By Tom Robotham
Every semester at Old Dominion University I teach a class called Sex, Culture & Media. My objective is to help students think critically about depictions of sexuality in the mass media and to consider the ways in which those depictions shape our attitudes.
Our discussions of the history and impact of Playboy magazine are always among the most interesting. Most of the students come into the class with only a vague idea of what the publication was all about, and they know next to nothing about its founder, Hugh Hefner. This doesn’t surprise me. Playboy, while still in existence, is a largely a relic of another era. Indeed, I doubt that most people of any age had given it much thought in recent decades—that is, until Hefner died on September 27, and reassessments began to proliferate.
With that in mind, let me pose to you the central question I ask my students: Did Playboy have a positive or negative effect on our culture?
I have mixed feelings.
I remember vividly, the first time I snuck a peek at the magazine. I was 12 years old and hanging out with my friend Al when he went into his father’s closet and pulled an issue from a stack on a shelf. In our pubescent innocence, we stared wide-eyed at the centerfold, which overshadowed everything else. By the early ‘70s, however, when I was in my teens, I’d begun reading the magazine on a regular basis. Playboy was at its pinnacle of success at the time, selling a whopping 7 million copies per month, and the more I read it the more I understood the reasons for its popularity.
It wasn’t just about the photographs—not by a long shot. Over the previous 20 years (the first issue came out in 1953), Hefner had built it into a platform for some of the best writers of the 20th century—Kurt Vonnegut, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, John Updike, and countless others. Especially noteworthy is the fact that Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 first appeared in the magazine.
Then there were the long-form interviews. The most famous was the one with Jimmy Carter, in which the then presidential candidate confessed that he had “committed adultery in [his] heart many times. (I still have my copy of that issue.) But there were many others—with subjects ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre to Malcolm X—that were far more weighty and compelling.
Through all of this, Hefner courted controversy—and not just for the sake of selling magazines. It was a matter of principle for him. He wanted to use his power to effect social change. He was especially strong in his advocacy for freedom of expression—and not just his own. In 1961, for example, when the great Lenny Bruce was arrested on charges of obscenity, it was Hefner who hired a lawyer for him and went to bat for him in the pages of the magazine. In response, authorities stepped up their attacks on the magazine, but Hefner stood firm.
Meanwhile, Hefner had also taken on the subject of racism by having blacks and whites together on his television show, Playboy’s Penthouse—at a time when Jim Crow laws still prevailed in much of the country—and openly discussing the problem.
And then, of course, there was his crusade for sexual freedom at time when many states still had draconian “sodomy” laws on their books.
If you’d like to learn more about this, I recommend investing a couple of hours of your time in a 2009 documentary that I share with my students: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel.
To the filmmaker’s credit, the documentary gives a platform to Hefner’s critics, including conservative Christians and prominent feminists. It’s easy enough to dismiss the former as self-appointed and self-righteous guardians of morality. I find it more difficult to dismiss the latter, given the degree to which sexism persists in our society to this day and is rooted in part in the mass media’s objectification of women. (It does strike me as rather odd that feminists were on the same side as old white “Christian” men who hated feminism to its very core. Politics makes strange bedfellows, indeed. But I digress.)
Did the centerfolds and other photo spreads degrade women?
This semester, not a single one of my students thought so at the end of our weeklong discussion. (I should add that the class is about 60 percent women.) Many older women I’ve talked with about this subject feel very differently—understandably so. To my generation of men, Playboy helped perpetuate the fantasy that the primary value of women lies in their physical beauty. Moreover, it held up a standard of beauty that was both narrow and unrealistic.
Hefner always took issue with these critics, insisting that the magazine conveyed the message that “nice girls like sex too”—and I don’t think that this argument should be summarily dismissed either. Playboy, after all, was launched at a time when “nice girls” weren’t supposed to think about sex at all, except, perhaps, when doing their duty as wives. With this in mind, there’s an argument to be made that Playboy empowered women—and many young women I know can at least see this side of the argument, even if they don’t wholeheartedly agree.
The Playboy Clubs were another matter. In the early ‘60s, a then-28-year-old Gloria Steinem got a job as a Playboy bunny at the newly opened New York club and subsequently wrote about the experience. It was utterly degrading, she felt, not only because of the uncomfortable and humiliating uniforms but because many of the customers treated the bunnies with arrogant disrespect.
In 1981, I saw this first hand, when New York City’s Uniformed Firefighters Association gave me an award for a story I’d written about a 5-alarm fire that had left dozens of people homeless. The ceremony was held at the Playboy Club. At the time I thought that was pretty cool, and subsequently, having been dazzled by the club’s glamour, I purchased a membership. After a few more visits, however, I became disillusioned. The “bunnies,” while beautiful, looked pretty silly in their costumes, and many of the customers did, in fact, strike me as sexist pigs.
Indeed, many years afterward, it dawned on me that the fire-fighters association had probably chosen to hold its ceremony at the Playboy Club as an intentional jab at women who were pushing for the opportunity to join the fire department. (The barrier was finally broken a year after I received that award.)
With all of this in mind, what are we to make of Hugh Hefner’s legacy?
It would be disingenuous to deny his sexism. And yet, it’s also important to remember that he was a product of his times. In the aforementioned documentary, one gets the sense that Hefner was a deeply thoughtful man, with the best of intentions, but limited by blind spots, as all of us are in one way or another.
In spite of these blind spots, he managed to make extraordinarily positive contributions to our culture, through his First Amendment crusades, his efforts to introduce his readers to great literature, his battles against racism, his philanthropic generosity, and his superb jazz festivals, which he held at a time when America’s greatest musical art form was suffering from widespread neglect.
Alas, we seem to live in an era in which nuanced assessment of any legacy is a rarity. In culture, as in politics, we are divided into camps that regard public figures with either unconditional admiration, or unconditional disdain. That’s a shame. In doing so, we lose sight of the complexities and contradictions of human nature.
The commentaries published following his death are cases in point. Many were glowing tributes. Many others were scathing attacks—some alleging that he abused the women in his personal life. I’m inclined to take those specific claims with a grain of salt, especially in this era of cyber-gossip. One article, I read, for example, hyperlinked the word “abuser,” and when I clicked on it I found a screen shot of a Tweet by a woman whose first-hand knowledge, if she had any, was not specified. Such sloppy reporting does little to make the case against him. All most of us have to go on is what he produced.
With that in mind, here’s what I believe: Hef, as he was known to his friends, had an enormous impact on our culture for better and for worse. But I will forever applaud his many positive accomplishments.