Content warning: this post contains brief references to rape and abuse.
Hugh Hefner died.
Of course he did. Dude was 91. When my castmate announced it after rehearsal, I didn’t feel shock at the news. Hefner may as well have died when he stopped being the editor of Playboy magazine. Or when The Girls Next Door tried selling us on twincest. Or when the magazine stopped publishing nudes. He was a go-to pop culture joke about debauchery and smoking jackets, but he’s hardly been relevant for years.
Still, I had some mixed feelings. I never much cared for Hefner or his image, having been introduced to him as a doddering grandpa on reality TV, but Playboy the brand had been in my life since I was a child. It molded my early ideas of what it meant to be attractive. It introduced me to the idea that sexiness could be playful or serious. When I turned 18, I bought an issue just because I could and delighted at the articles and interviews just as much as the pictorials. This, I thought, was the intersection of brains and beauty. By thumbing through the pages at my grandma’s house I was somehow becoming a well-rounded adult.
To say nothing of the accidental connection between Playboy and queerness. For generations, Dad’s secret stash (or in my case, my mother’s boyfriend Chad’s collection that he just left out in the open in his office) was a gateway not just for teenage boys but also girls. It felt like fate that my first issue featured a spread with Adrienne Curry, the first out bisexual I had ever seen. Since Playboy could also be “for the articles”, I was able to hide my queerness even from myself. Perhaps even more than the cool girls I had met in high school, Playboy gave me the most intense stirrings of looking at a woman and not being sure if I wanted to be her or be with her. As I grew I realized, hell, why not both?
When I went to college I found vintage issues and hung the centerfolds in my kitchen, aspiring to their fresh-faced, breezy beauty. I copied the makeup, teased my hair higher, and then rebelled against the streamlined pin-ups in favor of some Hustler-esque trashiness. Those styles helped me experiment and come into my own again and again as I rolled through my early 20s. Even now, I’ll sometimes look at them and imagine living in a dreamy world of sheer babydolls and fur rugs. It’s a world I realize I now have the means to create for myself at any point. Several photographer friends are just a Facebook message away, and within the week I’ll have a pin-up of myself to tuck away. In them, I’m eternally 19, 21, 24, and these versions of me seem younger and younger every year. They’re my own digital flashbacks that I wish I could share with my younger self. “Look,” I’d say. “You’re pretty too.”
But none of that was Hefner. It was the women I idolized—women who were paid peanuts to be immortalized in soft focus.
I would never call Hefner a feminist, but to deny his impact on feminism feels wrong. If I am a feminist and his empire had an effect on me, how can I separate this effect it had on me from my politics? But in processing the news of his passing, I’m realizing how much I have compartmentalized Hefner the image versus Hefner the actual man.
Playboy enabled hard-hitting journalism and literature to have a voice. Playboy enabled many women to make more money than their fathers or would-be husbands.
Did those women get to do it entirely on their terms? No. But as a sex worker who frequently has to defend my job to civilians who don’t understand that it exists in a grey area, I can’t fault the first wave of Bunnies anymore than I can fault current dancers working in terrible strip clubs.
However, that comes back to the women. I can’t praise Hefner for his abuses any more than I can praise Deja Vu’s just because they are providing a place of work. Still, I’d be awfully sad if all my dancer friends suddenly lost their club.
But in losing Hefner are any of us really losing anything that necessary? Playboy the brand will continue onward. It will continue to provide a certain kind of entertainment featuring a certain kind of woman that is hardly subversive these days—hooray Photoshopped labia and college co-eds! What was shocking decades ago is now so commonplace that people really did start reading Playboy for the articles. A half-naked woman can sell us anything from hamburgers to real estate, so does softcore porn even register as the centerpiece of a magazine? As someone under 30, it’s hard for me to imagine that there was a time when my wholesome kitchen pin-ups would have been considered risque. And as a queer sex working artist, it’s hard to imagine that back then I would have had to hand so much creative control over to a dude who would one day be well-known for always wearing pajamas.
Back when Hefner founded Playboy, I doubt a woman could have started that empire. That said, you can’t sell naked women without, you know, naked women. Sex working women were fundamental to Hefner’s rise and it is absolute bullshit that they didn’t and don’t receive the credit or payouts they deserve. Women could be the tits and ass, but only Hefner could be the face.
But the magazine also elevated women’s struggles and our fight for empowerment, even if that empowerment was ultimately male-centered. It created a forum to discuss women’s sexuality, even though that sexuality was packaged for male consumption and only applied to women most men wanted to see naked. It at least gave those women the option to control a little bit of that consumption and to expand that control as time went on.
Hefner has always been polarizing, but no matter how many people argued he was a monster, many also declared him a revolutionary.
And he took advantage of that. Like nearly all male feminist allies, he realized how lucrative a progressive brand can be both monetarily and sexually.
His always-available harem of increasingly younger and blonder women who couldn’t leave the mansion was the subject of jokes. But it was seen as creepy because dicks over 40 are considered gross, not because he was abusing his partners and models. I remember watching The Girls Next Door at 13 and thinking Kendra seemed so adult. Now all I can think is, “she was 19.” And while I’m sure she had some agency in her decision to move in, be on TV, and have a spin-off show, it’s hard to say how many day-to-day choices she was able to make during her time at the mansion. If you consider that Hefner was wealthy and powerful in a way she and the other Girls Next Door could only dream of, you have a power dynamic that will never be balanced.
We shouldn’t allow allies to get away with that behavior. We should not reward them to such a degree that they become the thing they claimed to help us fight against. Hefner went from a bachelor leading the sexual revolution to a shut-in giving grown women curfews lest they talk to another man past sundown. He raped and abused women. He prevented them from making money. None of that is progressive.
Hefner did give a platform to people who were more progressive than him. But he got the credit. People will bring up his support for civil rights alongside him creating Playboy, but they don’t do the same for Marilyn Monroe’s civil rights advocacy and radical politics when drooling over her first photo spread. Nor do they mention that the sexual aesthetic Monroe exuded and Hefner helped showcase originated in black actress Dorothy Dandridge. In looking at Hefner and Playboy we see who is allowed to be remembered, credited, and idolized. The more privilege one has, the more praise they are given, and the more arguments there are for why their sins should be forgiven.
Perhaps the best thing Hefner left us is a cautionary tale of ally worship. Hefner’s image gave us so much by giving space for others to do what they wanted to do. But we cannot keep excusing allies the way Hefner was excused, and allowing them to take the credit Hefner hoarded. We need to be better at cutting out the middle-man and just handing the microphone directly to those with something to say. We should be expanding rights and actually reaching for equality rather than giving women out as prizes to the privileged. We cannot let allies sit in the editor’s chair, having final say on how liberation is reported.
In the end, I guess I am glad for Playboy and what Hefner enabled to happen, for the effect it had on me and my life. But I hope that with his passing we also see the end of an era where aging heroes are above reproach and old rapist white men are still given top billing in the revolution.
Also, I really hope he left everything to the women in his life. They deserve it.