As part of his glorification and ascent to the Valhalla of dead celebrities, Hugh Hefner has received far too much credit for the positive impact he had on American society and far too little condemnation for the negative.
True, he advocated for abortion and took other liberal and progressive stands, typically from the standpoint of libertarianism, which is not such a good political ideology in many areas. He did popularize a number of important non-mainstream ideas in philosophy, psychology, politics and cultural studies. He did help to loosen up the entertainment mores of the strait-laced post-war mass culture.
And yes, Hefner did popularize important ideas about sexual freedom. But his version of sexual freedom posed the existence of woman as solely for the convenience of men, for their sexual pleasure and as a signifier of male social and financial success. He twisted the sexual revolution into a new version of the same old female subservience to male domination. Feminism would have proceeded without him—birth control pills and college-educated Baby Boom women were going to make sure of that. Hefner wasn’t needed to support the causes for which he is now getting praise.
The basic message of the sexual revolution that Hefner helped to promote was fine: it’s okay for two or more consenting adults to have sex, and anything goes, as long as everyone is fine with it. I might add that there’s no need ever to feel guilty about what you do or did in bed, or with whom you did it. People change, grow, mature, slow down, and so do their sexual needs, desires and feelings. It’s all okay, as long as nobody is hurt. Of course, in Hefner’s version, the man dominated, and coercion and transgression were often subtexts to the action.
There are five ways in which Hefner’s Playboy philosophy and empire of magazines, videos and clubs harmed American society:
- The infantilization of men
The playboy remains a feckless boy, immature, irresponsible, narcissistic, as younger men often are. The focus of remaining a child for the playboy is not having any responsibility in relationships with women. Playboy thus marks one of the earliest instances of the mass media attempting to keep adults acting—and thinking—like children.
2. An unattainable and false ideal of sexuality
Playboy photographers and designers used airbrushes, filters and lights to erase the flaws that particularize a woman’s beauty, homogenizing her real flesh into a rarely attainable ideal. Elective plastic surgery and cosmetics further sculpted the reality off Playboy models and bunnies. In Playboy’s universe, all women had large breasts, unreal proportions, flawless skin, no body fat, high cheek bones and eternal youthfulness. Hefner took an extremely narrow band on the very broad spectrum of female beauty—a far narrower band than in Hollywood movies or television—and promoted that as the only ideal of beauty for the successful, accomplished, “cool” man. Heterosexual men who bought into the Playboy ideal had to feel at least some dissatisfaction with their regular sexual partner(s). Of course, dissatisfaction is what advertisers want consumers to feel, because in America, satisfying a need—real or fabricated—involves buying something. Which brings us to…
- The commodification of sex
Hefner’s enterprises turned sex and sexual experience into commodities that you buy into a number of ways. First and foremost, Playboy made women into both commodities and a reason to purchase other commodities. The playboy doesn’t pay for sex (although the later, cruder laddie boy will), but he does shell out a lot of money wining, dining, transporting and gifting her as a precondition of sex. But beyond the transactional element implicit in the playboy’s relationship with any woman is the position women hold in his universe, the entirety of which is overrun by gadgets, gee-gaws, fads and new services. The woman is another commodity that can be replaced, not a person demanding interaction.
- The objectification of women
Perhaps because I’m male, I don’t see anything wrong with thinking about individuals of the sex one desires as sex objects, as long as you treat them as a full human being with equal rights: keep that secret lust to yourself and work as hard and as smart as you can for your female boss. In the Playboy world, however, everything a woman does is an extension or manifestation of her sexuality. For example, whenever referencing a centerfold’s achievements, profession or hobbies, Playboy invariably added a double entendre with a sexual connotation, a sly joke that reminded everyone that her Fulbright grant, award-winning work as a photographer or interest in African art were less than icing on the cake, perhaps akin to the little diamond-studded pin she wears on the dress you take off her—or command her to take off—when you’re getting ready to help her fulfill her true purpose in life, to be a man’s sexual toy.
- The domination of men
In Hefner’s world, men dominate women. Women may have access to birth control, abortions and professions, but in Hefner’s fantasyland they still lack control over their lives. Men still set the mores and decide what to value. They still control the relationship.
That’s a lot of harm that Playboy and Hefner have inflicted on American for more than sixty years.
On a personal level, I never had much use for Playboy. I never sought it out, and when I occasionally happened to see a pile of old issues, e.g., while waiting for a friend to get ready, I would flip through the pages for the cartoons and read the page of jokes always on the last page of the centerfold section. Child of the 60’s, the photos never stimulated me: I have always preferred women who don’t look like Barbie dolls and my idea of beauty in a woman encompasses a very wide range of sizes, shapes and colors.
As far as the articles go, by the time I saw Playboy for the first time, I was already a cover-to-cover reader of The New York Review of Books, Nation, Dissent, Harpers and Ramparts. I was not impressed by the “great” articles, as I read so much thought-provocative material in these respected publications of the intelligentsia. Furthermore, I recognized the difference between true intellectualism and an intellectual patina gilding old-fashioned sexism.
Maybe I hang around with the right crowd, but every woman I have ever admired, liked, loved or desired (except for those I’ve just seen passing in the street whose thoughts I can’t read) wouldn’t be caught dead in the Playboy world; even the most tolerant of them would think less of me if she thought I was a regular reader.
That’s okay. I would think less of me, too.