There are two sides to every coin. Hugh Hefner was no exception to the rule. There are many women and men alike that read Playboy, and a feminist relic is the last thing they would call it. For decades, Playboy was seen as the epitome of the objectification of women, proof that sex sells, and how much certain men looked at women as a timeless hot commodity.
The multifaceted coin Hefner, if not the biggest when pertaining to women’s issues, was rarely ever turned over and seen for his other side. On April 9, 1926, Hef was born to a very conservative family in Nebraska, and began his upbringing in a household with puritanical values. It was in part the reason he created the magazine. Playboy is a manifestation of his rejection of these values with the intention of portraying women in a way that does not condemn them for being sexual beings. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Hugh Hefner divulges,
“I saw the craziness of our puritan attitudes toward sex, and there was a significant new generation who felt the same way. At the same time, I had a typical Methodist upbringing, and there was not a lot of love or emotion in our home. It’s the key to my life. The need to feel loved.”
Though it’s very easy for some to mark Hef a sexual deviant, he was a dissentient of an upbringing that imposed moral standards on sexuality that he didn’t quite agree with, and photos of naked women weren’t displayed for the sole purpose of enticing men. Sure, he entertained a hedonist lifestyle, but he endorsed women’s ability to do the same without condemnation. Playboy even published letters from women about their opinion on the magazine both opinions that were negative and positive. While some spoke to the denigration of women in being reduced to mere sexual machines, according to Sexual Borderlands: Constructing an American Sexual Past, some letters seemed to express a cognizance of, “the stigma still attached to openly sexual women, and they marked their letter with forms of identification that underscored their respectability.” Those identifications women attached to their letters included devout religious affiliations, their husbands, their children, and positions and professions such as PTA President and Sunday School teacher.
In the 1980s, Newsweek put Hugh on record admitting, “I am a feminist,” identifying himself as such since the early 60’s and 70’s. He also however, admits that there were many who opposed his feminist ideology.
“We are talking in two different languages. They see sexual urges as expressions of political and social power. There is some truth in that. But behind this view is the notion that…the human tendency to want to make love is filled with such anger and hostility that it is closely related to rape… That’s nonsense.”
The founder of Playboy was indeed a supporter of women rights, and under his watch the magazine established itself in early advocation of women reproductive rights. In 1963, Betty Friedan, a feminist author, wrote The Feminine Mystique, a book Hef believe mirror his very sentiment concerning the nonsensical way society functioned in a certain sphere. He believed in normalizing women’s sexuality, and numerous letters serve as evidence that many of his female fans felt that he helped women gain a lot in the movement of liberation.
You may be thinking that all of these factors doesn’t change the fact that the magazine was doing very little to stop its consumers from viewing these naked women as objects, and you would be right if Hefner only proclaimed his feminism off the pages of Playboy. He did not. Along with articles written about major events in history, Playboy published a host of notable female writers, including Margaret Atwood (author of The Handmaid’s Tale) and Germaine Greer (author of The Female Eunuch). So maybe when they found playboys under their significant other’s bed, they really were reading it for the articles.
Because there are so many types of feminism, it is easy for certain types of feminists to disagree with Hefner’s sexual politics. It’s clear that Playboy did in fact exude feminist ideologies of freedom in women’s sexuality, and feminism was never the side chick. With covers like “Naked is Normal,” supporting the feminist “Free the Nipple” movement, Hef is undoubtedly apart of the discourse.
He also appointed his daughter, Christie Hefner, president of Playboy Enterprises in 1975, then CEO and chairman in 1988. She served in that role until 2009, making her the longest-serving female chairman and CEO of a public company in U.S. history, which is a pretty big deal considering that there are only 6.4% female CEOs on the Fortune 500.
So here is to the late and great Hugh Hefner, the misunderstood visionary whose legacy continues to break molds.