Content warning: This column mentions sexual violence.
Few people have had as flamboyant, controversial or divisive of a public persona as Hugh Hefner. I myself have had wavering opinions about Hefner, beginning in childhood (I grew up in Los Angeles, so in many ways Playboy was part of my community). At first, I saw Hefner as a misogynist, later, as an early proponent of sexual liberation — including reproductive rights. But can one person be each of these things? And more troublingly, what are we to do in instances such as Hefner’s, when an individual’s legacy dwarfs their personal actions?
In 2015, Holly Madison, Hefner’s former girlfriend, alluded to years of financial and verbal abuse, coerced drug use and emotional manipulation whilst living in the Playboy Mansion. Madison’s account was reminiscent of reports by past playmates Chloe Goins and Carla Howe. These stories, along with Playboy’s decades of utilizing an idealized, plasticine female form as a form of merchandise, serve as the backbone for what I like to call the ‘cartoonish villain’ Hefner.
By contrast, to third-wave feminists and ‘sex positivists’ de jour, though controversial, Hefner helped establish a mainstream understanding of sexual liberation and, most importantly for supporters, the notion that female sexuality should not be scorned — and he created Playgirl, so that’s equal, right!
Somehow, both depictions fall short, resembling caricatures far more than an individual, a contrived narrative far more than a legacy. The cartoonish villain Hefner, face of misogynist white men everywhere, the sexual liberation ‘hero’ Hefner, far more of a ‘feminist,’ advocate of legal abortion, gay marriage and even an early champion of civil rights.
Notably, in 1971, Playboy first featured a black playmate, Darine Stern, on its cover. By contrast, Vogue did not feature a black model on its cover until 1974. Playboy’s first black playmate, Jennifer Jackson, publicly denounced her relationship with Playboy upon Hefner’s death, reporting a sense of shame. With these instances in mind, it appears as if one’s opinion of Hefner depends on whether one is to value individual testimony over the effects on culture at large — or, how willing we are to accept ‘progress’ with the weight placed squarely on women’s backs.
While Hefner’s Playboy published groundbreaking interviews with black men, including Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, its ‘relationship’ with black women remained solely sexual… and therein lies the problem. As much as the desire to champion Hefner as an early advocate of sexual liberation is luring at face value it, unfortunately, dismisses the effects of political, economic and structural power dynamics behind sexuality. Until feminism has eradicated the expectations on women and femme people to be sexually consumable, to appear a certain way or to fulfill the demands of others at their individual expense, it seems difficult to exclaim that sexuality is intrinsically liberating. It seems even more difficult to exclaim that sexuality is liberating when it exists in the pages of a magazine made by, and in large part for, white heterosexual men. Right now, my eulogy to Hefner is the following — “You did more good than Larry Flynt.” I think that says enough.