: Architectural Provoca tions 1956-76, Ed. Martin Van Schaik and Otakar Mácel (New York: Prestel 2005), p. 197

[4] Ibid. p 200

[5] Ibid. p. 208

[6] Tron: Legacy, Directed by Joseph Kosinski, Written by Edward Kitsis et al., Starring Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, and Olivia Wilde, Disney 2010

[7] Orwell, George 1984 New York: Signet Classic 1961

[8] Logans Run, Directed by Micheal Andersin Novel by William F. Nolan, Screenplay by David Zelag Goodman, Starring Michael York, Jenny Agutter et al., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1976

[9] Einreich, Barbara “Playboy Joins the Battle of The Sexes” The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment Anchor Books: New York 1983 p. 51

[10] Einreich, Barbara “Playboy Joins the Battle of The Sexes” The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment Anchor Books: New York 1983 p. 51

[11] Ibid.

[12] Hefner, Hugh M and Bill Zehme, Hef’s Little Black Book, New York, Harper Entertainment, 2004. p. 48

[13] Ibid. pp 45-51

[14] Ibid. pp. 53-54

[15] The Girls Next Door, E! Cable Television Network, Produced by Kevin Burns and Hugh Hefner, Season 1, Episode 1, 2005

[16] Hugh Hefner Playboy, Activist and Rebel, Directed by Brigitte Berman, Metaphor Films 2009

[17] Watts, Steven, Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, Hobo ken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008 p. 282

[18] Ibid. p. 401

[19] Ibid. p. 404

[20] The Girls Next Door, E! Cable Television Network, Produced by Kevin Burns and Hugh Hefner, Season 1, 2005

[21] Wilkinson, Kendra, Sliding Into Home, New York: Gallery Books, 2010 pp. 109-129

[22] The Girls Next Door, E! Cable Television Network, Produced by Kevin Burns and Hugh Hefner, Season 1, 2005

[23] “Holly Madison: Plastic Surgery Changed My Life” Life and Style Maga zine September 2, 2009.

[24] Superstudio “The Continuous Monument: an Architectural Model for Total Urbanization” in Superstudio: Life Without Objects, Lang, Peter and William Menking, Milano: Italy, p. 124

[25] Wilkinson, Kendra, Sliding Into Home, New York: Gallery Books, 2010 pp. 109-129

[26] Waldon, Jo, “Whipped Cream, Fire Eating, and Other Delights,” in Flesh Fantasy: Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance, ed. Danielle Egan et al. (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press), pp. 85-94

[27] Ibid.

[28] Watts, Steven, Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, Hobo ken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008 p. 445

[29] Merkin, Daphne, “I Dream of Holly (And Bridget, And Kendra), Elle, May 22, 2007

[30] Watts, Steven, Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, Hobo ken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008 p. 445

[31] Hugh Hefner Playboy, Activist and Rebel, Directed by Brigitte Berman, Metaphor Films 2009

Grid drawing by Cindy Hinant


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