When Americans think of harems, their minds drift to the ‘mystical' East. But in the 21st century, the harem meets the American dream much closer to home.
There is a bustle of activity in the women's quarters of the harem. It is the Sultan's birthday and the members of the harem engage in an unspoken contest for the emperor's heart. They are making themselves beautiful, tending their hair and dressing up in their finest costumes to celebrate his four-score years with a grand ball.
Actually, this is not a story out of the Thousand and One Nights. The royalty in question is not some Baghdad Prince of the Faithful, but the Sultan of Porn himself, Hugh Hefner.
The Arab or Muslim harem – with its mystery and its promise of (largely imagined) debauchery in the form of bewitching dancing girls and naked bathing beauties – has titillated the western male imagination for centuries. And so many luminaries have been enticed into this forbidden zone (which is what “harem” means in Arabic) – in their fantasies – legendary musicians like Mozart, travellers and academics like Richard Burton, and even the Hollywood dream machine.
But you don't need to travel to the exotic East or back in time to see a real-life harem in action, there's one open to public teleview, we discovered while channel-hopping and pondering the impenetrable paradox of why it is that, even with so many channels, there was still nothing to watch.
Girls of the Playboy Mansion offers the viewer a fly-on-the-wall view of Hefner and his girlfriends living it up in his California home. Poised to hop to another channel, this barmy world of an 81-year-old media mogul and his harem of bottled platinum blondes drew us, like some genie, back at the last minute.
It turns out that Hef officially launched his rotating harem after he separated from Kimberley Conrad, his second wife. His coterie has ranged in size from around seven to the current three girlfriends: Holly Madison (28), Bridget Marquardt (34) and Kendra Wilkinson (22).
And the “reality” show allows the viewer to float on the surface gloss of this superficial world of endless parties and dressing up. This is apparently the E! entertainment channel's biggest ratings grabber, but I suspect this is a reflection of the quality of the rest of its programming.
Watching the show, I was struck by how much the Playboy Mansion resembled the ancient world of the harem. Life in the haramlik (as it is more correctly known) also revolved mainly around the relationships between the various women, who constructed friendships, alliances and rivalries with one another.
Like in the harems of yore, Holly, Bridget and Kendra are reportedly not allowed to have other sexual partner. They vie for Hef's affections and compete for his attention, often manoeuvring to get him alone. Like the sultan he obviously thinks he is, Hef (as they affectionately call him) even has his own favourite, Holly.
Conrad, his second wife, to whom he is still married and who is the mother of his children, lives in an adjoining mansion, rather like the separate apartment reserved for the oldest member of a harem. Moreover, the pecking order of the women and the power they wield in the Playboy Mansion is a function of their relationship with Hefner.
They used to say that behind every great man was a woman. In harems, there were usually several. This power by proxy found its most intricate manifestation in the Ottoman court, where the senior members of the harem actually ruled the empire through their sons or husbands – perhaps like Hilary Clinton. For instance, Valide Sultan Safiye, the mother of Sultan Mehmet III, was an effective backstage co-regent, first with her husband Murad and then her son.
But, in the contemporary West, we are living in an age of equal opportunity. So, why this enduring need for a patriarch? My wife, Katleen, is baffled by why educated women – Holly and Bridget are both working towards their second master's degree – should submit themselves to this. “They're basically giving up their youth for him,” she remarked.
However, it would appear that not all women share her distaste. Shockingly, according to the exclamation-loving E!, 70% of the show's audience are women! “When the show was first in development, I thought that [female viewers] were going to hate these women,” Lisa Berger of E! admitted. Honestly, I would have expected the same.
“They are normal girls living this fantasy lifestyle. They're good friends dating the same guy,” she added. “Normal” is naturally a subjective term – and I won't judge Berger's definition of normal, if she promises to do the same. But a fantasy world it certainly is. Aside from academic curiosity at why these women are there, the few episodes we have watched have held a kind of kitsch appeal, an Alice-in-Wonderland sort of surrealism.
While researching this article I've come across a fair amount of speculation about whether or not Girls of the Playboy mansion is empowering to women. Hefner, who did psychology and gender studies at university, seems to have been aware of this angle and built in certain “girl power” features to make the show appeal to female audiences.
To my mind, if this show is empowering, then it is a sad testimony to how little progress feminism has made in subverting the old patriarchal order. These young women may be educated and possess forceful personalities, but then, these qualities were also valued in women in Victorian times – as long as they didn't rise above their station and deferred to their man, just like in the Playboy mansion.
In principle, people are free to live in consensual polygamous relationships if they so choose. However, economic and gender inequalities make certain choices more likely. How many young women would be interested in an octogenarian, if he wasn't a rich and powerful man?
Although many do not like what he represents, Hugh Hefner has been admired and envied by millions his entire life for his playboy lifestyle. And even at 81, he raises few eyebrows with his multiple girlfriends whose combined age (84) barely exceeds his. How many women of his age would be so admired if they hooked up with their own harem of young male lovers?
I hope we will soon see the day when economic, social and gender equality mean that the likes of Hefner become a truly endangered species.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 13 October 2007.