What We Really Should Be Talking About When We Talk About Hugh Hefner

The lack of critical consideration of a man who built an empire on the backs of nude women should be baffling, but it isn't. In fact, it feels pretty standard

Hugh Hefner in a bow tie and suit jacket smiling at the camera, photo is grayscale and shows Hef when he was quite old

(Photo: Getty)

Hugh Hefner is dead at 91. The Playboy founder passed away, reportedly of natural causes, at his Beverly Hills mansion on Wednesday.

According to my Twitter feed, we’re only going to celebrate Hefner and his legacy, staying within the well-tended confines of all that effusive press he’s gotten over the years. We’ll go over his battles against right-wing moralism, his tentative support for reproductive rights and civil rights. But more than that, we’ll take the opportunity to show off those sexy Playmates again (carefully excising mention of the ones that didn’t fare so well, the Dorothy Strattens and the Elisa Bridges), and we’ll indulge in nudge-nudge wink-wink eulogies that file his influence and cultural legacy under the category of harmless fun.

The forced gaiety that surrounds Hefner—or, as he was better known, “Hef”—is pretty much in keeping with the lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek treatment he’s always received from mainstream media. I grew up watching TV in the ’80s and ’90s and Hefner’s dorky Marmaduke-looking face and shudder-inducing black and maroon silk-pyjama uniform are nearly as familiar to me as my own dorky Marmaduke-looking face (my pyjamas are lovely cotton tho). From Larry King Live to Entertainment Tonight, Hefner was greeted like a visiting dignitary from the Land of Sexy Times everywhere he went.

He was virtually ubiquitous in popular culture for the past six decades. The first issue of Playboy magazine was published in 1953 and, to much fanfare, sold itself to the world as the only place where you could see nude shots of Norma Jean Baker, later known as Marilyn Monroe. The actor reportedly never saw a penny from the photographs, which were shot before she became a star and were sold by a photographer, and that notoriety was not accompanied by nearly enough thoughtful discussion (read, *not* reactionary moralizing) about how Hef and Playboy were affecting women and girls IRL, or if in fact, it squared with his “revolutionary” marketing. The lack of critical consideration of a man who built an empire on the backs of nude women—and entertainment culture’s general thrill at the achievement—should be baffling, but it isn’t. In fact, it feels pretty standard. Very few people, it seems, want to hear anyone rain on the sex-is-empowerment party, especially when its ambassadors have their tits out.

But maybe we don’t do it because that’s just too darn obvious—his predatory reality for girls and women is too blindingly real, too standard. Instead, we like to go deep with Hef, to overthink his “contribution” to culture and to crown him a social justice warrior. He published a sci-fi story in 1955 that implicitly supported gay rights and featured a transgender Playmate in the magazine; he’s an LGBTQ advocate. He showcased the work of Black writers and performers; he’s a civil rights leader. He published an article or two supporting abortion rights; he’s a feminist. This information is well and good and forms the complex realities and motivations of an individual—not to mention the aspirations of a “rebel” brand—but these are footnotes in a legacy that are being presented as its sum.

We choose to paint Hef as he wanted to be painted, as, in his own words, “somebody who has changed the world in some positive way, in a social, sexual sense.”

So, I’m going to be radically obvious in my estimation of Hef. I’m not going to overthink him or turn him into a cultural figure of overweening significance—at least not in the areas that he decides I can. For me, this icon has clay feet and silk pyjamas. He’s a familiar type. I’m going to cut him down to size and consider what he may have been like as an actual person rather than, say, a potent male icon of power and success. I’ll look to less celebratory accounts that document the possible darker reality behind the carefully curated image of the Playboy Mansion as some kind of orgasmic nirvana. (In 2016, Hefner was deposed in a sexual battery suit against Bill Cosby, which centred on an incident that allegedly took place at the Playboy Mansion in the 1970s. Another woman also alleged assault at the hands of Cosby during a party at the Playboy Mansion and accused Hefner of complicity in the 2008 incident. Hefner and Cosby both denied the charges.)

I’ll consider the stomach-churning accounts of how he treated some of his “Playmates” over the years, such as the alleged sexual requirements of being one of Hef’s seven live-in girlfriends. I’ll bore men by asking them to consider how it might feel to grow up as a girl in an environment that insists there is nothing complicated about holding up a man who got stinking rich from publishing nude pictures of women as an ally of female empowerment.

Like feminist author Jessica Valenti, someone whose Twitter feed has been a bright spot in a sea of creepy memes and lame jokes, I’m just going to lol at the persistence of the bullshit.

And it should go without saying that I’m absolutely considering the utter insanity of a grown man, surrounded by hyper-manicured Barbie dolls of his own Svengali-like creation, who is so comfortable in the non-issue of his own sexual appeal that he doesn’t even get out of his f-cking pyjamas to woo them.

Anything Goes: Exploring the Sex Party Scene
How One Woman Escaped the Sex Trade Industry
Why Being Single Sucks: What No One Wants to Talk About