The much-publicized death of Hugh Hefner on September 27 turned the ninety-one-year-old founder of Playboy magazine from a nearly forgotten pajama-clad oddity into a cultural force—but a force for good or ill? In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Camille Paglia declared that Hefner and the men’s magazine he started in 1953 had “absolutely revolutionized the persona of the American male.” Hefner’s envisioned reader, in Paglia’s words, was “a connoisseur in the continental manner, a man who enjoyed all the fine pleasures of life, including sex. Hefner brilliantly put sex into a continuum of appreciative response to jazz, to art, to ideas, to fine food.” By encouraging the cultivation of “the art of seduction,” Paglia said, Hefner gave space for women—whose “sexual responses are notoriously slower than men’s”—to experience sex as something “pleasurably mutual,” in contrast to today’s hookup culture of quick drunken encounters followed by vast female resentment.
While Paglia, a self-described “pro-sex feminist,” was praising Hefner, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat was issuing a damnatio memoriae. “Hef was the grinning pimp of the sexual revolution,” Douthat wrote, “a father of smut addiction and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis, a pretentious huckster who published Updike stories no one read while doing flesh procurement for celebrities, a revolutionary whose revolution chiefly benefited men like himself.” In Douthat’s eyes, Hugh Hefner was the godfather of Donald Trump, and if Douthat had written his column a few days later, Douthat would undoubtedly have made Hefner the godfather of the priapic Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein as well.
Paglia and Douthat are both right. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy vision was indeed a now-sadly lost world in which “men were men and women were women” and there was a “tremendous electric charge between them.” And the sexual revolution has indeed borne bitter fruit: Besides abortions, divorce, and syphilis, Douthat might have added the sullen female antagonism toward men of which Paglia writes.
But there is also a sense in which both Paglia and Douthat are wrong about Hugh Hefner. Because although he was a gifted entrepreneur with sure sense of style who knew how to command a readership (at its height during the early 1970s Playboy had more than seven million subscribers), he was not so much a cultural force as a creature of his time. For example, he didn’t exactly create the kind of sophisticated masculinity that the jazz-and-Picasso-appreciating Playboy readers might be expected to embody. Hefner shared that honor with Ian Fleming, Sean Connery, and their chief creation, James Bond, him of the vodka martini shaken not stirred, and the famously lovely and seducible Bond Girls. John F. Kennedy might be said to have been the Playboy president, hosting jazz concerts, favoring Saville Row suits, installing a French chef in the White House, and, if the stories are true, spending large amounts of time in the company of glamorous women, not least of which was his own stylish wife.
The two decades that immediately followed World War II were generally a period in which American men—and American women, too—aspired to high culture and discriminating Continental tastes. It might have had to do with postwar prosperity, with U.S. servicemen’s exposure to Europe during the war, with aspirations for higher education that had been pent up by the Depression, or with the new exposure to the rest of the world that technological advances such as television and hi-fi brought to Americans. It was an era in which huge numbers of them watched Shakespeare plays and ballet performances on prime-time TV, listened to Beethoven symphonies on their brand-new stereo sets, and read about art and interior design in a mass-media magazine, Life.
Hefner’s very notions about sexual freedom were also part and parcel of another aspect of 1950s highbrow culture: a fascination with Freud. A regular Playboy feature was the “Playboy Philosophy,” a column written by Hefner himself in which he preached Freudian theories about sexual repression for both sexes as a source of human unhappiness. Rebelling against America’s “cockeyed Puritanical view of sex” was the Playboy Philosophy’s chief aim (Hefner had grown up in the Midwest, and he carried on a lifelong battle against what he perceived as Middle America’s stifling social norms). Even here he was not alone, however. Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (1963) promoted the sexual revolution even more effectively than Playboy; its central argument was that nice girls could indulge in casual sex.
Times changed, of course, but Hugh Hefner didn’t. As the 1960s rolled on, and the sexual revolution succeeded all too well, his dime-store Freudianism and self-defined Continental urbanity became quickly dated. Bob Guccione’s outright raunchy Penthouse and increasingly available pornography made Playboy’s girl-next-door nudes look corny, and Hefner’s Playboy Clubs with their mixed drinks and (for their time) alluringly underclad Bunnies went down-market. It turned out, too, that large numbers of women weren’t very happy about the sexual revolution after all—hence the rise of feminism. The Playboy Philosophy got relabeled as misogyny.
It was perhaps inevitable that Hefner, isolated by his wealth and limited by his own perceptions about sex—that lifelong rebellion of his against Middle America—should turn into the caricature of himself that he died as—a “leering grotesque in a captain’s hat,” as Ross Douthat called him. Hugh Hefner might not have been the cultural force that his critics and admirers thought he was, but he bought into and promoted a vast cultural change that ultimately overwhelmed both him and us.
Image: By Toglenn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons