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Lecher or Liberator: How should Hugh Hefner be Remembered?

Some see an American icon in the late Playboy founder, others see the complete polar opposite

Hugh Hefner passed away on the 27th of September at his house, the notorious Playboy Mansion. For many Hugh Hefner will be remembered as a sleazy man who got rich through the manipulation of young beautiful women. Though his attitude towards women and sex have given him a bad reputation it is still hard not to respect him to a certain extent. In 1953, he was unhappily married and in an unfulfilling job when he did what anyone could hope to do – turn their life around. In late 1953, with the help of a $8,000 loan and Marilyn Monroe’s nude pictures, Playboy magazine hit the shelves. Its first press run of over 50,000 copies sold out quickly and at its peak Hefner’s net worth was reported to be more than $200 million.

From adult magazines, Hefner has built an empire with the infamous bunny logo being on everything from perfume to necklaces such as Carrie Bradshaw’s in the cult classic Sex and the City. Though there is little argument against the fact that Hefner used women for his own personal gain, what did he do that is so different from what we see in the modern world? Playboy magazine became the symbol of sophistication and a lavish lifestyle.They were reading it wanting to be Hefner, using it to live through him while they were stuck in their average lives. All over social media people are selling the ‘ideal’ life and people are buying into it. What makes Hefner so different from Zoella in that aspect? Hefner knew that sex sells in a time when sexuality was being oppressed and he took it in his stride. In fact, there was a lot of good that Hefner did too.

Surprisingly, Playboy Magazine is not just porn. Hefner made the effort to ensure that the magazine had intellectual content, joking at a magazine anniversary party he said, “Ladies, it’s been a wonderful 25 years, and I owe it all to you. Without you, I would have had nothing but a literary magazine.” Famous writers who have been published in Playboy include Roald Dahl, Jack Kerouac, Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Ian Fleming, Ray Bradbury, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck and many more.

“Though his magazines and brand have sexualised and objectified women it has also empowered others. Many will still thoroughly dislike him it is hard not to be impressed.”

“We were willing to publish things that other people wouldn’t publish, and writers were very happy about that,” Hefner said. “And very quickly we had the largest circulation in the men’s field so we were able to pay more money.” Hefner was an advocate against censorship and set up the Playboy Foundation, which provided funding to groups researching human sexuality and fighting censorship.

Hefner was also a surprising advocate for civil, LGBTQ and women’s rights. Playboy was one of the first mainstream clubs to accept black members and performers. Civil rights activist Dick Gregory revealed in an interview that Hefner provided $25,000 towards a reward that was later credited with pushing along a murder case of three young civil-rights workers in Mississippi. Playboy’s first interview was with jazz musician Miles Davis, who discussed race’s effect on his fame to black journalist Alex Haley. Playboy also went on to do interviews with Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Hefner campaigned against the nation’s laws against sodomy and highlighted the AIDS crisis in the magazine. He also spoke for gay marriage in 2012 and in 1991 Hefner also published a photo series of model Caroline “Tula” Cossey after she was outed as a transgender woman by a tabloid.

Hefner has always been for contraception even when it was not available to unmarried women. The magazine also came out in favour of abortion in 1965, eight years before Roe v. Wade made it legal. He later established a non-profit foundation that supported the Kinsey Institute (which researches sexual health), rape crisis centres and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Hugh Hefner has led a long and eventful life very much in the public eye. Though his magazines and brand have sexualised and objectified women it has also empowered others. Many will still thoroughly dislike him it is hard not to be impressed. He has built not only a brand but an empire that is as recognisable as Coke and Nike. He has immortalised himself as the silk pyjama wearing, pipe-smoking face of Playboy. With Jared Leto already being confirmed to star as Hefner in an upcoming movie, I don’t think we’ll be forgetting about Hugh Hefner anytime soon. KF

It begins in 1953. The first issue of Playboy didn’t place the dissolve of America’s sexual repression at the top of its agenda, it rested on the scandalous publishing of Marilyn Monroe’s nude photos and how far it could milk the gawking public for it. But surely they were consensual I hear you cry? No actually, Hugh Hefner purchased them for $500 and published them without Monroe’s consent, much to her embarrassment. And despite never actually meeting each other, Hefner took his creepy and shameful behaviour further in 1992 by purchasing the plot next to Monroe’s grave for $75,000 so they could lie next to each other for eternity.

“The hyper-sexualisation of women in Playboy constructed a horrifying way of thinking about women.”

Monroe originally appeared nude for a Chicago calendar a year before her breakthrough roles in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve and when the nude photos resurfaced in Playboy four years later, she feared for her career. “I feel a double connection to her,” revealed Hefner in 2012 in an interview with CBS Los Angeles, “she was the launching key to the beginning of Playboy. We were born in the same year.” Hefner and Monroe have never even met and yet these two bookending moments in Hugh Hefner and Playboy’s controversial history scream volumes of his twisted position in America and the world’s sexual evolution. It’s ironic that Hefner’s rebirth as the founder of Playboy and his death should be defined by two non-consensual actions against a woman he only shares the same year of birth with.

Similarly to the liberation during the post-WW1 Roaring ’20s, Americans felt compelled to rage against ’50s conformity post-WW2. The hyper-sexualisation of women in Playboy constructed a horrifying way of thinking about women. The patriarchal depiction of ‘the girl next door’ and the sexually available and promiscuous woman in Playboy took sexual freedoms away from women. Rather than a sexual liberation led and defined by women, female sexuality and nudity became another aspect of male desire, and one that failed to consider women.

Arguably, the notions championed by Playboy and similar publications laid worrying groundwork that is still marring 21st century sexuality. Hefner’s non-consensual publishing of Monroe’s nude pictures would certainly be prohibited under revenge porn legislation now and the degradation of women in media would not be as rife as it is now if Playboy hadn’t laid the foundations for that mentality. It’s ironic that the shocking sexual harassment and rape allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein that have swallowed Hollywood up in the last few weeks should emerge just weeks after Hefner’s death.

As the tributes and gleaming obituaries roll in, they forget the shadows that the Playboy empire invariably cast. Freelance journalist Gloria Steinem’s undercover exposure of a New York Playboy club shed light on the abuse that Playboy bunnies suffered at the hands of pestering customers. There was Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten, who accused Hefner of rape after he supposedly forced himself upon her in a jacuzzi on her first night in the mansion. She later married an abusive husband to escape Hefner and the mansion. Stratten was eventually shot and killed by her abusive husband in 1980 before he turned the gun on himself. And more recently, a lawsuit has claimed that Hefner’s properties have been the site of several of Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual attacks on young women, including drugging and raping model Chloe Gains at the mansion in 2008.

Hugh Hefner was not a developer of female sexual freedom, he stunted it. Hefner dreamt up and created a twisted, unattainable fantasy, hence his singularity in the construction of the supposed haven that is the Playboy Mansion. And in warping the definition of male fantasy with his lifestyle, he also changed the male attitude towards sexuality and women for the worse. Surrounded by towering metal gates, Hefner’s mansion was never a path to freedom but quite the opposite, trapping its female playmates like animals in a brutal circus. Hefner was just the cruel petting zookeeper and nothing more. JO

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