Death of a playboy sparks row over legacy
Libertine or liberator? Yesterday’s news of the death of Hugh Hefner, the man who launched Playboy magazine and filled his home with bunny girls, has launched a fierce philosophical debate.
You would have to see it to believe it.
A vast California mansion, complete with a forest, a waterfall and a zoo. Dozens of impossibly glamorous, bikini-clad women, relaxing around a giant outdoor swimming pool. An elderly man, wearing a silk dressing gown and smoking a pipe.
Hugh Hefner, from whose imagination sprung this decadent and sensual world, died yesterday at the age of 91.
With Marilyn Monroe as its cover star, the first edition of Playboy was published in 1953, against a backdrop of stifling correctness in America. Playboy gave people “another way of living a life”, according to Hefner, talking to The Telegraph in 2009. “Under all the conservatism and the repression there was this yearning for something different.”
Hefner described himself as a “feminist before there was such a thing as feminism”. At a time when doctors would not issue the contraceptive pill to single women, the Playboy founder campaigned for birth control and abortion rights, as well as equal rights for homosexuals.
But many saw Hefner’s attitude as harmful, accusing him of treating women like “sex objects, not as full human beings”. Activist Gloria Steinem said in conversation with Hefner in 1970: “A woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.”
The debate over Hefner’s impact on women continues, with Meghan Murphy, founder of the website Feminist Current, describing him yesterday as a “billionaire who profited from women’s subordination”.
Still, famous figures from all walks of live have expressed admiration for Hefner. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson praised him on Twitter, saying he was a “strong supporter of the civil rights movement”. The Playboy mogul regularly booked black artists to perform at his club, at a time when they were barred from the best venues.
What's more, Hefner passionately supported the First Amendment, which defends freedom of speech. He was such a vocal advocate of free speech that an award was named after him: the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award.
Hugh Hefner: revolutionary or reactionary?
“The world has lost a true visionary,” argue some. Hugh Hefner will be remembered for his enlightened attitude to civil rights and sexual liberation. He was ahead of his time, advocating sex before marriage, contraception and gay rights: things which are overwhelmingly accepted in the 21st century. RIP, Hefner.
“Thank goodness Hefner’s reign has come to an end,” reply others. He is idolised as a great liberator, but he was nothing more than a producer of cheap pornography. His attitude towards women was sickening and exploitative. It is totally wrong to celebrate Hefner as a liberal.
- Did Hugh Hefner make the world a better place?
- Do women still need feminism in 2017?
- You are a columnist for The New York Times. Perhaps you hated Hefner, or maybe you supported his ideas. You have been tasked with writing a short article about his life (no more than 200 words), saying what you really thought of him. Make your writing as vivid and persuasive as possible.
- Choose one of: civil rights, women’s rights, or gay rights. Do some research into your topic’s 20th century history and build a timeline of important moments. Which are the most and least significant events? Why? Explain your choices to the class.
Some People Say...
“Life is too short to be living someone else's dream.”Hugh Hefner
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- More than seven million people read the November 1972 edition of Playboy. Its popularity has declined in recent years, with only around 500,000 readers in 2015. Executives blame the growth of online pornography. Playboy announced its decision to stop printing nude pictures in October 2015, in an effort to rebrand the magazine. However, the decision was reversed in January this year.
- What do we not know?
- It is not yet clear if the magazine will undergo further rebranding now that Hefner has died. Cooper Hefner, Hugh’s son, took over creative control of the magazine last year. But for a brand which The New York Times described as “inseparable from the man”, Hugh Hefner’s death may prompt a major rethink of how to market and sell Playboy.
- Society in 1950s America revolved around family life, stable jobs and religious values. Most men had jobs whilst women tended to stay at home.
- Contraceptive pill
- The first contraceptive pill became available to all women in Britain in 1967 and in the USA in 1972.
- Homosexuality was a criminal offence in Britain until 1967. It took until June 2003 for all sexual activity between same sex couples to be legal all across America, although many states had already put their own laws in place.
- Gloria Steinem
- Prominent feminist Steinem was horrified by what she saw when she went undercover as a “Playboy Bunny” in Hefner’s club for 11 days in 1963.
- Black artists
- Hefner hosted megastars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie in his Playboy Clubs at a time when most of the best venues were off limits to coloured musicians.