September 28, 2017

At the risk of seeming rude, for speaking ill of the dead, I’m shocked at the flood of accolades for Hugh Hefner. Especially those by strong women and men who profess feminism, many of them in my own circles. I don’t get it.

Yes, Hefner facilitated much great American journalism. And, yes, some people really did read Playboy for the articles. I know, because I was one of them, as a teenager determined to become a writer. After school in my small town I worked a cashier’s job at a  convenience store. When it was quiet, I pored over the Playboys sold on the store magazine rack. It was only years later, in a university women’s studies course, that I realized I read those magazines on a psychological tightrope, strung between stellar journalism and the sleazy portrayal of women.

The Columbia Journalism Review noted:

“No matter your personal feelings about the man or his work, Hefner printed more serious journalism and fiction than just about any other magazine publisher. … Yes, the magazine invented the centerfold, but it also earned a literary legacy in its 60-plus years.”

I acknowledge that an ad hominem criticism of an entire life’s work is problematic. I do applaud some of the works, and the writers, that found their way into Playboy’s pages.

But when I think of Hugh Hefner I don’t think of his journalism legacy, or his support for America’s civil rights movement, or even of the sexual revolution for which — bizarrely, considering how one-sided it was and is — he’s also credited, as in this Esquire obituary.

I think of the misogyny that defined him, of a lifelong commercialization and promotion of sleaze — which has been described as pimping. His legacy of misogyny is so powerful that a modern Alpha male can today boast of having many wives, and of groping many women, and retain his popularity — so much popularity that such a man can become America’s president.

When I was a vulnerable girl child in the 1960s and an adolescent in the 1970s, Hefner was a figure of fear. To the women of my era who did not aspire to be playboy bunnies (ick), he became the enemy of our selfhood and our ambition.

Our loathing for him was reciprocated. To wit, from a piece in the Guardian titled, Hugh Hefner: effusive tributes ignore Playboy founder’s dark side:

“These chicks are our natural enemy,” he wrote in 1970, ordering a hit piece in his magazine on feminists. “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.”

I did not then and do not now call myself a “feminist,” though I live largely by the tenets of feminism. But since I was a young impressionable teenager I have agreed with the opinion of Susan Brownmiller, quoted in that Guardian piece:

“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.”

As a female who has spent her life watching Hefner and his kind subjugate women as objects for male pleasure, as a member of a sex forced to constantly rebuff the unwanted lascivious gaze of random strange males, I don’t mourn his death. I don’t laud his life. Indeed, until he died and the accolades started to flood all my media channels, I’d forgotten all about him. I’d decided long ago that anybody who refuses to acknowledge Others as full human beings (due to colour, shape, orientation, gender, creed, etc) is a lesser being.

Copyright Deborah Jones 2017

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References and further reading:

Hugh Hefner’s Playboy did a lot of great journalism. Here are a few highlights. By Meg Dalton, Columbia Journalism Review

Hugh Hefner: effusive tributes ignore Playboy founder’s dark side, by Molly Redden, The Guardian

I called Hugh Hefner a pimp, he threatened to sue. But that’s what he was. By Suzanne Moore, The Guardian

Hugh Hefner, the Founder of Playboy, Has Died, Esquire

The 15 Worst Things Playmates Have Said About Life in the Playboy Mansion, a listicle compiled by Olivia Bahou, Cosmopolitan