This article contests some of the existing notions of Hugh Hefner being a champion “feminist” and “civil rights activist”. It records a logical argument of the distinction that exists in theory and practice between the actions of Hefner and the Playboy organization, and the practices advocated by feminism, the counter-culture movement or the civil rights activists vis a vis birth-control, sexuality and equal rights.
The demise of Hugh Hefner, the real Playboy of the Western World, seems to open a long-standing debate about the philosophy of the Playboy empire. On one hand, the demise is being reported as the loss of a “liberal” who opened a discourse on controversial issues such as “free society (read sex)”, birth-control and LGBTQ rights when none existed. The other side of this liberal democrat is being understood as the poster-boy of Western Patriarchy that dominated the fantasies of the “hobo culture” by objectifying women and professing the so called Playboy philosophy in a magazine that sold for the “entertainment for men”. Since this article is being written for a platform aimed at generic readers, there is a conscious attempt to drive away from the boring theory that may not appeal to them. However, the logical objections that would be raised in the following sections would be grounded in the theoretical premise, unfortunately portraying the aspiring academic background of the author. It is necessary to give the arguments a theoretical basis as any discussion on any -ism cannot take place in a vacuum. As the other-side, people advocating the liberal nature of Hefner, has established their arguments on the doctrines of certain theoretical constructs, it leaves the author no scope but to counter them using the very same constructs that have been already used. There are two primary positions of conflict that are being addressed in this article: the first and the most obvious is the position of Hefner being a liberator in a Methodist and Evangelical American society. The second being his political position on various issues ranging from LGBTQ and the Civil Rights Movement. The aim is to prove that neither of these positions were taken by Hefner for their associated principles but to further the entrepreneurial cause of the Playboy empire.
Free sex: The Knight in Liberal Armor.
One of the most prominent arguments given in favor of Hefner’s liberal vantage point is his advocacy for free sex. It is proclaimed that Hefner was a liberal because he publicly spoke about sexuality when no one even thought of it. Though that is not true. The practice of addressing sexuality can be traced far back to the Metaphysical Movement in English poetry, and by the time Hefner came to the forefront with his apparent grandstand; numerous examples of French, English and other Continental literature had already flooded the intellectual circles on the principles and theory of liberal sexuality. Only that these were more refined than having Marilyn Monroe on the cover and no cover on Marilyn Monroe.
Unlike the proponents of liberal sexuality, Hefner’s construct was not based on the principle of “free love”. In fact, Hefner’s entire philosophy had nothing to do with “love”. The foundation of Hefner’s version of liberal sexuality was based on the capitalist principle of affordability. Sex was not “free”, it had to be paid for. Love and the company of “beautiful women” came at a hefty price, an annual membership of the Playboy Club. Hugh Hefner did not liberate sexuality, he commodified it. This is the first and most important point that needs to be understood by all who endorse the narrative of liberty.
One can make a clear distinction here between the capitalist commodification of Hefner and the principle of liberal sexuality of the Hippies that evolved from the counterculture movement, or more commonly from the Woodstock generation.
This also leads to the confrontation that Hefner had with the Methodist and Evangelical traditions of the American society. To proclaim that Hefner was a reformer because he confronted the theological stigma attached to sexuality is like terming Pablo Escobar a pro-choice activist for selling cocaine. The position of confrontation was not based on any notions of anthropocentric liberty as one may see in the writings of Montaigne and others in 18th Century France. The confrontation flowed from the mere fact that by divorcing the theological and moral stigma associated with debauchery would increase the profitability Hefner’s business. Again, morality was discounted only if you could afford a membership to the elite club. As Emma Gray (2017) appropriately points out, “Ultimately, Hefner never set out to create a true sexual revolution. He set out to create a sexual revolution that would benefit him… and to push the envelope of what was considered socially acceptable.” Therefore, he was clearly not a “hero” but a smart entrepreneur who lobbied for a society that would further his cause by masquerading the arguments in the guise of “liberty”, much like the political justification that was furthered by the slave owning South during the Civil War in USA.
The intercourse of business and politics: Why Hefner opposed the existing political elite?
Hefner, undoubtedly took a political stand that was similar to the ideas of universal libertarianism. It is imperative to understand that this political stand of Hefner was not based on principles but on profit. The existing conservative order of the day professed an idea that was similar to the good God-fearing (or loving) white American. Hefner’s practices were considered to be, to put in seemingly broad context, sinful. Therefore Hefner chose to do what any wise entrepreneur does, he opposed the existing order by basing his arguments on principles of liberty and gender justice that targeted the lapses of the existing political order. It is true that Hefner supported the Civil Rights Movement but it is also true that the non-white Playboy bunnies where called “Chocolate Bunnies” in the Playboy club (As cited by Grey, 2017). It is true that Hefner spoke in favor of LGBTQ rights, but his entire historiography would testify that his work catered only to the hetero-sexual-normative male who was rich enough to adopt the Playboy philosophy.
Therefore it is safe to infer that Hefner’s political position, whether it be on the Civil Rights Movement or the issue of access to contraceptives, was motivated by his vested economic interests that lied in countering the existing dominant political discourse. It was more of a facade to expose the glitches in the existing discourse and try and replace it with the discourse that would maximize profits for the corporation at large. All the interviews and articles pertaining to Malcolm X, and other world leaders, were predominantly aimed and in a way “cherry picked” to counter the dominant western discourse and construct of a “gentleman” who indulged in civilized virtues and refrained from uncivilized vices. Hefner was a selective preacher, in that sense. He professed a society of equality but never established a magazine or a club that celebrated homosexuality or female sexuality. Hefner, like some classical feminists who advocated gender equality only for White Women, advocated liberal sexuality for “rich men”, occasionally garbing with a statement here and there that made the philosophy appear altruistic when in reality it was not. It was much like any capitalist discourse for a commodity, anyone can have it in principle but the practice was exquisitely designed to only facilitate those who had the privilege to afford it. Hefner too, spoke of everyone but in practice, only catered to one particular class – the privileged. Hefner advocated the non-inference of the State in the personal domain only to reduce the stigma associated with his business and ensure that the alternative discourse of the State as an instrument of intervention to establish gender justice did not hinder his business practice of objectification and denigration of women to satisfy the needs and urges of his heterosexual male clientele. This is best cited in his use of Brooke Shields, an under-aged girl of only ten years of age, for his magazine displaying full frontal nudity. The idea of liberty, in all its aspects, was professed for business, not for any altruistic or moral social goal. This perhaps makes him a smart advertiser and denigrate patriarch but definitely not an activist.
In the fairly long essay above, two things can be undoubtedly understood. One, Hefner was not an advocate of “free sex” but an advocate of the “free sale of sex”. Two, Hefner said what he said and did what he did in order to advance his own business interests. None of his action, no matter how noble they may appear to be, were even remotely based on the principle of altruism. The author is willing to accept that the control that Hefner garnered over the mass medium had enabled him to popularize certain pre-existing debates into the men’s locker-rooms all across the United States. This may have helped the causes gain popularity but that is clearly insufficient to attribute the title of a “reformer” or an “activist” on Hefner. It was merely a by-product of his primary goal of expanding his business. Hefner very correctly had stated on one occasion that the world was now a very different place and he had a significant contribution in making it that way. This is undoubtedly true. If Hefner had not successfully butchered the constructs of sin and virtue in the average white American, a sinful patriarch advocating the seizing of female genitalia would not have been able to garner the widespread support of this “base”. Hefner shifted the epoch in American society by divorcing the stigma from debauchery for those who can afford it. In the twenty first century, this and only this should be seen as the legacy of Hugh Hefner.