Playboy Enterprises’s decades-long effort to right the wrongs of its very grim history is currently being laid bare with every agonizing episode A&E docuseries Secrets of Playboy. Viewers have listened in abject horror for nearly two months as many former Playboy Enterprises employees, Playboy playmates, and more recount allegations against the brand that range from the expected (manipulating women into signing binding contracts under duress) to the exceptionally bizarre (bestiality).
Yet, for those like me who’ve long been hip to the Playboy Enterprises hop, the series needn’t have been made. Anyone who’s given even a modicum of attention to the brand can see the sexism, misogyny, fatphobia, and more at play. But, upon watching this exhaustive, 10-part deep dive, the larger question I’m left with is: Who still needs Playboy to exist at all?
The highly-publicized series directed by Alexandra Dean has blown the dust (and varying drug residue) from every nook and cranny of the brand, including its infamous (and recently renovated) mansion, now-defunct print magazine and collection of closed clubs. Dean said she spoke to more than 100 people for the show, including former playmates like Holly Madison and several other mansion mainstays. While each subject offered a unique background, they were unified by an all-too-common story of how Hefner’s Playboy Enterprises irrevocably impacted their lives.
Those interviewed recalled the varying forms of abuse—from sexual to emotional—commonly perpetrated at Playboy-branded events and parties not just by Hefner, but also at the hands of his famous friends and colleagues. Most notably, these friends include Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby and other men we now know are serial abusers. Multiple women also claimed they were drugged at either Playboy parties, at the mansion, and on nights out with Hefner with one former girlfriend even claiming to have been used as a drug mule. The suicide rate of Playboy bunnies was also painstakingly parsed out, with journalist and cultural critic Jamilah Lemieux asserting that, according to her research, suicide amongst bunnies is higher than that of any American woman. One gut-wrenching story of a former bunny notes that she wrote, ‘Hugh Hefner is the devil’ on a wall just before killing herself.
What Playboy Enterprises actually was is arguably a far cry from what Hefner worked tirelessly to portray himself as for decades. Even nearing death, the aging lecher had a knack for distancing himself from many of the sordid allegations waged against him and perpetuated a more flattering narrative. He was lauded as a trailblazer when he died in 2017, getting credit for sparking a sexual revolution with the advent of Playboy Enterprises. Ironically, in that same year, #MeToo headlines still cropped up daily and yet, even then, there was strong debate about what his legacy should be.
While it’s fortunate that these allegations are receiving overdue attention and shining a light on other perpetrators Hefner enabled, it cannot be understated how many measures have been taken in recent years to separate Hefner from the brand as we now know it. In the year just after Hefner’s death, his family sold all their remaining shares of Playboy Enterprises and, amidst the covid-19 pandemic, the magazine was shuttered. The brand’s team opted only to continue its digital content and lean more fully into its e-commerce shop. That content has sought not only to reflect the perceived wants of new generations, but to redefine its previously lauded sexual innovation. Part of that redefinition was seen clearly on the October 2021 cover featuring Bretman Rock, the first openly gay man to grace the digital cover of Playboy. The internet had mixed reactions to Rock. Some, namely longtime fans of Hefner’s brand of not-so-progressive sexuality, took umbrage with Playboy taking a whack at wokeness by celebrating a 23-year-old Filipino beauty influencer. Others applauded the attempt to pivot from classically cis-het male boner fodder in favor of a more Gen Z brand of progressive sexuality. Considering Playboy’s past cover stars, which included a haze of conventionally attractive and mostly female models, moguls and movie stars, the decision to put Rock on the cover did seem like something to celebrate.
As Rock put it himself in an interview with the digital magazine at the time: “For Playboy to have a male on the cover is a huge deal for the LGBT community, for my brown people community and it’s all so surreal. A total ‘is this even [fucking] happening right now?’ type of vibe. And I’m so pretty.”
Apart from Rock, other modern cover stars have included Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott.
It’s not unfair to say that Playboy Enterprises’s stamina can be attributed to its steely ethos, which hasn’t wavered since Hefner was at the helm. Playboy has always vehemently purported that it serves as a necessary beacon for the future of unfettered expression and sexual liberation (Though, by whose definition exactly its current executive team of predominantly white people above the age of 30 still doesn’t know). They continue to capitalize on Playboy’s iconic imagery, proving the brand’s current leadership still has vested interest in claiming the best, most beloved bits of brand recognition. Such insistence offers the brand the opportunity to shirk responsibility of any harm its history has caused and the horrors it will always summon to mind for those of generations past.
And yet, even despite the recent attention Secrets of Playboy has put back on the brand, the aforementioned leadership team doesn’t appear to be all that worried about what’s next: “Our Playboy brand is bigger today than ever, and is especially relevant with the Gen Z audience and creative community because we have remained committed to our core values of free expression and sexual freedom—values that transcend generations—and are focused on inclusivity, expanding who the Playboy lifestyle is for and how people can interact with it in 2022 and beyond,” Rachel Webber, Playboy’s Chief Brand and Strategy officer, told Jezebel via emailed statement.
Via a Medium post, the brand has also recently noted its “listening” to the women featured in Secrets of Playboy.
An unfortunate reality is that an answer for many questions surrounding the current iteration of Playboy Enterprises’s staying power is the sheer volume of continued supporters of both Hefner and the brand they think they know. Just last month, hundreds of former employees, models, associates and even exes signed a letter of support for Hefner in defiance of the claims made in the series.
“[Hefner] demonstrated a commitment to living an honest life beyond everything else. Our time within Hugh Hefner’s Playboy and the organization’s subsidiaries remains a period all of us are fond of,” the letter read.
With dozens of people sharing and corroborating one another’s trauma incurred by Playboy Enterprises’s past it seems preposterous—even dangerous—that it can be allowed a future, regardless of how many people assert reason to revere it. Especially when more recent attempts at repositioning itself seem little more than repurposed performance art. Perhaps it’ll take time for this generation’s Playboy to truly tell its own tale, but I don’t think you can put new ears on the same old bunny.