Two new articles about Hugh Hefner detail his supposedly adorable childhood (comics, ping-pong), his squalid old age (the Playboy Mansion now smells bad), and what inspired him to create his sex empire.
Lucy Davies of the Telegraph interviewed Hef in advance of the publication of his autobiography, and her article focuses heavily on his early life in Chicago. She describes a number of Rockwellesque scenes: "we see him haunting newsstands, devouring comics; lying on his bedroom floor scratching out his own versions of Jekyll & Hyde for his friends" and "he is charming on the subject of his childhood, sprinkling the story with a confection of period detail: soda fountains and hayrides; ping-pong in the basement; girls named Candy and Betty who he tried to impress by jitterbugging in his 'red flannel shirts, yellow corduroy pants and saddle shoes.'" But all was not sweetness and light! Hefner says he grew up in "a very typical, conservative, puritan home… [where he] wasn't getting many hugs and kisses." And indeed, he frames his creation of the Playboy brand as a reaction to a culture that wasn't hugging him enough. Of his early moviegoing experiences, he tells Davies,
In that darkened theatre all things were possible: I escaped into wonderful dreams of adventure and romance. But the Hays Code [strict censorship guidelines governing moral standards in film introduced by Will Hays in 1930] destroyed all that. Eventually even the married couples on screen slept in twin beds. I was very connected to that kind of repression early on.
And when he was thinking of creating Playboy, he says,
I looked back on the roaring Twenties, with its jazz, Great Gatsby and the pre-Code films as a party I had somehow managed to miss. After World War Two, I expected something similar; a return to the period after the first war, but when the skirt lengths went down instead of up I knew we were in big trouble. It turned out to be a very conservative, serious period – socially, sexually and politically.
Hefner's not without a point here — a culture of sexual repression is bad for everyone involved. But it's telling that he chooses to figure this repression in terms of skirt lengths. Brooks Barnes of the New York Times notes Hefner's commitment to the pro-choice cause and the Equal Rights Amendment, and these shouldn't be discounted. But sexual freedom for Hefner is still largely the freedom of men to look at women, and this is a pretty narrow view both of human sexuality and of how to combat repression. I'm firmly in favor of the right of women to wear short skirts, but the fact that dudes can see our legs doesn't necessarily mean we're sexually fulfilled, and the existence of a soft-core men's porn mag doesn't really do much for women.
Davies's inclusion of Hefner's first editor's letter in Playboy drives this point home, as well as reminding us of how poorly, in some ways, Playboy has aged. The letter reads, "If you're a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you" — Hefner himself now falls outside his original target audience. The letter continues through some hilarious use of the second person — "We like our apartment" — to the famous and now self-parodic-sounding statement, "We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex." Davies calls this bohemian act "delightfully hammy," until you get to this: "If 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." Ouch — a "female acquaintance" may be good for a discussion of "Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex," but she better not pick up the publication that aims to teach men how to talk about these things. Instead, she should stick to her ladymags.
It's tempting to say, especially after reading Barnes's Times article (with its unbeatable title, "The Loin in Winter"), that Hefner's reign is over. Barnes writes that Playboy Enterprises "said earlier this year that it would consider acquisition offers, something that was believed to be unthinkable while Mr. Hefner was still alive." He also points out that Hefner's ex-girlfriends have embarrassed him by publicly calling him a "control freak" — and while some will always take a "yeah, bra!" attitude to the 83-year-old's "relationships" with ever-younger women, to many these dalliances are beginning to seem ridiculous. Barnes's funniest criticism is of the Playboy Mansion itself, whose game room apparently "smell[s] musty," and whose grotto is now "like a fetid zoo exhibit."
But while Hefner-bashing offers some schadenfreude-y fun, the man did popularize a cultural attitude with disturbing staying power: the idea that a woman's sexual availability is the same as sexual liberation. Again, Hefner deserves praise for his support of actual feminist causes. But when he describes his magazine as a response to "repression," he conflates male desire with social freedom, a conflation that's now so totally ingrained that Ariel Levy wrote a book about it, and women everywhere live with it every day. I'm not against porn directed at men, as long as the women involved consent. But I am against pretending that making such porn and distributing it to a wide audience — as Barnes writes, Hefner "essentially did for sex what Ray Kroc did for roadside food: clean it up for a rising middle class" — is somehow empowering for everybody, and that pretense is Hefner's biggest "legacy." Hefner tells Barnes, "We just literally live in a very different world and I played a part in making it that way. Young people have no idea about that." Unfortunately, I do.