Hugh Hefner leaves a complicated legacy


Representations and judgements of the late 91-year-old Hugh Hefner have manifested themselves in a dichotomy: the notorious figure is either a villain or a hero.

On social media, Kim Kardashian and Pamela Anderson praised Hefner as a sexual liberator and civil rights activist. On the other side, newspapers condemned him as a pimp who stimulated the ‘pornification’ of society. Such polarising coverage indicates the pitfalls of posthumously simplifying Hefner’s legacy, and exaggerating his impact in an effort to make headlines.

Perhaps the Playboy empire was progressive on certain matters. But Hefner mainly equated sexual liberation with male priorities. No one can claim that Hefner’s classic image, him standing in a silk dressing gown surrounded by white blondes, was beneficial for gay, black, or women’s rights. It upheld a powerful, white, heterosexual patriarch and sexualised white blonde women. Yet, again, Hefner was more than this.

Playboy aided civil rights in America. Muhammad Ali, Sammy Davis Jr. and Malcolm X are just some of the black activists Hefner interviewed. Martin Luther King gave his longest interview to Playboy, which was conducted by the African-American writer Alex Haley (the author of Roots). Jennifer Jackson was the first black playmate in 1965, and Darine Stern featured on the cover in 1971.

Still, black women were a minority within Playboy. The excuse for the imbalance was attributed to Hefner’s penchant for blondes, which conveniently ensured most playmates were light-skinned. This, however, does not mean that black women were protected from objectification. The Huffington Post has argued that Hefner also exploited black women, making them sexualise themselves for fame.

Playboy’s support for homosexuality is also tinged by its inherent sexism. Hefner published fiction exploring the experiences of gay men and openly discussed his own gay experiments. This was undeniably liberal. However, lesbianism was mentioned only in relation to male sexual gratification. Hefner was infamous for asking playmates to create lesbian scenes for his own pleasure. So again we see a theme: Hefner was progressive, but his actions were tainted with sexism.

Hefner claimed he was “a feminist before feminism was a thing”. Feminism advocates the equality of the sexes. Arguably, if Hefner was a sexually liberal feminist, he would have published Playgirl as well as Playboy. Instead, Playboy is coated in misogynistic imagery. The symbol of the bunny dehumanises women as small, stupid creatures that can be owned for pleasure. The name Playboy is similar. A magazine presenting naked ‘bunnies’ chose to name itself after its male audience. The women in the pages existed purely for male consumption.

Hefner’s ‘playboy’ identity was also patriarchal. Being a ‘boy’, he could shirk the traditional responsibilities of manhood, most notably fidelity. Named a ‘player’, he treated women as toys that could be enjoyed and discarded. In reality, most readers themselves identified with the ‘playboy’ identity much more literally. They were teenage boys who used the magazine to play with themselves.

This links to accusations that Hefner orchestrated the popularity of porn in Western society. However, it is important to remember that porn has existed throughout history: our predecessors have been titillated by sexually suggestive rock art, Roman erotic paintings, early modern pamphlets, and silent black and white pornographic films.

The world’s first law criminalising pornography was the English Obscene Publications Act in 1857. To put this in context, Playboy was first published in 1953. The Daily Mail also blamed Hefner for the popularity of ‘twerking’ in modern society. Yet this apparently ‘degrading’ dance move originates from Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa.

Arguably, Hefner’s role in the sexual revolution has also been overemphasised. Hefner sexually liberated men, not women. It was the contraceptive pill, amongst other things, that liberated women. The legacy of Hugh Hefner is complicated because he was human, a product of his time. Yet most of the media seem to have forgotten this, presenting him as either evil or heroic. Thomas Jefferson was a radical anti-slavery campaigner and a racist. Churchill was a brilliant leader but an antisemitic sexist. The great Martin Luther King cheated on his wife.

Defining someone as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depends on how we assess them. As a businessman, civil rights campaigner, and gay rights supporter, Hefner was progressive, even radical. But he was not a feminist. It is also important to contextualise Hefner’s life in history and reality. Neither the porn industry nor female sexual liberty can be attributed to Playboy. Ultimately, Hefner was both progressive and a sexist. His legacy should not be simplified.

Photograph: Alan Light via Flickr and Creative Commons

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