Hugh Hefner has died, and already a slew of rosy obituaries are surfacing from those who knew him, those who idealized his Playboy Mansion life, and those who want to pay tribute to his impact on the American sexual revolution. These obituaries laud Hefner for his outspoken support of civil rights and his role in liberating American culture from its sexual conservatism. But now is as opportune a moment as any to consider his outdated, misogynist views of women, and the damage he's done to the cause of feminism as well as the case against him as a sexual predator.
Take Hefner’s role in the civil rights movement. Yes, he did some good things, like voicing his support for Martin Luther King Jr. and publishing Roots’ Alex Haley’s interview with Miles Davis. He’s lauded for putting a black woman on the cover of Playboy when no other mainstream, white-run magazine would. But how is it that even in 2017 we are celebrating this as a “win” for equal treatment of African Americans? Why is it considered social progress to encourage men to gawk at the naked bodies of black women, as white men have been doing since the beginning of American slavery?
Hefner claimed to have been a leader in the sexual revolution, liberating Americans from their puritanical views of sex. At least, that was his moral justification for objectifying women, as he told Vanity Fair:
A new documentary entitled Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel makes a persuasive case for Hefner the liberal who not only agitated for sexual tolerance but, among many good, brave causes, also was an early protagonist for racial equality and gay rights. “But feminists still oppose you for treating women as objects,” I reminded him.
“They are objects!” he insisted. “Playboy fought for what became women’s issues, including birth control. We were the amicus curiae, friend of the court, in Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to choose. But the notion that women would not embrace their own sexuality is insane."
But what did Playboy ever do to encourage female sexuality? How does a magazine published explicitly for the male gaze offer sexual liberation?
Defenders of Hefner and his Playboy lifestyle will say that the Playboy bunnies freely chose their destinies, were treated well and that Hefner provided Playboy’s Playmates with career-boosting exposure. But not all the models who appeared in Playboy went on to fame and fortune. A disproportionate number of Playmates have died young from drug overdose, suicide, homicide, or some other unnatural cause. When Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy bunny in 1963, she found the models were forced into painful, body-contorting costumes, poorly compensated and generally treated as though they were disposable. Maybe the bunny costumes are a little looser in the 21st century, but they still promote a retrograde notion that women’s bodies look better when they’re forced into corsets.
Hefner, who is praised for promoting racial equality, hated feminists and pushed a heteronormative, 1950s view of gender division. In an internal memo in 1970, he wrote, “These chicks are our natural enemy. What I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart. They are unalterably opposed to the romantic boy-girl society that Playboy promotes.”
At least some critics have compared Hefner to serial rapist Bill Cosby, and given the testimonies of those who have lived with the Playboy mogul, it doesn’t seem all that outrageous. Certainly there is an enormous difference between Cosby’s drugging and raping unconscious women and Hefner’s quid pro quo with young girls who gladly took wealth and notoriety in exchange for offering their bodies at the altar of the Playboy Mansion. But what really separates one form of sexual predation from another?
In her memoir, Hef's ex-girlfriend Holly Madison said Hefner blurred the lines of consensual sex when he persuaded his women to take Quaaludes before joining him in an orgy. I’m sure some of the women Hefner dated loved him, and there's nothing objectionable in the polyamorous lifestyle he promoted. But Madison and others who lived at the Mansion have said that sex with Hefner was an unsaid requirement, a price that must be paid for fancy food, expensive clothes and potentially career-building introductions to celebrities and influencers for the many young aspiring actresses, models, and musicians who flocked to Hefner’s star-studded side. Some of the bunnies equated life in the Playboy Mansion to “being in prison."
Then there’s the damage Hefner has done to millions of regular women. He is extolled as a self-made man and for creating a fantasy for legions of men to emulate (amplified, no doubt, by his desire to sell more copies of his magazine).
But why do we still idolize a lifestyle in which men are allowed to serially collect and dispose of women’s bodies? Hefner’s hedonism may have been relegated to the 22,000 square feet of the Playboy Mansion, but his impact undoubtedly lives on in the entertainment industry, where R Kelly and Cosby were allowed to carry on their crimes for years.
A critical look at Hefner’s legacy is even more crucial today with a serial sexual abuser in the White House who has cycled through statuesque trophy wives and tacitly endorsed violence against women. Women have made so much progress, yet they are still normalizing and idealizing the men who collect them, decorate them with shiny jewelry and sexy clothes, dispose of them when they gain weight or show wrinkles, and then replace them with a younger, bustier version.
Hugh Hefner was a gross, powerful, white man who was bad for women. He called them objects, and believed that sexual liberation would heal us all. It hasn't. Life in America is still much harder for women than it is for men, socially, economically and psychologically. It's a world that Playboy, and the mogul behind it, helped forge.