“To the people celebrating Hugh Hefner’s ‘legacy’– Y’all realize this man’s life was centered around objectifying women, right?”
“It’s alarming how [the] media is attempting to paint Hugh Hefner as a pioneer or social justice activist, [b]ecause nothing could be further from reality. Hefner was not a visionary. He was a misogynist.”
There has been a mass of opinion pieces, both favourable and deeply cutting, on the passing of Hugh Hefner. The question of how we should remember him is the source of an immense cultural gravity, pulling in notables from every corner of American society.
Hugh Hefner was, apparently, a civil rights advocate, an oppressor of women, pro-choice, ahead of his time, a misogynist, a progressive, a creep.
We are no closer to reaching a verdict on whether we should celebrate or ostracise Hefner and his Playboy empire.
The contradictory facts are well known by now. Playboy promoted Miles Davis and Martin Luther King, among others, speaking eloquently on the struggles they faced on account of their race.
It printed Germaine Greer’s attack on the magazine itself, telling its male readers, “if you do not like us, cannot listen to our part of the conversation, if we are only meat to you, then leave us alone”.
It printed, “[i]f you’re somebody’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies’ Home Companion.”
It printed women as objects of sexual attraction, and nothing else, and only for men. Hefner impenitently lived by that ideology to the end, too. Can we appreciate Hefner for the fact of sexual liberation – heterosexual and homosexual – but blame him for the hedonistic philosophy he followed it with? Perhaps Jessica Valenti is right: “Hugh Hefner is rightly remembered for rebelling against right wing moralism before most people, but please don’t forget he treated women like garbage to do it.”
If the discussion surrounding Hefner’s death has been inconclusive, it has instead revealed something of how society tries to come to terms with controversy. For some – for many – Hefner can’t be good and bad, only one or the other. In this very specific conception of legacy, a legacy must be neat and morally absolute. One aspect of Hefner’s character deals the decisive blow, and comes to dwarf everything else.
This is a conversation about how we remember the past, are more so one about the future. Attempts to frame how Hefner should be remembered attempt to predict, even determine, the moral trajectory that society is on.
This writer does not think highly of how Hugh Hefner treated women. The fact is that there was only one Hugh Hefner, only one Playboy, yet everyone seems to have seen him and it as entirely differently. The past is malleable. ‘Hefner’s legacy’ might be fashioned as a vehicle for advancing important causes that he did damage to in life. But, sadly, there are limits to this approach.
We have only limited control over how society chooses to remember a person. John Lennon is remembered often for his music, less for accusations of domestic violence. And this suggests that the form someone’s legacy takes can often serve better as a reflection of society than as a tool to change it.
Hugh Hefner is too complicated for a one-line legacy. Hefner’s treatment of women should be critiqued in its own right. It’s no use weighing up the issues – his treatment of women versus his charitable work for civil rights activists – to see what comes out on top. Legacies that look for only one feature with which to immortalise Hefner prevent more nuanced, critical analysis of his life that might reveal exactly what he did, for whom, and why he was the way he was.
Was Hefner really at the root of sexual liberation? We know Hefner objectified women, but why? We are yet to answer questions that would lead us to the roots of his controversial ideas – ideas that need to be tackled today.
Only time will tell us what Hefner’s ‘legacy’ will be, for better or worse. In the meantime, those arguing over who Hugh Hefner was should write him a full and piercing obituary, with all his foibles, failures and merits accounted for.
The first interview Playboy published, by Miles Davis: http://www.erenkrantz.com/Music/MilesDavisInterview.shtml
Katha Pollitt, ‘Feminism, Not Hugh Hefner, Liberated Sex’ < https://www.thenation.com/article/feminism-not-hugh-hefner-liberated-sex/’>