In the event of celebrity deaths, we’re very quick to forgive as a society. We tend to look past the flaws of those we collectively admire, in favour of relishing their contributions to our world. When David Bowie passed away, his artistic achievements were held in a high regard, while the fact that he engaged in a sexual relationship with a 13 year old girl in the late 1960’s was overlooked. John Lennon is still revered as one of the best songwriters of all time, even though it was widely reported that he physically abused his spouses. The fact that horrendous actions seem to be excused after death in cases like this is not entirely mystifying – people form strong bonds with the artists that inspire them, and as a result it can be hard for them to accept or acknowledge the character flaws of those same artists. When someone is discussing their love for David Bowie and the rape case is brought up, they tend to suggest that art must be separated from the artist in order to preserve it. To a certain extent, this is an understandable attitude. The contributions to society can in some cases serve to outweigh the detriments of the person. While John Lennon was a wife-beater, his music did not glorify that conduct; his music intended to promote peace and love, and so it can perhaps be viewed as a seperate entity.
In the case of Hugh Hefner, the 91 year old founder of Playboy Magazine who passed away at the end of September this year, there is no such separation to be found. Hefner’s empire, his wealth, his notoriety, his brand and his magazine were built on one abhorrent notion – that of the exploitation and sexualisation of women. There is no ambiguity and no other angle from which to view it – the man encouraged bigoted and sexist views of women, and profited from this. Hefner founded Playboy Magazine in 1953 – an age during which views of women in society were still rather stilted. The publication was intended to be a lifestyle and entertainment magazine – yet at the core of it was the distribution of images of naked women. The very first issue contained a naked portrait of Marilyn Monroe, published without her consent. Hefner has said in interviews since that he chose that image because it was the “sexiest” from a collection he purchased. Perhaps this quote can serve as an early indicator of the misogynistic empire that Hefner was about to unleash on the world. Marilyn Monroe was one of the most talented and accomplished actors of her time, and yet through this centrefold image, she was reduced to her body, the image only being chosen because of its appeal to men’s basest sexual desires. The magazine was one of the first widely circulated pornographic publications, and its gradual acceptance into the mainstream could be seen as the dawn of the pornographic age. It’s no secret that pornography in its current form is a minefield for young people, particularly young men. It encourages warped views of sexuality, and affects many young boy’s attitudes towards women, intimacy and sex.
Playboy Magazine could be viewed as one of the first instances of the normalisation of sexualising women. Hefner launched his empire as an affront to what he viewed as a hyper-conservative society. By publishing sexualised images of women, he was protesting the prudish nature of post World War 2 America, and helping launch a new era of sexual liberation, and freedom. Hefner continued this angle in interviews in the 1970’s and 1980’s, claiming that his work was a crusade against sexual repression, for both men and women. But in 1970, Playboy published a patronising article on women’s rights. Part of that article read, “no other recent struggle for human rights has been so frivolous and yet so earnest, so absurd and yet so justified, so obsessed on the one hand with trivia and, on the other, with the radical restructuring of male-female relationships,” An internal memo from the Playboy offices saw Hefner claim that “these chicks are our natural enemy” in reference to the feminists criticising the publication. Hefner earned himself millions of dollars by exploiting the female form, and claimed that it was sexually liberating for the women modelling, and for all women by proxy. While it may be true that the models enjoyed showing their bodies for the camera, the pictures are not about their pleasure – they’re designed to instigate a sexual response from the straight men viewing them, no matter which way you spin it. This same notion carries over into the majority of pornography you find on the internet today – the man’s pleasure always seems to be front and centre.
As Playboy trudged on into the modern age, so too did its view of what a woman should be. Out were the thick pubic bushes of the 1970’s, and by the 1990’s in were the glossy, hairless, silicon filled bodies that we’re used to seeing in pornographic images today. As pornography publications became more mainstream, the women being shown became more unrealistic as magazines like Playboy attempted to keep up with the sexual demands of their male readership. It is entities like Playboy which glorified a falsified feminine form throughout the 80’s and 90’s which has in part led to a generation of young men who are only attracted to fantasy versions of women. This same problem results in huge body image issues for girls. The Girls of the Playboy Mansion, Hefner’s television program which aired for six seasons and spawned no less than 4 spin-offs, saw his reign of female exploitation continue. The program involved Hefner in his mansion with multiple women who adored him, and who competed for his affections. That’s all it was – a man in a mansion with a bunch of women who are there for his pleasure only.
On the TV program The Dick Caveat Show in 1970, feminist commentator Susan Brownmmiller said; “the role that you have selected for women is degrading to women, because you choose to see women as sex objects, not as full human beings. You make them look like animals.”
In the above video, Hefner also notes that “the notion that women are sexual objects is what makes the world go around. Of course they are.” This is an abhorrent statement which really summarises Hefner’s repulsive world view; a world view he has passed down to his readership, infecting multiple generations with stilted and quite frankly fucked up views on women.
Beyond the issues surrounding his publication of sexualised images of women, beyond his quotes and apparent lack of understanding in relation to the impact of his actions, there is the problem of Hugh Hefner’s personal conduct as well, and the conditions of the Playboy Mansion. Carla and Melissa Howe, two former “playmates” at the mansion, told an interviewer that the house was “like a prison.” They went on to explain that “You’re definitely not allowed male visitors. If you break the rules you get banned. Once you’re out, you’re out, you can’t come back.” While they were living in the mansion during Hefner’s later, more frail years, they also relayed what his conduct was like as a younger man – “We’ve heard stories about him having 16 girls in the grotto and once he’d finished they would be passed on to the next man there.” No matter how he tried to spin himself in the media, Hefner’s behaviour bares the traits of a chauvinist who sees women as inferior.
For these reasons, it is increasingly frustrating to see article headlines glorifying Hugh Hefner in the media.
No, there was not more to Hugh Hefner than nude women – that was the be all and end all of his brand, and that obsession with nude women has left, and will continue to leave, lasting social ramifications. Hugh Hefner was only a “true visionary” in the sense that he foresaw mass sexual exploitation of women and profited from it first. Anyone who offers a tribute, or any kind of “love” for Hugh Hefner is only glorifying his atrocious conduct. His legacy should not be admired or revered, but rather it should be treated as an example of how easy it is to get away with exploitation of women – and how society will prop people up for it.