Hugh Hefner – saint or sinner?

After his death in September, Carina Murphy questions the iconic status of the the Playboy founder and professional fantasist.  

When its founder died last Thursday, the official website of Playboy Magazine became a tribute to his life. A blown up photograph from the 60s, in which a young Hef smizes out at us like a vintage James Bond, dominates the screen; across it a quote is emblazoned in gold: ‘Life is too short to be living somebody else’s dream’.

Here commemorated is an admirable figure – a romantic hero, who, like Bond and Gatsby, lived his maverick, movie-star lifestyle according to no-one else’s rules and succeeded wildly because of it. The Hugh Hefner remembered by Playboy is a revolutionary, a champion, an icon of the American Dream: and this heroic depiction of Hefner in wake of his death is not unique to his own empire – the internet is awash with like-minded tributes.

Amidst such admiration, it’s easy to forget that this is just another example of what Hefner was best at doing: turning his own life into a fantasy brand. And before we all help to canonise him as the image of the masculine dream, we might want to reconsider whether that dream is a good one after all – or if it’s really more of a nightmare.

Countless feminists have lampooned Hefner and Playboy for entrenching archaic gender roles. The brand’s central philosophy is of a ‘boy-girl’ world, with a clear ‘boy-girl’ divide; boys wear smoking jackets, girls wear cotton tails. This, alongside Hefner’s comment that the breakdown in gender distinctions is a ‘highly irrational, kookie trend’, make him something of an anti-Christ to those for whom such distinctions are ridiculously outdated. The version of womanhood that Playboy delineates is especially problematic. Playboy bunnies are ditsy, scantily clad and overly sexualised; they represent a testosterone-fuelled fantasy, and tell us that a woman’s most valuable function is her ability to pleasure a man. How has a brand that champions an archaic and patriarchal society come to be considered revolutionary and progressive?

Playboy sees itself as a liberal brand, and has a history of championing liberal causes. Over the years it’s supported civil rights, gay marriage, military withdrawal from Vietnam and, perhaps most significantly, birth control and abortion. Arguably, its philosophy of sexual liberation is not so distant from the feminist cause. Hefner and the pro-sex feminists of the 1980s, who saw sexual autonomy as crucial to women being autonomous in general, are in many ways singing from the same hymn sheet: Hef vehemently opposed sexual double standards. Is it possible that Playboy promoted gender equality by affording women the sexual freedom men had always been granted? Is Hugh Hefner a liberal revolutionary after all?

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Playboy’s murky motives make it very hard to take this suggestion seriously. It’s easy to see how promoting a woman’s right to abortion, birth control, and sexual liberation was part of a self-serving agenda with no higher aim than getting men more sex. Particularly telling is a recent feature in the magazine – an apparently progressive flow-chart, setting out whether catcalling is acceptable dependent on the scenario, and adorned with highly sexed silhouettes of women. Try as it might, the magazine can’t escape the truth of what it is. Acts of good faith like their decision to stop featuring naked women seem almost not worth mentioning; the damage has already been well and truly done. As for all the stories of Bunnies whose honour the club has defended, the exposé which brings us closest to Hefner himself isn’t so flattering.

‘#1 Girlfriend’, Holly Maddison’s tell-all-memoir, paints a bleak picture of life with Hugh, whose controlling demands amounted to emotional abuse. After her split with Hefner, Holly describes herself as a ‘born again feminist’ – but her welcome into the club has been frosty. For many, complaints about life in the Playboy Mansion were a bit rich; after all, she had effectively signed up to participate in a septuagenarian’s teen boy fantasy – what else did she expect? Of course, abuse is still abuse, regardless of the scenario, but the controversy does raise interesting questions about the role women play in hampering their own gender’s empowerment by playing up to preconceived, androcentric ideals of womanhood.  

So what about Hugh? He was an emotionally abusive and deluded representative of the patriarchy. He was also, however much you might hate him, a fantastically talented businessman, who made millions peddling a fantasy lifestyle, and contributed to the sexual liberation of his generation. It’s almost impossible to decide whether a man of such wide reaching and varied influence is entirely saint or sinner. Perhaps, instead of canonising him as either, it would be more constructive to remember him as just a man, with a bit of both.

Ultimately, as a man, maybe Hugh Hefner was most remarkable for being entirely unremarkable in his dreams. A mansion full of bikini clad blondes swooning over you? I mean – come on, where’s the originality in that? Such ideals would exist with or without Hugh Hefner, and they aren’t about to go away after his death. Perhaps then there isn’t anything really important to take from it. Try as we might, we can’t blame Hugh for everything; the problem is much, much bigger.

Illustration by Delara Youssefian

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