Feminist Sans Clothes

According to Victoria Zdrok, feminists needn't dress up.

When Victoria Zdrok allowed Playboy to place a staple in her navel, she wasn't just allowing herself to become another sex kitten.

Or so she says.

"To get the feminist message across that professional women should be able to express their sexuality and not be punished for it," she told Philadelphia magazine last August, when asked about her motivations for posing nude. "Feminism is about making choices and feeling great about them, not feeling constrained by anything."

A noble goal, no doubt. And Zdrok, a 21-year-old Ukrainian, is no intellectual slouch. She graduated from West Chester University at 18 and is now busy in a seven-year graduate program combining a law degree with a clinical psychology Ph.D. How many Playboy bunnies do you know who cite Catherine McKinnon in their interviews?

Around Philadelphia, folks are pretty impressed with this intellectual dynamo. Zdrok was featured on the cover of the August issue of Philadelphia magazine, holding, in the words of writer Duane Swierczynski, "another hot young thing"--a baby lion cub. She appeared at a suburban Barnes and Noble to meet the masses and was almost mauled by a group of angry Bryn Mawr women. They were, by the end, suitably impressed by her wit and sharp mind, according to Nancy Zimbelli, director of promotions for the store. "She's a smart cookie," Zimbelli raved.

You have to wonder, if Playboy editors themselves were so impressed with this woman's intellect, why they didn't decide to have her pose in the nude with a feminist revison of Dostoyevsky's The Sisters Karamazov in her hand? Victoria herself expressed some disappointment that the photo shoot didn't quite stimulate her in the way she thought it would.

"When I was doing the shoot," she confessed in a Playboy interview, "I couldn't wait to go home and read a book."

So we have an intelligent woman stripping off her clothes and jutting her breasts out to the camera as a feminist statement. Is this, as Zdrok claims, truly an act of liberation? Or is it just another form of glorified oppression?

In her defense, Zdrok spent much of her life in the Soviet Union, under a government that banned great cultural and literary works. For Zdrok, Playboy represents the epitome of free-expression ideals: the notion that a woman can take off her clothes whenever she wants, with whomever she wants.

Yet Zdrok's actions play right into the notion of woman as sex object, according to Andrea Walsh, lecturer in Social Studies and Women's Studies. "Whatever she says about her intellect is contradicted by her image," Walsh says. "It perpetuates the idea that women's bodies are objects to be consumed by the male viewer."

Walsh also notes that Zdrok, by posing for the magazine, actually does more damage to the women's movement than assisting it. The airbrushed image of her body is held up as an ideal, and, inadvertently, sets up an image which men expect women to emulate.

After all, Zdrok still represents Playboy's--and, implicity, Western society's--image of beauty: blonde, busty and a Barbie-doll waist. Her 5'9", 120-pound frame isn't exactly doing much to encourage healthier notions of the female body, either.

That's not to say Zdrok didn't have the right to pose in Playboy. It just makes clear that her actions don't translate into a feminist statement.

After all, there must be other ways to express female liberation.

We hope.

Hallie Z. Levine's column appears on alternate Saturdays.