Unsuitable playmates?

15th February 2008 at 00:00
Playboy is being marketed to pre-teens like Barbie or Bratz. Kate Townshend argues that primary classrooms are not the place for this particular brand.

At a school where I was teaching, a nine-year-old girl asked me with genuine furrowed-brow anxiety: "Is Playboy rude?" She had been given a Miss February Playboy necklace as a gift from an older sister and some of her more worldly classmates had begun to make her feel that it might not be the obvious and uncomplicated object of envy she had imagined.

Teachers are often expected to deliver sex education as part of the curriculum, and I like to think of myself as relatively unflappable. But sex education is one thing, explaining the pornography market is another. The significant thing, however, is that this is unlikely to be an unusual scenario for primary teachers.

As a supply teacher I see lots of different schools and children. While the challenges and rewards of a tough inner city primary are inevitably different from those of a leafy village school, a few things remain constant. Year 1 children will always shuffle nearer and nearer to shoe stroking distances on the carpet and the staffroom will always be mysteriously hard to find.

Oh, and one more thing. There will always be one little girl eagerly clutching her Playboy pencil case or fountain pen who might even happily tell you during news time about her new Playboy-themed bedroom, complete with curtains and matching duvet set. It is, in certain primary school circles, the height of cool to display that iconic set of bunny ears with its traditionally girly Barbie pink colour scheme. And, hey, it's a brand like any other. In the same classes Tracy Beaker, Transformers and Bratz merchandise will compete for equal attention. So what's the problem?

Well, let's take a look at Playboy. Whatever the well-documented and ethically dubious problems involved with marketing any kind of must-have name to children, much of the stationery that graces our primary classrooms ties in with children's television programmes, films, computer games or books. The Playboy bunny, on the other hand, is not some feisty talking sidekick from the latest must-see movie.

In the original sense of the word, it is a scantily clad adult female, paid to use her sexuality for the gratification of adult males. And the Playboy business is in essence a multi-million dollar, international pornography empire.

These are the uncomfortable facts behind the unthreateningly pink and fluffy rubbers and rulers teachers are increasingly used to seeing in classrooms.

Don't believe it? Take a casual stroll into your nearest WHSmith and look for the fashion stationery section. This is not functional office equipment but stationery clearly aimed at children. The majority of children consider the Playboy brand to be cute or pretty, with no deeper understanding of it than this.

In partial response to this disassociation of the brand from its roots, the London branch of Anti-Porn UK is running a campaign against Playboy. The campaign's aim is to "raise awareness as to the true nature of Playboy" and it calls on all of us to "bin the bunny".

While this campaign and others like it aim to raise adult consciousness of the way in which Playboy is becoming an everyday brand, for those on the frontline of its range of influence, explaining the issues involved is not as simple as it appears. A local headteacher told me: "We can't address the issue because the whole problem with it is that it creates an association between children and an entirely adult phenomenon. It is hard to explain things to children without exposing them to what we are trying to protect them from."

The bottom line is that children often want things that make them feel more grown up. But I cannot accept the idea that for the little girls in the classes I teach, the values they absorb will eventually tell them that their highest potential worth is based on their sexual attractiveness, and that their bodies are commodities for male enjoyment before, above and beyond their own.

We are trained as teachers, rightly, to keep our own political, ideological and religious opinions out of our teaching and provide our pupils with the resources to make their own decisions. Playboy's targeting of the pre-teen market inevitably catches children before they have the knowledge or the sophistication to make informed choices. Binning the bunny must be a better option than covering our classrooms with it binthebunny.wordpress.comabout.

Kate Townshend is a supply teacher in the West Midlands and Gloucestershire.

TES staffroom views

What do you think of girls in your class bringing in Playboy-branded stationery or talking about the Playboy bedlinen they have at home? Would you discuss it? Posters on The TES website (www.tes.co.uk) speak up.

The last two schools I worked at banned any product with the Playboy symbol on it, because of where it came from and what it represents. It was banned because if a pupil looked up the products on the net, we know what will probably come up in a search. If the school allowed it, it may be a form of condoning it. - Daredevil

I challenge girls in secondary schools whenever they bring out Playboy merchandise. I do not allow them to put the logo on their work but have noticed that it is allowed by other teachers. I have seen it on main pieces in art and on the ubiquitous poster designs that pupils do in most subjects. They always argue with me when I point out that it is a pornography brand. No matter where I go on supply, girls insist that it is only in the USA that Playboy is pornography and that in the UK it is a different company that is all about fashion. - Jubilee

What the retailers say

WHSmith has come in for particular criticism for selling Playboy stationery, mobile phone covers and bags, among other items. But a spokeswoman says the store is responding to customer demand in stocking the brand.

"We aim to strike a balance to meet the needs of our customers while not acting as a censor," she says. "We include a number of brands within our ranges and it is up to our customers what they select.

"The Playboy icon has developed into a well-recognised fashion brand and it is one of our most popular range. The products don't include any inappropriate images."

Argos carries a range of Playboy-branded goods, including a suitcase, watch and beach-towel, although stationery is now only available through its website and is not featured in its catalogue.

"It is a legitimate and popular brand, but we're quite careful that it is only promoted in appropriate sections of the catalogue," says a spokesman.

Woolworths does not stock Playboy stationery. A spokeswoman says its buyers only stock the ranges they feel will sell well. - Nick Morrison.

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