I should have seen it coming, but the utterly pathetic displays of Hefner apologia over the last week have been substantially more nauseating than I expected. I have little to add to Nathan Robinson and Susan Brownmiller, who get it right and say pretty much all of what needs to be said from two different eras and angles.
Hefner exercised totalitarian control over his “girlfriends”: they had a 9pm curfew, and if they violated it Hefner would burst into tears and tell them they should move out. He instituted a strict set of bizarre rules, including forcing each girl to wear matching pajamas. (“If you do something wrong, you’ll get an email. There’s a strict code of conduct.”) He “would constantly create drama and infighting among his girlfriends by randomly changing his long-held positions or household policies to favor one over the rest of them.” He would selectively belittle girls (“You look old, hard, and cheap“), talked down to them and “frequently made them cry.” He pushed Quaaludes on the girls, referring to the drugs as “thigh-openers.” According to Holly Madison, who spent years living with Hefner, he was manipulative, cold, and totalitarian. He refused to use condoms or be tested for STDs, and would require depressing group sex at regularly scheduled times. Each week the girls would have a scheduled time to go to Hefner to receive their “allowance,” and he would threaten to withhold their payment if they had dissatisfied him or broken a rule.
Mr. Hefner was brilliant in starting his First Amendment awards in 1979. The judges in recent years have included women like Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation, and Nadine Strossen, the former head of the A.C.L.U. Winners receive a plaque and $5,000 from the Playboy Foundation. Few people refuse the honor. I know this because I had to fight hard to get Donna Shalala to turn it down. In the old days, abortion rights groups that were offered money from Mr. Hefner’s foundation used to suffer agonies over whether they should accept it from such a tainted source. In the end they usually accepted it.
It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Mr. Hefner came out on top — not least in the ideal of beauty he promoted relentlessly. Despite all the hard-won gains women have made in this country, untold numbers of American women go under the knife to look like playmates. Of course I’m not blaming the bunny image exclusively, but I sure think that silicone inflated D-cups of the servers in the Playboy clubs played a significant role in shaping many young women’s aspirations.
Are we really O.K. with the reality that our girls are being raised in a world that Mr. Hefner made? I’m not.
It’s really quite straightforward; if you’re on board with the project of women as full human beings equal to men, your project may overlap with Hugh Hefner’s in some ways, but that doesn’t mean he’s not your enemy. To go straight to the exercise of weighing “the good” against “the bad” in his legacy before checking to see if he passes some pretty simple tests of humanity and decency misses the point very badly. (And almost always minimizes the bad in spectacular ways.) Beyond that, though, it betrays a profoundly plutocratic moral logic. If, tomorrow, I were to suddenly be transformed into someone unable to see half of humanity as fully human, and driven by a compulsion to engage in displays of ritual domination and humiliation of that half of humanity, and was also suddenly in possession of the kind of wealth, fame, and influence Hefner had at his disposal, it would be trivially easy to give people who wanted to praise me in spite of the former plenty of fodder to do it with. Many very good and praiseworthy causes would benefit substantially; it would be easy to muddy the waters surrounding my wickedness with heartfelt support for all manner of important causes and values, with resources behind them to back it up. It is indeed the case that many members of the plutocratic class can’t be bothered to clear this pathetically low bar (the current occupant of the White House, for instance) but the lesson to take from that is isn’t that it’s somehow impressive to clear it. (A better lesson would be that, for a number of predictable and obvious reasons, bad people are likely to be wildly overrepresented among the excessively wealthy.) Treating clearing that bar as the kind of positive that can wash away or cancel out the kind of wickedness described above is a system of evaluation that succumbs entirely to the logic of plutocracy. Stop it.
Update: A good story about trying to do serious journalism about women’s liberation for Playboy in 1969. If you think women are human beings, he’s your enemy.
Sady Doyle on Hugh Hefner as quintessential plutocrat: shitty, abusive boss.