The Hefner legacy: Great or grim?


Johannesburg - To some he was an icon. To others he was scum. To some he was a freedom of speech warrior. To others he was just a misogynist.

To some he was a sexual freedom pioneer. To others he was an exploitative sex freak who preyed on naive and vulnerable young women.

The tributes and disses that flowed in for Hugh Hefner this week told the story of this complex character, one of the controversial figures of the past century.

The Entrepreneur

Even his harshest critics acknowledge that Hefner was the Real McCoy entrepreneur.

But as the son of strict Methodist parents he was never supposed to make his fortune in the way he did.

Having dabbled in journalism at the school newspaper he founded, he would later land a job as a writer for Esquire, then the quintessential men’s magazine. But his entrepreneural spirit told him he could eclipse his employers.

With $8 000 raised from investors – including his mother and brother – he started Playboy in 1953 as a platform for great, free-spirited writing and a weapon against sexual repression.

The first issue – which featured a naked Marilyn Monroe – sold a remarkable 50 000 copies, a figure that would by the 1970s rise to 7 million.

The trademark image was the bunny, which he chose because of its “frisky and playful” nature. The Hefner women dressed in bunny outfits for shoots and for his personal pleasure.

The fortune he raked in enabled him to open a string of private clubs and hotel resorts and even list his company on the stock exchange.

Sexual revolution

Many credit Hefner for the 1960s sexual revolution, which unlocked human inhibitions.

The phenomenal growth of Playboy contributed greatly to the free love movement which, among other things, rebelled against traditional monogamous, heterosexual relationships as the only norm.

A lot of it was self-serving as it enabled him to overcome his sexual inadequacies and fulfil his fantasies.

This was a legacy he was particularly proud of, telling the New York Times in 2009: “We just literally live in a very different world and I played a part in making it that way.”

hugh hefner

The activist

One thing Hefner’s detractors stoically refuse to acknowledge was his forward-looking civic mindedness.

In the segregated America of the 1960s, Hefner’s clubs were integrated.

He was a vocal voice during the civil rights struggles of that era and beyond, even earning accolades from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples.

Civil Rights veteran Jesse Jackson tweeted this week that “Hugh Hefner was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement. We shall never forget him.”

Among the causes Hefner championed was abortion rights, same-sex marriage and transgender rights.

Defending same-sex unions he wrote in an opinion piece that “without it, we will turn back the sexual revolution and return to an earlier, puritanical time”.

“No one should have to subjugate their religious freedom, and no one should have their personal freedoms infringed. This is America and we must protect the rights of all Americans,” Hefner wrote.


Enemy of the conservative

To the religious right, Hefner represented all things ungodly. So his death was received with glee in those quarters this week.

In its round-up of the conservative press this week, Slate magazine quoted right winger David French as having written that Hefner’s legacy was to hook teenage boys to porn and make them grow up “believing that they were entitled to sex on demand and the sex would always be amazing”.

“They learnt that monogamy was confining, that promiscuity was liberating and that women should always be hot. The normal female form was no longer enough. It had to be enhanced, sculpted and waxed.”

Another right-winger Matt Walsh doubted that Hefner was in a “Better Place” and urged those who say so not to “run around declaring that a man who spent his life having orgies and taking pictures of naked women must eternally be reaping eternal rewards”.

hugh hefner

The sexual predator

Hefner is most famous for his objectification of females and preying on young women for his own sexual pleasure.

Although he disingenuously tried to position Playboy as a high-brow good-read magazine, its core was female nudity.

The articles were wonderful and varied, ranging from interviews with Malcolm X and in-depth features about social issues, to celebrity profiles.

But wrapped around all of that was the nude female form.

That is what sold.

What made his habits even more disgusting for most was that he slept with many of these young women, who saw appearing in Playboy as a gateway to a modelling and acting career.

Those he desired most and who met his “standards” ended up as resident Bunny Girls at his Chicago and Los Angeles Playboy mansions.

His stated views on women as sex objects cancelled out all the Brownie points he believed he should have earned by supporting progressive causes.

“The notion that Playboy turns women into sex objects is ridiculous. Women are sex objects. It is the attraction between the sexes that makes the world go round.

"That’s why women wear lipstick and short skirts,” he was once quoted as saying.

Feminists and women’s rights groups hated him. And he hated them back equally.

“These chicks are our natural enemy. It is time to do battle with them,” he once wrote in a memo leaked from the Playboy empire.

He ordered that his writers do “a devastating piece that tears militant feminists apart”.

Marilyn Monroe

Perhaps the most callous side of Hefner was evident through his sick relationship with Marilyn Monroe.

She earned $50 for the picture that launched the multimillion-dollar Hefner empire.

She went to her grave still bitter at the treatment she received from Hefner. As if to rub it in, in 1992 Hefner bought a crypt next to Monroe’s grave for $75 000 and it is there that he will be buried.

Marilyn Monroe

The legacy

To quote an overused cliche, Hefner’s legacy will forever be contested.

That he was a misogynist and a sexual predator is beyond question. He did terrible things to vulnerable young women and was a sexual predator.

But one cannot take away the fact that he revolutionised the way we see sexuality – something that differentiates the backward parts of the planet from the rest.

The last word is best left to his biographer Steven Watts.

“Many of his values, once so controversial, have now become mainstream. What we think of Hugh Hefner is really what we think of us.”

hugh hefner

(Photos: Getty Images, AP)

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