It is no exaggeration to say that Hugh Hefner, the womanizing hedonist and founder of Playboy magazine who died at 91 on Wednesday, helped to define modern American sexual culture. He was “Hef,” an icon of late 20th-century personal freedom, celebrity and consumerism, albeit one whose silk pajamas and pipe-smoking suavity became a cliché of (mostly white) male heterosexuality. In the universally recognizable Playmate centerfolds, his magazine defined an airbrushed and unattainable standard of feminine attraction and availability. That has made Playboy an irresistible target over the years for its legion of critics—who said it’s a sexist, objectifying rag, led by a creepy old man whose legion of “Bunnies” turned bed partners never seemed to age even as he did.
But what most observers have failed to remember is that Playboy was considered a progressive cultural leader in the 1960s and ’70s. It was more than a magazine—it was an empire. College courses were devoted to Playboy’s business model. Ministers gave sermons (not always critical) about Hefner’s worldview, which was spelled out in a years-long editorial series called “The Playboy Philosophy.” The Philosophy addressed what Hefner saw as American religious repression, censorship, sexuality, and all manner of personal freedom. There were iconic Playboy Clubs around the world. People paid attention to what Playboy had to say in noteworthy interviews and journalistic pieces because of their engagement with the social, political and cultural issues of the day. Hefner’s politics—and thus the magazine’s—challenged the American status quo in many ways beyond sexuality.
Story Continued Below
The magazine, founded in December 1953, helped to define new standards not only of femininity, but masculinity as well. The companion to the Playmate was an urbane, culturally articulate bachelor. The man idealized in Playboy was a challenge to the postwar standard of the stalwart family man and Cold Warrior. The Playboy bachelor was a happy, swinging single man about town. It’s easy to forget how significant a portrayal that was at the time. That kind of man was usually shunned in the 1950s as neurotic and possibly homosexual. But the carefree bachelor—an aspiration for Hefner himself when he created Playboy—was self-conscious about his looks, his apartment, even his cooking skills. He was the forerunner of the more recent “metrosexual.” And as such, Hefner envisioned masculine and feminine ideals coming into closer alignment, for better or for worse.
For the equally celebrated and maligned Playmate woman, Hefner took the gendered expectations of the postwar era and turned them on their head. Both men and women were expected to channel their sexuality into monogamous marriage. Transgressing those strict parameters could lead to social ostracism, loss of employment or even diagnosis of mental illness. The stakes for women were particularly high. The only available options for feminine sexuality were “good” girl or “bad” girl. Women were expected to marry young, have several children, and follow their husbands’ lead in the bedroom. Anything else risked reputation, social acceptance and marriageability. With the Playmate centerfolds, Hefner rejected this constrained vision of women’s sexuality. He joyously proclaimed that “good” girls liked sex, too.
In a pre-feminist world, this was significant. Traditionally pinup nudes were nameless women in a storyless setting—a body on a bearskin rug. But Hefner wanted something else. Soon after its founding, Hefner established the Playmate formula. The women were photographed in ways that suggested a real, living human being. Highly sexualized, yes—but nonetheless an actual woman with a life outside the magazine’s pages. Props spoke to a situation or setting, like a woman getting ready for an evening out. Biographies (however embellished) rounded out her personality. Secondary photos showed the model in her everyday life, going to school or work, or even, in some cases, having Sunday dinner with her parents. Hefner told his readers that such a girl might be in the next office, sitting near them on the train, or at the grocery store. Ultimately, the images and their accompanying stories insisted that women were as sexual as men. This was a revolutionary idea in the conservative postwar years.
Hefner was motivated by his unwavering support for personal freedom, sexual or otherwise. He believed that American culture was poisoned by religious puritanism, and he railed against sexual repression as damaging and unhealthy. This was a reaction to his conservative upbringing in a devout Methodist family, which he contexualized within a broader cultural critique. Hefner’s politics were progressive, and he supported much of the liberal agenda in the second half of the twentieth century. And nothing appeared in Playboy without Hefner’s approval, so his politics were the politics of the magazine (although most of his editors were also progressive, if not radical). Support for the civil rights, gay rights and antiwar movements, the liberalization of drug laws, and liberal feminism all found their way into the Playboy worldview. Much of this was expressed through The Playboy Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the magazine. But even more significantly, these political views were championed in several letters-to-the-editor columns, particularly one called the “Forum.” Here Hefner and his editors engaged in a constant conversation with their readers, who offered their views of current social and political issues, and Playboy responded with its collective opinion.
Liberal feminism—as opposed to a more radical stance, which made Hefner hysterically defensive because of its critique of traditional heterosexuality and feminine beauty, the world that Playboy was built on—was a central concern for Playboy in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Hefner supported women’s reproductive rights—including access to birth control and legal abortion—as a matter of overall sexual freedom. Of course, liberated women meant straight men could have more consequence-free sex, but reproductive rights were an important issue for feminists. Playboy published information on the struggle for legal abortion with monthly updates on changing state laws. They promoted the work of the Clergy Consultation Service, which was a hotline that women could call to track down safe abortion before Roe v. Wade. The Foundation provided funds to rape crisis centers and day-care centers for working mothers, and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. As some women were protesting outside of the Playboy offices, other activists, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then attorney for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, wrote to the Forum to thank Playboy for its support, which eventually totaled $100,000. As much as male privilege, this is an important part of Hefner’s legacy and one that typically goes unacknowledged.
Hefner will always be a contested figure. In the hours after his death, progressives continue to claim him for both sides of the feminist debate, just as many did 50 years ago. But wherever we place him on the political spectrum—champion of liberty or unrepentant chauvinist—there can be no doubt that Hefner was one of the most significant cultural figures of the past 70 years.