I should hate Hugh Hefner. He objectified women. He sold their images and bought their love. He was also an innovative journalist; an advocate for women’s and other minorities’ rights; a proponent of sexual freedom; and eschewer of prescribed and proscribed social rules — such as how many women he should have as sexual partners, and who should love whom. For that I respect him. For other reasons, I find him repulsive — a person who reinforced the toxic “coolness” of the male-female dominance hierarchy. Still, I do have to thank him. Reflecting on Hefner represents an extraordinary challenge to the part of my brain that wants everything to be either puritanically wrong or tidily right.
I start this essay with my conclusion: Hefner was a man with liberal messages who used women to sell his points of view, views that have changed the world for the better. As a result, and as a vehicle to do so, he promoted an unattainable and toxic set of gender norms. It’s a complicated and nuanced cycle of freedoms and abuses, rather than a black-and-white question of which is worse, and which will have a longer-lasting effect.
The purchase of women for sex has ravaged my past. When in 2005 I learned that my (now ex-) husband was deeply, terribly addicted to paying for sex, I went into shock for a full year. I became viscerally repulsed by porn, strippers, and sex workers — really any sale or purchase of women or their images. Much therapy later, I can now see porn without getting sick.
The post-feminist in me knows that consenting individuals have the right to sell their bodies, but I still construe sex workers as people who reinforce the essential permissibility of using women (all humans, really) as disposable toys. Many women I know see it as empowering to use their beauty to control and manipulate the male gaze for money. I see it as inherently disempowering. Men still have the power to decide who to consume; they still hold the purse strings even though the women are voluntarily selling themselves.
Nine months after my divorce, I took a trip through Eastern Europe with a friend and fellow anthropologist. When we detrained at Budapest’s gorgeous Western railway station, I reentered shock. I saw Hungarian print media. Cover models were not just scantily clad — they were all naked. When I lived in Peru, I learned that the TV showed dead bodies. What we would deem sensationalizing in the US is just truth in other parts of the world. Freedom of press turns out to be relative.
In 2017, I masochistically decided to learn about Hugh Hefner’s life by marathoning the Amazon Prime series, “American Playboy.” Pretty much all of my understanding of Hefner derives from that show and from reading interviews with Bunnies and Hefner’s family. I learned that Hefner represented everything I hated. He profited from the male gaze and owned women as literal pets in his mansion, kept for his amusement. Bunnies were like children, with curfews. Waitresses at his casino were trained like sexy Emily Post robots.
But, these women had the agency and freedom to pose and could move out of the mansion at any time. Many didn’t want to. They were well paid, and according to some, well loved. I do not think the Bunnies were violently exploited in a human rights sense.
Most men. Like. To look at. Beautiful. Women. Beautiful women sell products. Playboy reflects beauty standards and has shaped them, just as art commissioners and media moguls always have. Hefner employed models from ethnic minorities; (slightly) curvier than average models; and preferred the girl-next-door type. Models reflected a somewhat healthy beauty standard — at least they didn’t show a need for girls to be sick and emaciated to be sexy. He also directed seductive, pretty poses that guided fantasies, versus the crude aesthetic Hustler embraces. Playboy Bunnies were more like pin-up models — mythical creatures maybe, but not hardcore porn. And men bought the ideal.
Hefner put women on pedestals, often acting as their mentor in business. He always employed high-ranking women in his newsrooms, so that their opinions were expressed alongside those of men. This week upon Hefner’s death, Playboy Bunnies and other women who knew him have come out to defend his person; others vehemently disagree and consider him abusive. Hefner argued that he was empowering women — objectively beautiful and not. Others, including myself roughly half the time, would argue that’s not the case. It’s not black and white. Truth is plural.
What’s conflicting to me, and I think many contemporary feminists, is that we agree with 99% of Playboy’s political content. The magazine gave voice to Malcolm X and other revolutionaries. It published risky pro-birth control articles (which celebrated women’s freedom to enjoy sex without having to worry about pregnancy). It promoted the legalization of drugs and abortion. Hefner was for freedom and hedonism for men and women of all colors. He fought against prescribed social norms of monogamy and the “shoulds” of age difference between partners (though primarily older men/younger women.) He taught his daughter the importance of journalism as activism.
Yet, he objectified women to sell this important and powerful content. Do the means justify the end? Is it possible to sell sex for a good cause? Someone on Facebook told Hefner to “Rest in Pleasure.” I ask, “At whose expense?”
The only way I can make peace with my conflicting morals is to explore the plural truths, not just stay wedded to my own. Hefner embodied, promoted, and advertised toxic masculinity. I revile him. But I understand him and even respect him a little. He reminded me that it’s important to look at the big picture, and to seriously consider the plurality of truths.