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Hugh Hefner in Los Angeles, 2007 © Tinseltown

Hugh Hefner: The Playboy with a Cause

Hugh Hefner’s view of life was that individual civil liberties should be preserved and, wherever possible, expanded.

Preternaturally suave, arch, debonair and endlessly successful with the opposite sex, Hugh Hefner was rarely — if ever — seen out of his pajamas and silk dressing gown. He was synonymous with Playboy, a magazine he launched in 1953 with $600 of his own money and then turned it into a global franchise, valued at $500 million in 2016.

But Hefner’s significance extended far beyond his business activities and, in a way, offers a timeline of popular culture across the decades. Playboy had a formula. It included essays by the leading writers of the day, including Ernest Hemingway, Herbert Gold, Budd Schulberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, James Baldwin, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates  the list goes on.

There were also serious interviews with politicians and other influential figures, such as Malcolm X, Jean-Paul Sartre and, perhaps most famously, Jimmy Carter, who prompted outrage and admiration — though probably not in equal proportions — when he confessed, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust, I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” This was in 1976, before he was elected president of the United States.

But it was the formula’s third ingredient that set the magazine and, by implication, Hefner apart. Playboy featured pictures of conventionally attractive young women, often posing in a way that suggested they were for the delectation of heterosexual men. And, as if to confirm that suggestion, each monthly issue had a centerfold adorned with a naked woman with the cognomen “playmate.” Presumably, the name itself was designed to evoke thoughts of childishness and frivolity: The nudes weren’t portrayed as serious marital partners, but as dolls or toys to be played with and, later, discarded.

In the same year the magazine launched, the Alfred Kinsey’s landmark Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was published. Its findings pointed to the prevalence of premarital and extramarital sex, unwittingly providing an intellectual justification for Playboy’s open exaltation of a subject that had scarcely been considered, at least not openly, in the first half of the 20th century.

Bottled Zeitgeist

If a magazine ever bottled the zeitgeist, it was Playboy. Its circulation reached 1 million by 1960 and, later, peaked at about 7 million in the 1970s. Hefner was lambasted by the self-appointed guardians of respectability in the 1950s, though his response was typically a shrug of the shoulders. His view was that America was as advertised — the land of the free. As such, citizens could please themselves whether to buy his product. Many years later, he would utter what might have served as his motto: “Let the buyer rule.”

Hefner’s weltanschauung, or view of life, was that individual civil liberties should be preserved and, wherever possible, expanded. There was irony in this at a time when America was racially divided in a way that lawfully restricted African-Americans to only a fraction of the liberties available to whites.

Not that Hefner was unaware. In fact, he supported civil rights and was willing to lose advertisers by inviting black guests to his ostentatious parties, most of which were televised. In the 1950s and 1960s, when civil rights gathered momentum, Hefner’s libertarian anti-conservatism was oddly but certainly consistent with the philosophy of protesters who sought to break apart the status quo and reorder American society. The mere fact that J. Edgar Hoover opposed Hefner endeared him to civil rights protestors, if only on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

In 1962, the publication of Helen Gurley Brown’s infamous handbook-cum-manifesto Sex and the Single Girl, which announced unapologetically that unmarried women not only had sex but actually enjoyed it, seemed perfectly congruent with Hefner’s unabashed hedonism. The book effectively told women how to enjoy sex more than they already were (indeed, if they already were). Gurley Brown’s book instructed unmarried women how to look their best, have rewarding affairs and ultimately snag a man for keeps. Hefner would not have objected. He had nothing against the institution of marriage; in fact in 1989, he got married himself.

But, if Hefner enjoyed the tacit approval of African-Americans and hedonic females, he engendered the wrath of women’s groups, especially in the 1970s, when what was then called women’s liberation became a worldwide force. It’s difficult to imagine any “women’s libber,” as they were known, even pausing to consider Hefner’s arguments about freedom of expression and consumer choice. Gloria Steinem famously reasoned that “there are times when a woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.”

Susan Brownmiller’s excoriation typifies the response of liberated women: “The role that you [Hefner] have selected for women is degrading to women because you choose to see women as sex objects, not as full human beings.”

Male Chauvinist Pig

The term objectification that describes the depiction or treatment of women as sex objects is common today. It was probably the feminist critique of Hefner and Playboy that introduced the idea that women’s historical and contemporary entrapment in lower-paying jobs, domestic roles or other kinds of subordinate positions was not just complemented by but actually sustained by their cultural representation.

This was another way of saying Hefner was a male chauvinist pig (to use a putdown of the 1970s), but a rutting pig with his own key to the pigpen. Hefner’s usual indifference to criticism was worn bare by feminists, and he came to see them as his natural enemy. For him, their self-righteous attacks were not just on him, but on the notion of natural heterosexual relationships — what we’d now call heteronormativity, meaning the view that heterosexuality is the normal orientation.

His ire manifested in a specially commissioned article written by the psychologist and science writer Morton Hunt. The article bore the title “Up Against the Wall, Male Chauvinist Pig.” This was a play on a popular expression of the time — up against the wall, motherfuckers — which was used by anarchists and rebels of all stripes. Hefner, once a rebel himself, was turning the gun on the new rebels.

It might have looked as if Hefner was finished, and an objective prognosis in the mid-1970s would have been that the sky was about to fall in on Playboy. Anything but: Sales hit a peak in 1972. That same year, Ms. magazine introduced a very different kind of publication, one that seemed no obvious threat to Playboy, but nevertheless signaled a new direction for popular glossies.

The AIDS pandemic had the effect of stirring up the religious right. Playboy clubs, which had become staple parts of the franchise, started to fold. The Meese Commission on Pornography had a negative impact on magazine sales.

Hefner personally was affected by the suicide of a close associate who overdosed on drugs. His reputation also suffered as a result of his indirect connection to the Dorothy Stratten scandal, in which the 1980 playmate of the year was killed by her husband. In 1985, Hefner had a stroke and, for all intents and purposes, that seemed to be the end of the Playboy era for good.

The Blonde Period

As we know, this was not the case. But its relevance gone and its struggle to remain current under ceaseless attack, Playboy went into slow decline. Hefner himself receded from public view, appearing only occasionally, always in his silk bedroom attire and always flanked with gorgeous women (usually blonde). As he once quipped: “Picasso had his pink period and his blue period. I am in my blonde period right now.”

In 2016, the decision to drop nude photographs seemed a desperate attempt to stay alive. But Playboy without a nude centerfold was like a Terminator film without Arnold Schwarzenegger. Earlier this year, the decision was reversed, and Playboy was fully restored.

Today it seems a fish out of water, and the probability is that Playboy will cease publication over the next few years. Hefner, though, will live on. A defiant character in almost every respect, Hefner was a man possessed of a belief in his own rightness. He was probably right — once. But times change and, as they did, Hefner was left behind, stranded in culture of the middle and late 20th century.

Paradoxically, his warring with feminism was probably a factor in Hefner’s commercial longevity. Those who resented what they saw as the excesses of feminism in the 1980s and even 1990s perhaps consciously patronized Hefner’s cussed, determined efforts to oppose it. In end though, Playboy was a high-gloss anachronism, albeit one that tells a story of sex in an era of rapid cultural change.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com