Public opinion of Hugh Hefner has been polarized throughout his entire life, and it has escalated since the 91-year-old creator and editor-in-chief of Playboy magazine died last week.
It is unclear how society should remember him. To some, he is a progressive philanthropist, an intellectual and a “feminist before there was such a thing as feminism.”
For others, he's an exploitative hedonist who pandered his subtle brand of sexism under the guise of social freedom.
Let’s look at the facts. Alex Haley published interviews with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. under Hefner’s masthead, and authors ranging from Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood to Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl found homes for their writing amidst the scantily clad playmates of the magazine.
The Playboy Foundation has created educational endowments and helped fund the development of the first rape kit. Hefner strongly supported First Amendment rights, same-sex marriage and women’s access to contraception and abortion.
Labeling Hefner as a liberator of femininity and human sexuality is demonstrative of utilitarianism’s failures as an ethical system.
Intent, not consequence, must be used to determine the morality of Hefner’s actions, and Sophie Gilbert of the Atlantic has figured out Hefner’s position very well: “highly profitable conformism disguised as sexual freedom.”
“For many feminists, the problem with the midcentury sexual revolution wasn’t the no-strings-attached sex; it was that they were 'free' to have sex on men’s terms — and, in the absence of social, economic and political power, this wasn’t exactly liberation,” Irin Carmon wrote for the Washington Post.
Sex isn’t inherently a bad thing, but Hefner was wrong to think that could limit the definitions of sexuality, pleasure or beauty when they can exist in so many different forms. To quote writer and activist Susan Sontag, “Rules of taste enforce structures of power.”
Hefner, who once specifically requested a ”devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart,” supported free speech so he could continue peddling exploitative pornography without fear of censorship.
He was pro-choice to ensure his harem could continue to operate with the same orgiastic fervor as his dehumanizing bunny mascot, now unburdened by any actual reproduction.
He would pay for his girlfriends’ plastic surgery, but afraid of the independence a vehicle might provide, he refused to buy them cars.
His true opinion of women was made clear in a 2010 interview with John Heilpern for Vanity Fair. “Feminists still oppose you for treating women as objects,” Heilpern cautioned. Hefner responded: “They are objects!”
The objectification of women in general has cultivated a society in which someone is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. It is a society in which female anatomy has been deemed more important than the female mind.
The first step to true sexual revolution must be to eliminate this societal pedagogy of fear by creating an environment that is equally safe for men and women.
Hefner may not have been complicit in violent actions, but he helped create the society in which they go unpunished and glorified.
Centerfolds of decontextualized women with flawless bodies teach men to view the women in their lives as merely that: centerfolds and reams of high-gloss paper.
Rhetoric is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used morally or immorally.
Hefner’s rhetoric was designed to liberate so long as he could still objectify and empower, and so long as promiscuity and lust were not stripped away.
If his purported feminism primarily benefited men and hegemonic masculinity, it was, in fact, feminism’s opposite.
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