Hugh Hefner is dead. Of that we can be sure. What he was is another matter: to some a liberaliser, to others a publisher. But he was undoubtedly a pornographer.
The marking of the Playboy millionaire’s passing is strange. The publisher of Penthouse, Bob Guccione, died in 2010 to considerably less fanfare. Britain’s own top pornographer, Paul Raymond, had died two years previously. This was merely noted, little more.
The articles on Hefner’s death split into two categories. There are the condemnatory: here was a man who commodified the naked female form for substantial monetary gain and caused generations of women to believe themselves inadequate if they literally did not shape up to those who graced the pages of Playboy. They accuse Hefner of promoting a male lifestyle consisting of base aspirations of consumption and hedonism that turned women into pleasure-objects.
The second type of article has recorded Hefner’s life in all its detail. The famous/notorious Playboy mansion, the centrefold models, the bunny girls, how Playboy set the cultural revolution of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and beyond. It is ironic that the television news reports are unable to display in graphic detail which part of Hefner’s product was responsible for its success.
Hefner was a shameless self-publicist, and this explains the coverage of his passing. This is the sharp contrast to his contemporaries, predecessors and successors in the soft pornography industry. He managed to make his product more respectable. He did, however, have considerable help.
It is a well-known saying that men read Playboy ‘only for the articles’. This was justifiable. Hefner attracted quality writers to Playboy. Most writers have a precarious existence at the best of times. The attraction of publishing an article that would have a virtually guaranteed widespread readership clearly appealed more than the fact that the text would be cheek-to-cheek, as it were, with images of a woman presenting and signalling her availability to all spectators. Famous and aspiring writers made a choice to write for a supposedly high-class pornographic magazine.
Hefner was also able to get his magazine printed, distributed and openly sold, which required the co-operation of numerous other firms. This somewhat dilutes his supposed achievement. He was not necessarily breaking new ground or challenging taboos – if he had been, it would have required only a single link in the supply chain to stop him. But he was not stopped.
The success of Playboy’s first issue rested on images of a nude Marilyn Monroe taken when she was a starving beginner in the film business. The magazine was launched in 1953, which was the first year of President Eisenhower’s two terms of office, and a whole decade before the Swinging Sixties gained momentum. An uninformed observer might reasonably have assumed Playboy’s debut came in the Kennedy/Johnson era, not during a time regarded as firmly socially conservative.
Would Playboy have been a success had it been launched in 1933 featuring nude images of Jean Harlow? The answer has to be no; it would have been banned and denounced. Was Hefner the first publisher of a pornographic magazine in the USA? No again. Hefner succeeded because market sentiment was in his favour. A regulated free market in lawful goods and services existed. Hefner appears not to have broken regulations in 1950s America with his product.
Hefner’s only real achievement, if it can be called that, was to make the consumption of his brand of pornography no longer shameful, and the consumer no longer regarded as low-class, depraved or a social deviant. The permanent male desire to view attractive women in states of undress became knowledge capable of open public discussion, as was the strength of the male sex drive compared with the woman’s. The ideal reader of Playboy was portrayed as an affluent, confident, successful American male. The slogan was ‘Entertainment for Men’. Mainstream advertisers promoted their wares in its pages. On the back of this, the pornography industry was able to grow as an open lawful business, leveraging the First Amendment to stop clampdowns. A biological force for the survival of the species was commercialised, this time with corporations publicly dedicated to its production. Restraint and decency were ridiculed.
So what changed market and public sentiment? In the two decades between the heydays of Harlow and Monroe, humanity had witnessed depravity that was beyond the imagination of even the most competent writers of horror fiction or futurology. Humanity had a darker understanding of what it meant to be human. A world seemingly ordered with Newtonian precision and set for enlightened progress had been replaced by Darwinian determinism and Einsteinian relativistic uncertainty facing extinction at its own hand. There was a feeling that these were the ‘end times’, and a certain hedonistic nihilism crept into popular culture and was regarded as normal. Hefner tapped into this cultural change. He was a product of his age, not the other way round. There had to be writers willing to write for him, women willing to pose in front of the camera or to dress up in bunny-suits, customers willing to visit his resorts, nightclubs and casinos, printers willing to print, distributors willing to ship, newsstands willing to sell, officials willing to permit, lawyers willing to act for him, judges willing to rule in his favour.
Human values were not necessarily distorted by Hefner. The human race had a collective nervous breakdown in the early 20th century, causing traditional values to be questioned. Indeed, if the 19th century was the era of developments in physical sciences, the 20th was marked by developments in social sciences, as previous assumptions were analysed and questioned. Eugenics, using sterilisation to ‘purify’ the species, had widespread intellectual support before World War I. Human psychology and sexual behaviours were the subject of serious academic study. Pornography was normalised as part of this.
The driver for the so-called sexual revolution was not Hefner’s or his contemporaries’ publications either. Before the 1960s, the two consequences of sexual intercourse were pregnancy or disease. The development of antibiotics and contraceptive pills put these under human control. Nature’s reward for attempted procreation could be enjoyed without the prospect of issue. Nature’s punishment for promiscuity was seen at the time to be diminished and eliminated. Sex could be truly recreational in a ‘brave new world’ brought about by scientific advance. With hindsight, we know differently.
The legality of Playboy allowed people a choice: to consume or not to consume. Since this was a commercial publication, consumers were well aware what they were paying for. The origin of the word pornography is Greek and means ‘writing about prostitutes’. Hefner’s product was a printed version of the whorehouse where all the girls were advertised as ‘clean’. What was never made clear to the buyers of Playboy, not even by the feminists, were the values subverted by Playboy’s business model. The guilt and shame were missing, as were honour and respect. Instead, reading Playboy was marketed as the consumption of a premium quality product by a ‘discerning’ male unafraid of his desires.
Hefner was not a revolutionary. He was not a pioneer. Rather, he was a show-off who made his fortune by reading official and public sentiment correctly and exploiting a gap in a market that has exploited the male libido for millennia. He was the star of his own reality show for over half a century, portraying himself as the man who ‘had it all’, to be envied and admired. Well, up to a point. Hefner did not make the world a better place; pornographers never do. His passing should not have been news, except as a footnote. The success of his product was not a consequence of a free market, but of questionable regulation in an era of rapid change. It was also the result of a society that had suffered a near-mortal shock and challenged established values in a way that goes on today. He has been over-celebrated. Perhaps he should also be over-forgotten.