Let's Talk About Hugh Hefner's Political Legacy


O.K., that was then. Today, Playboy’s tagline is “Entertainment for All.” What has Playboy done for women?

TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER I have a disclosure, too: I wrote for Playboy (proudly) at the beginning of my career. They gave me my first celebrity assignment, in fact, which has become my bread and butter (not to imply that celebrities eat either bread or butter). Playboy was a magazine for men. Whatever its political stance, it didn’t pretend it was going for inclusivity. Why would it? Does Redbook have a column for men (wait, does it?)? Does Vogue give back-hair grooming advice?

AMANDA HESS I suppose I should disclose that I once wrote an article for Playboy.com about straight guys who are into butt stuff. Moving on ——

BRODESSER-AKNER Wait, why would we move on from that?

HESS Welcome to The Times, Taffy. I’m interested in Mr. Hefner’s legacy as an architect of the sexual revolution, a claim that’s been repeated so often, for so long, that at this point it goes unexamined. What he did was more like a sexual pivot. He rebranded the objectification of women as both intellectual and cute. He kicked off the magazine by buying a nude photograph that Marilyn Monroe had posed for when she was unknown, desperate and broke, and reframing it as an object of public celebration.

When his fans list all the progressive causes that Mr. Hefner championed — civil rights, gay rights, “sexual freedom”— gender equality is not among them, because he was never invested in a revolution of sexual relationships. His project ultimately had very little to do with sex. His brand, to me, was about power — he was a guy who kept a collection of living dolls in his playhouse, an environment that he could fully control, so he never left.

WESLEY MORRIS Amanda, that’s deeply true. Have you all ever seen the syndicated shows “Playboy’s Penthouse” or “Playboy After Dark?” They ran from 1959 through the 1960s and were part talk show, part haunted house. Guests are drifting around the set while the camera follows Mr. Hefner around the apartment, where occasionally Lenny Bruce or Nat King Cole or Buddy Rich might show up and have a conversation about what they’re up to. Once, Mr. Hefner gathered Cole, Bruce and the composer Cy Coleman in the living room area. Cole and Bruce did a lot of the talking, and behind them is a woman, lounging on the floor, gripping a railing and smiling.

Meanwhile, on the sofa, is Rona Jaffe. Her book “The Best of Everything” had just become a movie with Hope Lange and Joan Crawford, and she’s there to promote it. It’s not until most of the famous men have left that Hefner addresses her. It’s just a strange crystallization of the Playboy ethos. Women are people who make and do things. They’re also décor.

SCHUESSLER Can we talk about how much of a time capsule that all is? It seems like a lot of the celebration of Mr. Hefner now is nostalgic. Creepy as some may have found him, he was pretty benign compared to a lot of what else is out there now. Today’s men’s rights/bro-culture crowd doesn’t pretend to be interested in taking their porn with a side of Picasso.

BRODESSER-AKNER What’s remarkable is that much of that nostalgia was fomented by Playboy itself. I don’t know if there was a more self-referential magazine around.

HESS It makes sense, then, that Mr. Hefner would become an early reality star with “The Girls Next Door” — though I’m not sure that the bright lights of TV did much to preserve the allure of the grotto, or his silk pajamas.

BRODESSER-AKNER I love that the Playboy website tries to reset that image with just one photo: Young Hefner, staring straight into the camera, phallic object out of side of mouth. And with this quote: “Life is too short to be living someone else’s dream.”

This would be inspiring, I suppose, if not for the fact that it is now the page for every Playboy link, meaning on some level it’s the middle finger to everyone who’s ever read Playboy. Get your own fantasy. This was mine. It’s over now. Go make something yourself. This is probably not what the post meant, but Playboy has been so clumsy these last few years, when the magazine became something that tried to be modern. How do you make this modern? You know what’s modern? Porn.

SCHUESSLER It’s really too bad about that placeholder, and not just because I want to read both of your articles. Vice ran an interesting story just last month about Playboy’s recent “woke” rebranding under Cooper Hefner, one of Hugh’s sons. The tagline “Entertainment for Men” became “Entertainment for All.” (Well, maybe not all: They brought back nude photos, which had been banished in 2015). Cooper said the battle to allow topless women on the cover of Playboy, just like topless men are allowed on the cover of Men’s Health, was a “feminist fight.”

BRODESSER-AKNER I don’t know. Did we really need Hef to let us be naked? The nudity came with so many conditions: It wasn’t just a woman who conformed to our ideals of beauty. It was a woman who conformed to his ideals of beauty, made even more Hef-perfect in photoshop, giving her digital labiaplasty and making her belly button — her belly button! — more adorable.

MORRIS This is where I should say two things. First, I’m pretty gay. Playboy was a depiction of women that baffled me. As a kid, I couldn’t even make the joke about reading the articles, because I didn’t know there were any. Playboy was kryptonite, and the boys I was around preferred Hefner’s mutant offspring. (As a grown man, I did discover the Playboy Interview, which had the intoxicating, sometimes flabbergasting candor of the show.)

Second, I grew up in a Johnson Publishing household, which published Jet magazine at the time. It still features Beauty of the Week. As much as I thought it’d be fun to type “John H. Johnson was the Hugh Hefner of black America,” that would be untrue, since Johnson’s progressiveness was more evident in that he wanted to elevate a race and showcase all it could be. Hugh Hefner might have had Nat King Cole come by the penthouse, but it took a while for him to invite a nonwhite woman onto his pages. There’s progressive, then there’s progressive.

BRODESSER-AKNER This idea that Playboy was feminist is also really strange. Yes, Hef told Esquire in 2007 that he was “a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism.” He gave money to abortion rights causes and to the A.C.L.U. In 1965, the magazine came out in favor of a woman’s right to choose. That’s great, but there are reasons to support abortion rights outside of feminism, right? If, let’s say, you were running a magazine in the pre-Pill era that advocated as much sex with as many female partners as possible.

HESS It seems appropriate that our final cultural image of Hugh Hefner is a sexless one: The geriatric puttering around the house in his pajamas, surrounding himself with young women who made him seem even older, only achieving actual coitus with medical intervention. Now he’ll be laid to rest in the crypt next to Marilyn Monroe’s — he paid $75,000 for the plot back in 1992. He used her body to launch his brand and now he’s used it to retire it, too. Let’s not forget that Mr. Hefner’s whole branding “relationship” with Ms. Monroe — from the magazine centerfold to the crypt — were undertaken without Monroe’s consent. It’s a morbid symbolic coupling. This time, though, both partners are objects.

BRODESSER-AKNER Ugh, is that true, Amanda? I didn’t know that. When I wrote for Playboy, I went to the Playmate of the Year party. It was decorated like a bat mitzvah: pink tent, chocolate-covered strawberries, squealing young women. Hef was always at the center, surrounded by blondes and then another layer of security. People stood near the grotto, talking about the good old days. Playboy fell like Rome — slowly, then all at once.

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