Hugh Hefner: A Troubled Legacy

Hugh Hefner died yesterday at the age of 91. My Twitter feed immediately filled with reactions from all kinds of people who reacted differently, and very determinedly – Hefner was either a great American entrepreneur or a misogynist. I hate to be a party pooper, but the truth is much more complex than that. In the clip above, the founder of Playboy Magazine (which eventually turned into a business empire) is interviewed by the conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1966 on the PBS show Firing Line. This is not the Hef we’ve come to know, in his pajamas, surrounded by Playboy bunnies, but someone engaging in a very intellectual conversation about changing sexual mores in the 1960s.

Founded in 1953, Playboy became a seminal part of the sexual revolution, opening up society’s view of sex at a time when it was badly needed. Playboy Magazine also became an important venue for publishing works by literary giants. Playboy was, but no longer is, a very influential magazine. Hugh Hefner also seemed to be a lovable person to a lot of people; those who objected to his lifestyle and magazine but didn’t know him found it easier to attack him than those who actually met and worked with him, including Jessie Maltin, the daughter of Leonard Maltin.

It’s not hard to find positive things to say about Hefner – he championed liberal causes, he published and defended a gay-themed story in his magazine as early as the 1950s, he was a great philanthropist. The reason why we still see that Hollywood sign is that he funded its restoration back in the ’70s when it was falling apart. He donated to another restoration in 2010, as seen in the AP clip above. 

To hell with the Hollywood Sign, a lot of feminists would say – Hugh Hefner exploited women throughout his career, that’s what matters. It’s hard to deny, and why would you? That’s also part of Hefner’s life. The clip above from ABC News shows former Hef girlfriend Holly Madison talking about her miserable experiences inside the Playboy mansion, which she detailed in a book. Hefner’s sexual revolution went off the rails early on and became just another sad example of a straight man “living his dream”, which apparently meant throwing money at young, wide-eyed women coming to Hollywood hoping to become stars but ending up as nude models. In that Buckley interview, it’s telling that Hef has no problem disarming the absurd religious arguments of that time, but finding it harder to answer the question of what separates his business approach from that of a brothel. In a column for Variety today, Sonia Saraiya writes about the qualuudes-fueled days of the ’70s that Hefner was part of… and Bill Cosby too.

You can’t really ignore the positive impact that Hefner had:

But it’s also important to separate the positive memories of the man from the negative influence on women that Hefner also had. How many teenage girls have had to grow up and deal with male expectations of them as perfect, thin, blond, horny, girly and eager-to-please? “Ideals” Hugh Hefner helped create.

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