On Thursday, September 27, 2017, Hugh Hefner, the man that founded Playboy, passed away at the age of 91.
Since then, Hef has been both lionized and demonized. For some, he was a sexed-up freedom fighter, jabbing away at puritan norms with his throbbing…desire to liberate the repressed. For others, he was a perverted old creep who exploited women and hijacked the sexual revolution to reinforce the patriarchal agenda. To say that HH was a polarizing figure would be an understatement.
To Guardian columnist, Suzanne Moore, he was “a pimp” — and not in the celebratory, 50 Cent interpretation of the term. A weeping Pamela Anderson declared on Instagram that “outside of my family, you were the most important person in my life,” which will surely come as a great disappointment to her Baywatch co-star, David Hasselhoff. Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ resident moralizer, proclaimed that he was a “a pornographer and chauvinist who got rich on masturbation, consumerism and the exploitation of women, aged into a leering grotesque in a captain’s hat, and died a pack rat in a decaying manse where porn blared during his pathetic orgies.” Civil rights hero, Reverend Jesse Jackson, on the other hand, reminded the world of Hefner’s long-time support for the African-American cause. “We shall never forget him,” he tweeted. A long list of celebrities and, bizarrely, even conservatives sung his praise, while liberals stuck the metaphorical boot into his rhetorical corpse.
All of them are guilty of peddling simplistic narratives and the question of how history should remember Hugh Hefner is one that requires far more nuance to answer.
Those that adored him celebrate Hugh Hefner and Playboy as catalysts of the sexual revolution that swept over America in the 1960s. This gives him too much credit. His incredible success was an early sign that the revolution was on its way, but his contribution was more of a nudge than a cause.
An early proponent of the Kinsey Reports on human sexual behavior, Hef saw that American attitudes towards sex were changing and was astute enough to follow the shifting tide. Playboy launched in 1953, the same year that the second, female-focused Kinsey study went public. Its spectacular success was down to a clear demand in the marketplace and a dearth of comparable publications that satisfied it, but to put such a sweeping reconfiguration of a nation’s morals down to one man and his magazine is excessive. The oral contraceptive pill, which arrived in 1960, had a far more sizable effect and even that was but one link in a chain stretching back to the 1920s.
That’s not to dismiss the significance of Playboy, however. Being the first to stick your head above the parapet is important and every issue sold engaged at least one human being in a conversation about sex and morality. It made them consider their own sexuality in ways that they might have been unable to articulate before and nudged them into questioning widespread norms. By its fifth anniversary in 1958, Playboy’s monthly circulation sat at nearly 900,000 copies and it’s reasonable to assume that they reached many more sets of eyes. Hefner certainly played a significant role in America’s sexual awakening, but had he not stepped into that role then someone else surely would have. Ross Douthat, the aforementioned New York Times Christian talking head, recognized as much:
“No doubt what Hefner offered America somebody else would have offered in his place, and the changes he helped hasten would have come rushing in without him,” he notes. “But in every way that mattered he made those changes worse, our culture coarser and crueler and more sterile than liberalism or feminism or freedom of speech required.”
As a religious puritan, Douthat’s judgement should come as no surprise, but it’s woefully misplaced: Playboy's effect on American culture was actually quite benign. While it certainly objectified women, I am yet to hear a convincing argument that it objectifies them any more than mainstream advertising does. Human civilization as a whole objectifies women. The only thing that’s different about Playboy and Hef is that they were more brazen about it – although we shouldn’t ignore that he regularly cast himself as a proto-feminist, which is total bullshit.
But what’s also bullshit is Douthat’s argument that Hefner made U.S. culture “courser and crueler and more sterile.” As the Guardian pointed out in Hef’s obituary: “Magazines including Penthouse and Hustler battled for market share with Playboy. These were the years of the “pubic wars,” in which rival porn magazines vied for how much skin – and pubic hair – they could get away with showing on their covers. Hefner, posturing as ever as putative sophisticate, declined to stoop to conquer in this battle.” Playboy is wholly inoffensive compared to the smut found in one of Larry Flynt's publications or all over the internet today. Officially, it would be categorized as “softcore” and is no more explicit than the sort of nudity that might appear in a sophisticated European arthouse movie. The objects of Douthat’s frustration aren’t truly Playboy or Hefner, but the general current of history, which has consistently flowed towards liberalization.
And it really should be remembered that Playboy was more than just an album of tits: it financed a substantial amount of serious journalism over the years – most notably one of the earliest interviews with Civil Rights leader, Malcolm X, published in May 1963. Its pages housed short stories by literary greats such as John Updike and Ernest Hemingway.
For all his objective wrongs, which I will discuss at greater length in a second, it is undeniable that Hef helped refine American tastes, using porn as a gateway to sophistication. Although we shouldn’t ignore that this served an ulterior motive, as Douthat rightly points out: “his good deeds and aesthetic aspirations were ultimately incidental to his legacy — a gloss over his flesh-peddling, smeared like Vaseline on a pornographer’s lens.”
This served him well, no doubt, and continues to serve him in death, shaping his legacy. Because as we discuss his life, his reputation as an aesthete sits beside a long litany of accusations of predatory sexual behavior, perversion and sleaze. For some, this softens those accusations, even though it really shouldn’t. Hefner was accused of acts that were at best immoral and at worst illegal: from slipping Playmates quaaludes, which he described as “thigh openers,” in order to get them in the “mood” for orgies involving a wrinkly old man, to allegedly providing a setting for at least one of the rape accusations levied against Bill Cosby, and countless accounts of lewdness that make him seem like a right old creep – not that this should surprise anybody.
Although puritan moralists would like to frame Hugh Hefner and his behavior as a reflection the porno industry — proof that porn inspires such behavior — I believe they’re well off the mark. Hef and his predatory impulses are a byproduct of power and affluence. Celebrities flocked to the Playboy Mansion for his legendary parties, which were the rewards of his money and fame. The young, beautiful women that lined up to be his playthings willingly demeaned themselves in the hope that it would open up a gateway to stardom – like it did for Holly Madison, Hef’s main girlfriend in his inane reality show, Girls of the Playboy Mansion, who monetized her own degradation by writing a memoir about her torrid experiences inside his harem.
Rather than providing evidence that pornography inherently fuels perversion, I think Hef’s sex scandals say a lot more about America’s fetishization of the rich and the entrepreneurial. In America, a country where wealth is correlated with virtue, no one is more respected and adored than the self-made millionaire who serves as a living testament to the American dream. In a country where a significant portion of the population believes in the idea that government should be run like a business, the cash-rich entrepreneur is treated like a demigod and talentless people like the Kardashians are fawned over for no reason other than their wealth. Money creates an imbalance of power even without these sorts of cultural values amplifying it.
Nothing highlights America’s attitude towards brand and business better than the words of Kendra Wilkinson, one of Hefner’s TV girlfriends, who once said, “I didn’t want to disrespect Hef or the Playboy name – that always came first.” This sort of fawning deference could only possibly breed megalomania and entitlement, which have a tendency to spill over into abuse and exploitation. We would also do well to remember that what unites Trump, a reality TV tycoon-turned-president who brags about grabbing women “by the pussy,” Bill Cosby, the star of wholesome comedies targeted at Middle America, and Hugh Hefner isn’t pornography, but wealth and fame and the glory that comes with it. In that sense, Hef didn’t so much change the nation; instead, he reflected it in all its gnarled vulgarity.
Next up, why is the internet body-shaming Kanye West?