Sex & Relationships

Playboy on Life Support: Why Hef's Empire of Naked Ladies No Longer Matters

Our ongoing fascination with Hef reflects a younger generation’s curiosity about a man who's a relic of a past era that couldn’t exist today.

This article was originally published at Role/Reboot.

There’s something that still fascinates people about the Playboy mansion and Hugh Hefner. Despite the magazine’s falling circulation numbers (which, with an internet is full of free porn, seems like a forgone conclusion) and rumors about the mansion being sold to pay off Playboy’s debts, coverage of the goings-on of Hefner and his buxom blondes continues to proliferate. Case in point: the recent “Crystal Harris runaway bride, Hef left at the altar” story. When the “news” broke 5 days before the wedding it spread like wildfire through the Twitterverse. Hefner chose Twitter to let people know the wedding was off, and it was immediately passed along by people from all walks of life with different reactions to the news, ranging from “well, duh” to suspicions the bride had been planning this stunt as a promotional tool for her new single.

Why do we still care so much about this old man and his empire of naked ladies? We’d argue that our ongoing fascination with Hef reflects a younger generation’s curiosity about a man who with each passing day seems more like the relic of a past era that couldn’t exist today. We’re watching the Playboy dynasty on life support.

Of course, until the bitter end, fame seekers will naturally continue to exploit the Playboy brand.  But let’s be clear: Crystal Harris’ willingness to walk away from Hef is evidence that Playboy’s value (both literally and figuratively) is rapidly declining. Ex-Playmates’ accounts about what it’s like for the girlfriends who sleep with Hefner aren’t exactly endorsements of the lifestyle, after all. Still, word on Monday was that Crystal Harris had already been replaced by Anna Sophia Berglund, another 25 year old. Few are likely to bet on the odds of this one lasting.

Hefner has long been held up as an idol, a man who possesses the sexually-fueled, commitment-free lifestyle men the world over desire. But is this still true today? Hefner’s girlfriend equation is simple: Young. Busty. Blonde. Thin. White. Giggly. Eager to please. Always up for a roll in the hay. Are men today coveting Hef’s grotto of women?

We think the days of idolizing the Hef have passed. Although there may be some mystique to the lifestyle of Hefner and his Playboy mansion women, much of the attention comes from people watching Hef with the sort of morbid fascination you would a car wreck. The Playboy empire and Hefner’s lifestyle seem to be symbols of fantasies-past, a relic left over from another decade. You get the distinct feeling that when Hef has gone there won’t be anyone who steps into his place, running the Playboy mansion with a gaggle of young women.

Even Hefner’s Playboy model of porn has become passe. In the days of free unlimited porn, where hard-core material is available with a click of a mouse, topless ladies carefully arranged on various pieces of furniture (and sometimes horses) is just quaint, tasteful erotica. The ease of accessing porn, along with its prevalence in mainstream culture, have decreased the forbidden nature of it, allowing it to speak to whatever desire, fetish, or interest the consumer may have. In this shift, Hugh Hefner has lost his edge. 

This raises the question of whether the world will produce another Hugh Hefner. Perhaps Joe Francis of Girls Gone Wild fame is the modern man who best embodies the building of an empire through the exploitation of beautiful half-naked women today. The crucial difference, however, is that Francis lacks Hefner’s mystique and respect. Francis comes across a cultural predator rather than a cultural icon.

Perhaps the modern male icon is someone like George Clooney, the consummate bachelor, always with a beautiful woman on his arm, never committing to a marriage, but admired by millions of men and women. The difference is that while our fascination with Hefner is a complicated one, mixed with disgust, fascination, and cynicism; our relationship with Clooney has more to do with thinking of him as an actor, humanitarian, and ladies-man who refuses to be tied down. Like Hefner, he is viewed as a Hollywood icon. But Hefner is a man of the past, the last of an old breed, a cultural curiosity. We only humor him now because he’s a harmless old man.

It may be no coincidence that in a time of  economic uncertainty, when people are bemoaning the end of men as we know them! there is a pull toward the old, familiar, men-in-charge model. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd pointed this out in a column back in May. The forthcoming NBC show about the 1960s Playboy Club is indicative of the false nostalgia for a time when life was simple, men were men, and women knew their place. When things weren’t so confusing.

Amidst any period of cultural upheaval there is a desire to cling to the “good old days” of the past. Our nostalgia signals the passing of Playboy’s heyday. Hugh Hefner will serve as a reminder of what has been and just how much some things have changed.