(CNN)In remembering Hugh Hefner, who has died at 91, many are talking about his contributions to American culture. It must be added that — while those contributions loom large — they also cast a considerable shadow.
The founder of the Playboy brand was a media pioneer and icon of the left, an early and very vocal advocate for free speech, civil rights and sexual liberation.
There is no question: As an activist, “Hef” paved the way for open talk about sex and sexuality, giving people permission to admit that they too were sexual beings, and enjoyed — or at least wanted to enjoy — sex. In the Playboy clubs he opened in the 1960s, he hired black comics at a time when many clubs were de facto segregated. Meanwhile, as a publisher, he pushed boundaries with articles (yes, the famous “articles” that men claimed they sought in Playboy) that were groundbreaking: investigative pieces by writers like Hunter S. Thompson and interviews with heavyweights like Martin Luther King.
He was also a fine example of the American dream, having launched the magazine with $600 of his own and $1,000 borrowed from his mother.
But it’s also worth pointing out, in the spirit of the sort of open cultural dialogue he worked his whole life to encourage, that Hefner’s egalitarian society was one largely envisioned and created for men.
The terms of his rebellion undeniably depended on putting women in a second-class role. It was the women, after all, whose sexuality was on display on the covers and in the centerfolds of his magazine, not to mention hanging on his shoulder, practically until the day he died.
Hef’s notion of the freedom to express sexuality translated largely into freedom to express men’s desire for women, and the fantasy that those women would be always ready and eager to comply.
And it wasn’t just about business: Hefner himself bragged about sleeping with more than a thousand women. In her 2015 memoir, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” former Playmate and Hef girlfriend Holly Madison described the Playboy Mansion as a place where Hef would encourage competition — and body image issues –between his multiple live-in girlfriends. His legacy is full of evidence of the exploitation of women for professional gain. In creating Playboy, and maintaining its brand over six decades, Hef championed a world in which women serve to delight and entertain men, where their bodies are objects, where modification to appeal to male senses often took precedence over comfort (because who really wants DDDs?).
Women were bunnies — the “lucky ones,” anyway. The smart pieces by well-known journalists that he ran in his magazine — even female journalists, like Margaret Atwood — were designed to enrich the intellect of the magazine’s male readers.
Even when, a few years back, the magazine rebranded with a “no more nudity” edict as a way to increase the magazine’s appeal to 20- and 30-something readers (who presumably did want to read it for the articles), it remained a place for men. And, of course, although Playboy did away with full nudity for at least a little while, back in 2015, and for a time featured actresses and models in their underwear, that did nothing to change the enterprise’s foundational principle: objectification of women. (Not surprisingly full nudity returned, inevitably, earlier this year.)
That’s another Hefner legacy: whetting the appetite for readily available sex, which the internet now provides in spades.
All of which is not to say that Hefner’s life should not be celebrated — in some way. He was a man of many facets, who certainly made an impression on American society.
But we should recognize that his legacy is not an unimpeachable one. It is, to say the least, a complicated one. Was Hefner a feminist? He may have thought he was. But perhaps like many men of a certain age, his definition of it was surely — and sorely — due for a tune-up.
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