By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
Well, Hugh Hefner is dead. And that was inevitable I suppose. Jokes about him not “going to a better place” than his gaudy Playboy mansion surrounded by girls a fourth his age are inevitable. But there is more to the story.
People will remember Hefner as one of two bookends; bawdy womanizing robber-baron publicist who exploited women for financial gain and furthered sexist views of women as objects, or gender equality activist and media evolutionary who empowered a generation and gender, legitimized sexual media and celebrated sexuality at the dawn of the sexual revolution.
Those are two deeply contrasted narratives, and they are both accurate.
Two weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a photo of herself in a suggestive pose topless on Facebook. She is a mother, an academic, works in a high level executive position and frequently shares photos of her son on the same timeline. My first thought was, “Maybe this wasn’t a good idea to post such a suggestive photo. It may send the wrong message.”
But then I realized, if a man posted a selfie in boxers, flexing his bicep for the camera with a big bed slightly blurry in the background and a woman dozing peacefully sans pajamas it would somehow be… at least slightly, more acceptable. “What a guy!” we may think, sheepishly hitting the “Like” button and telling ourselves, “Well, that guy, he’s a player…” While tinged with a dash of shame and sexism this guy’s sexualized selfie depicting his conquest would still, to this day, be at least somewhat more passable than a woman doing exactly the same.
And then it occurred to me, “Actually, I am the one who is wrong”. My friend’s sexy selfie on Facebook was just fine. It did not detract from her credibility as an executive, it did not color her moral character as a mother- she has proven her mettle as a mother time and again. It did not detract from her in any way. It only added. Because if a man can celebrate his sexual prowess and abundance, a woman can too. And Hugh Hefner legitimized that notion in popular media.
Hefner also objectified women as ornaments. For many, it lead to their ruin. Marilyn Monroe, Shannon Tweed and Anna Nicole Smith were some of the most dramatic train wrecks that Hefner facilitated. Hefner’s penchant for partying at least conspicuously legitimized substance abuse, another loose thread in the moral fabric of our last half century. As a nation, we facilitated it by elevating his publications to, at their peak, a massive media empire. So, say what you want, but we are collectively no better.
I learned about sex, or at least the physical difference between genders, from a Playboy magazine in a wood shed four blocks from here in my friend Alan Larrazza’s back yard. Even as a pre-teen, Al was a player. Handsome and athletic, the girls swooned over him. I was fat and had acne. The pages of Al’s girlie magazine would be the only boobs I would see until my late teens. There is no doubt those magazines shaped my concept of what is physically attractive. And they did so for millions of men.
I am not exactly certain how today’s adolescent learns about sex and sexuality. Online adult media has become cheaper, more lurid and instantly accessible. You don’t have to ask behind the counter anymore. It’s all out there for free at the speed of an internet connection. As a result, sex has become arguably better, more open, less secretive. Your next-door neighbor’s sexual exploits would likely be remarkable to you, and perhaps yours to them. That definitely is different than five decades ago. Women can ask for sex now, and talk about it. Men who broadcast it are seen more as compensating for some inadequacy now. So, some reciprocal parity has been achieved in the post-Hefner era.
Perhaps in the final summation it is worth acknowledging Hugh Hefner was a character who worked the American system masterfully, to the good and to the detriment. Today his media empire continues, now lead by a woman. That itself is testament to the wild contrasts that are our vastly schizophrenic American Dream.
Author Tom Demerly felt immensely awkward as his girlfriend made him take a photo with Playmate of the Year.