Hugh Hefner’s death late last month was not nearly as noteworthy as the impact he had on society during the 91 years that preceded it. That he had faded in importance from the icon he had been in no way diminishes the ways in which he blazed trails that others then expanded in the fields of artistic expression and sexual attitudes. Hefner was, in many ways, as important in liberating social and sexual inhibitions as Martin Luther King was in exposing and fighting racial prejudice or as the Beatles were in expanding cultural awareness and creative possibilities. He was, simply stated, a change agent.
The 1950s, when Hefner’s Playboy Magazine gained prominence after its inaugural issue in December, 1953 (with a Marilyn Monroe centerfold), were conservative years. Dwight Eisenhower was the much beloved hero of World War II who became a loving grandfather figure as the nation’s president. Ike was a true conservative, restrained in the use of his office and its prerogatives. He was slow to embrace and enforce the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision (Brown v. Board of Education), which declared unconstitutional the “separate but equal” educational system that had been abused in many parts of the country, and was equally reserved in international relations, sitting idly as Fidel Castro overthrew the corrupt Batista dictatorship in Cuba and refraining from military assistance to the rebellion against Soviet control of Hungary.
But the America that Eisenhower governed was unsettled. A burgeoning, post-war, middle class was producing an emerging generation that sought something beyond the “Ozzie and Harriet/Father Knows Best” identity that only showed twin beds (as if the very thought of couples sleeping together was preposterous) when rare shots of bedrooms were scripted in those heavily sanitized shows. Hefner, with a fledgling career in journalism (he had cut his teeth as a copy editor of Esquire magazine), wanted to explore a different perspective. Playboy was his vehicle, and he made it into a mouthpiece for a social and sexual revolution.
Hefner never apologized for his intended readers, nor for the appeal he sought to create for those readers. Playboy was a men’s magazine that promoted heterosexuality even as, in the Playboy Philosophy essays Hefner wrote in the 1960s, he championed acceptance of homosexuality. And he also never apologized for the image he championed of female sex-mates: the now infamous curvaceous young women (more often than not blondes), who were always as unreal as the cartoon character, Little Annie Fanny, who appeared in a series of episodes in the magazine during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Drawn by Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, Annie, a satirical take on Little Orphan Annie, was sexually alluring and yet wholly naïve as to the degree to which she attracted the attention of men.
Hefner promoted male adoration of this feminine mystique, and he was rightly condemned by feminists for objectifying women. One female journalist called him a “pimp,” arguing that he “bought and sold women to other men,” which was, in terms of what Playboy offered in a journalistic sense, inarguably accurate. It is undoubtedly true that many a young man perfected masturbation techniques while viewing (or envisioning) any number of the Playboy Playmates of the Month for which the magazine became famous.
But Hefner had much more in mind than pimping sexy young women, and over the years, Playboy became a literary magazine that promoted social as well as sexual liberation. The half-joke, half-truth, that many readers shared during the magazine’s height of popularity was that you read it for the articles or the fiction writing or the interviews, not for the nude photos or the soft porn (as some wanted to describe it).
And the articles, fiction writing, and interviews were pretty impressive stuff. Writers like Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow contributed short stories, and major political and cultural figures like Jimmy Carter, Bertrand Russell, Stanley Kubrick, and Malcolm X were featured in extensive interviews. Articles explored cutting-edge issues like civil rights and sexual liberation. And the Playboy Adviser (a monthly feature) answered readers’ questions on everything from how to properly tie a necktie and how to prepare a martini to when to initiate sexual intimacy and how to promote female orgasms.
And then there was Hefner’s own contribution in the form of the Playboy Philosophy, a series of 25 essays in which Hef (as he preferred to be called) promoted a mix of libertarian and libertine attitudes that were at first radical, before, over time, they became acceptable, if not mainstream, views on sexual liberation and cultural liberalism. Among the positions Hefner articulated was a form of hedonism (if it doesn’t hurt anyone and helps you enjoy your life, don’t let your superego get it the way) that, ironically, became something of a rallying cry for segments of the feminist and gay rights movements.
It is also ironic that Hefner and Playboy became anachronistic to the point of becoming almost insignificant by the turn of the century. By then, his promotion of female nudity had grown stale, with the new men’s magazines like FHM and Maxim offering more discrete photos of women and far less pretentious affect. And, of course, the Internet made the offerings of Playboy Playmates almost laughable, as anything the magazine published on a monthly basis was available hundreds of times over 24/7. In fact, from a high point of over seven million copies sold a month in the early 1970s, Playboy is now struggling with little more than a half-million readers a month. Nude photos even disappeared entirely from the magazine for a brief period starting in 2015. They’re back now, but few seem to care.
But Hefner’s legacy is not the magazine itself. Rather, he leaves a world that is far more relaxed in its views of human sexuality, far less concerned with “deviant” life-style choices, and much more comfortable with diversity of thought, expression, and behavior. We are, as a culture, as far removed from the pristine era of the double-standard and as accepting of things like same-sex marriage and alternative life-styles as we were closed-minded about those issues when Playboy was first published.
We are not the children of Eisenhower anymore, and Hugh Hefner played a large role in helping us to grow up.