Was Hugh Hefner a radical, progressive sexual pioneer, or one of the most prominent sleazeballs of the 20th century? In the aftermath of his death, perhaps we should explore both of these identities. In 1992, The New York Times asked him which parts of his career he was the most proud of. He replied, “That I changed attitudes towards sex. That nice people can live together now. That I decontaminated the notion of premarital sex.” However, he died as a multimillionaire who had made his fortune from the relentless commodification of female bodies.
Playboy, the brand Hefner founded in 1953, took a range of forms and identities. It has been a magazine, a club, a porn channel, a reality TV show franchise and a female lifestyle and accessories range. It’s easy to look at Hefner’s career over last few years and see him as a “sleazy” man, an enemy of feminism. He was married three times, but maintained a group of live-in “girlfriends” between marriages, paid companions who have spoken out about being exploited financially, and having to live in sordid, unsanitary conditions.
As a businessman, Hefner’s timing was, at points, an act of genius. The first issue of Playboy, featuring a nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe, sold more than 50,000 copies. He profited from a shift in the collective post-war attitude toward sexual expression, and arguably he propelled it forward too. Broadly, the concept of fun, shame-free sex for everyone who wants it!” is a brilliant idea, and it should be the norm. Yet Playboy also popularised a model in which women are the ones who have to show their bodies, and men are in a position to profit from them when they’re off camera. The magazine’s tagline was “entertainment for men”. The first magazine advised readers: “If you’re somebody’s sister, wife or mother in law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion.” We can’t talk about men and women being equally liberated when only women are naked, and only welcomed as objects, not readers. What good is this alleged liberation when, in the Playboy universe, it’s only for the white, the straight, the slim and the young? (There is a Playgirl magazine. It has a different publisher, and its last print issue was published almost a year ago, in winter 2016. It has approximately 3,000 subscribers.)
He instigated one sexual revolution, and now we urgently need another, with women at the front and at the centre
Hefner, and the Playboy brand, can also be accused of encouraging women to collude with their own objectification. In the early noughties, their marketing strategy evolved to directly target women, with bunny branded jewellery, stationery and clothing. In her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy coined the term “raunch culture” and explored the issues that arise when women are told that profiting from their bodies is empowering. It was an era in which glamour model Katie Price was offered to us as the ultimate businesswoman and role model, weekly lads’ mags were so popular that their cover stars became instant celebrities and porn was starting to become prevalent and permanently accessible, as the internet’s influence grew. Levy argued that women were forced to take part in raunch culture, as a means of survival. “No-one wants to be the humourless prude.”
In 1972, John Berger wrote in his book, Ways Of Seeing “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. . . . The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object.” Hefner may have initially intended to give everyone the space to be sexual, but he made more room for men, at our expense. To a point, seeing ourselves sexually is liberating, but not when that view is filtered by a very narrow, heterosexual male idea. The Playboy brand prevented us from making any significant headway into comprehending the subtleties of female sexuality. We’ve never had the chance to develop our own language to articulate desire. For years, we were forced to borrow from the boys. Correctly, we’ve challenged that, and called out Hefner and his peers for their creepiness. Yet we’ve never worked out our own mainstream alternative. Instead, we’ve stayed silent.
Ultimately, Hefner’s legacy is problematic, but to dismiss it entirely as “sleazy” means we risk pushing the pendulum in the other direction, and focusing on the feelings of sexual shame that he sought to liberate us from. He instigated one sexual revolution, and now we urgently need another, with women at the front and at the centre. For better or worse, Hefner changed the world by giving generations of men the chance to consider the possibility of pursuing their own pleasure without impediment. I want that for women. Perhaps his death marks the start of an era in which we can stop watching ourselves being looked at, and start seeing ourselves on our own sexual terms instead.