Hugh Hefner: a clear dichotomy
October 25, 2017
The sovereign leader of sexual liberation is dead. Hugh Hefner, at the age of 91, died Sept. 27. On that Thursday morning, most major media platforms wrote articles on him, his legacy and the history of his massive Playboy empire. Some, almost tearfully, said goodbye and thanked him for creating a space in which pubescent boys could explore their sexuality, almost as if they haven’t been doing that for generations before Hefner already. Others scorned him for his over-sexualization of women and the oppressive qualities of his magazine. It’s hard to feel one emotion toward Hugh Hefner, as this man was the pinnacle of contradictions. Like almost every other human being, he wasn’t a one dimensional woman-hater, nor was he a saint; rather, he shocked the world with his blend of outrageous magazine covers and “under the table” activism.
He was known for the sexual revolution of the late ’50s, but one that was exclusive to men and that used women as objects to achieve his goals of a more open and sexual world. Hefner was notorious for being restrictive toward the Playboy bunnies, often forcing them to have 9 p.m. curfews and restrictive dress codes His longtime partner, Holly Madison, revealed his harsh treatment of the women in his famous mansion; he was also known for using his platform to defame popular feminist women. It seemed that beyond sexual freedom, Hefner wanted to create an atmosphere where men could seek escape from, as Hefner called it, “[the] woman-dominated land.” This, in many cases, would be enough for those who fight for social justice and equality to label him as an sexist bigot. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. For the strides he took against the notion of feminism or the inclusion of women’s pleasure, he took leaps in the fight for reproductive rights and the Civil Right’s Movement.
Hefner didn’t invent the feminist movement, that’s for sure. And maybe his actions didn’t exist to further benefit women directly, but in some ways, they did. Let’s begin with the premise of the magazine itself; prior to Playboy’s debut, women were mainly identified as child bearers and wives. Women, generally, were put into categories of “good” or “bad” based on how obedient and prude they were. Hefner opened a door that made women more dynamic characters in their own lives: individuals with their own sexual preferences beyond pleasing their husbands.
While this came at the expense of over-sexualization of women as a whole, it was a development made prior to the feminist movement that made female sexual liberation an ideal to strive toward. But beyond these strides, he worked toward the betterment of women’s medical rights. Hefner was a long time supporter of birth control and the right to have abortions — he considered this a part of the sexual revolution. Specifically, Playboy published information on the progress being made toward legal abortions along with their usual updates on changing laws. Furthermore, they promoted the Clergy Consultation Service, which was a hotline for women seeking safe abortions prior to Roe v. Wade. Even notable activist, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was an ACLU Women’s Rights attorney at the time, wrote to Playboy to thank them for their support. While Hefner didn’t make a statement as an outright feminist or declare his love for the female movement, he did make his own strides toward it at a time when very few mainstream publications — especially those dictated by men — were willing to speak out.
Beyond mainstream feminism, Hefner was a civil rights activist, though many may not know this. Firstly, he opened up a platform for famous advocates of the civil rights movement to have their voices heard. Through the magazine, Hefner published multiple interviews with pinnacles of Civil Rights such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Mohammed Ali was also featured in articles at a time when many black men, especially controversial black men, were ignored. It was revealed later by comedian and civil rights activist, Dick Gregory that Hefner donated $25,000 toward a reward that would push along a case for the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. He also featured numerous black women on the covers of Playboy, often keeping their natural hair, which was looked down upon, even if it was 1971.
Though it may surprise many, Hefner also happened to be a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights. In an interview with The Advocate, he spoke out against the criminalization of sodomy and stigma placed behind HIV and AIDS, specifically saying, “The only thing ‘wrong’ with AIDS is the way our government responded to it. They are culpable on many, many levels.” He argued that in pursuing openness in human sexuality is not excluding same-sex relationships; homophobia, thus was a supreme obstacle in this goal.
Like all people, Hefner was a dichotomy; he definitely had his fair share of oppressive qualities, but he also worked toward the betterment of many marginalized groups. It often feels as though most of the backlash felt toward him is that of white women, who have often in their manifestation of gender equality, excluded people of color. Sure, he was morally ambiguous. But it’s hard to find someone who has a perfectly clean slate, especially during a time when white men could do almost whatever they pleased, with relatively few consequences.
Absolutely loving him or absolutely despising him is just too exhausting. In no way am I excusing his harsh words or scorn for the feminist movement, as that did reverse some progress. But it would be unfair to him and his legacy to not highlight the good work that he did to further social progress. A social justice activist on the streets and a bizarrely territorial man in the sheets, Hugh Hefner is a dynamic character who left a legacy worthy of Googling.