Hugh Hefner and Feminism: Playboy Brought Progress, But Mostly Destruction

“He knew that this feminism thing was going to be very bad for Playboy and it was,” says writer Susan Braudy

Not long after a Playboy editor hired Susan Braudy to write an objective piece about the women’s liberation movement, Hugh Hefner learned of the story and circulated a memo. It demanded, she recalled, a “really expert, personal demolition job” of the movement.

“These chicks are our natural enemy,” Braudy recounted Hefner writing in his 1969 memo. “We must destroy them before they destroy the Playboy way of life.”

Brady’s piece never ran in Playboy. Instead, Hefner commissioned an article titled, “Up Against The Wall, Male Chauvinist Pig!” that extolled his point of view.

“He knew exactly what he was doing and exactly where the power vectors were going and he knew that this feminism thing was going to be very bad for Playboy and it was,” Braudy told TheWrap.

Since Hefner’s death, many have debated whether he should be remembered as a feminist icon and leader in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, or as a sexist who exploited women to sell his magazines.

“Both things are true,” said Shira Tarrant, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at California State University, Long Beach. “He had feminist elements, in some measure a voice for sexual liberation, and he was also misogynist. We as a culture need to be able to grapple with that nuance.”

Adding to the complications is the length of Hefner’s life, and all the eras he survived: What might have passed for progressive in the 1950s and 1960s certainly wouldn’t in 2017. Most experts who spoke to TheWrap don’t believe Hefner did anything to help the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s. But others said he was progressive in the context of the time period, despite doing misogynistic things and commodifying the objectification of women.

Hefner “destroyed” the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s “in so many ways,” said Dr. Gail Dines, professor emeritus at Wheelock College and Founder of Culture Reframed, which aims to “prevent, resist, and heal the harms of violent mainstream pornography and hypersexualized pop culture.”

Dines, who conducted her PhD research on Hefner, said he “co-opted the message of feminism” to fuel his success.

“He took all the hard work of feminists and turned it into a billion-dollar empire,” she said. Playboy was the “first magazine ever to interface with mainstream American capitalism. He pulled [porn] out from backstreet to Main Street.”

The first issue of Playboy magazine, which Hefner founded with his friend Eldon Sellers, was sold in 1953 with Marilyn Monroe on the cover. (Here’s the backstory of how she became the magazine’s first centerfold without her consent. Hefner paid a photographer $500 for Monroe’s nude photo without ever paying, or even meeting, the actress.)

The 1950s were no golden age for women, and sex as a topic was still very taboo. The near overnight success of the magazine was largely due to Hefner’s business acumen, and his “finger on the pulse of the zeitgest,” Dines said.

playboy first issue marilyn monroe hugh hefner

The magazine’s frank discussion of sex broke down barriers. And Hefner published articles supporting legal abortion years before Roe v. Wade. In the 1980s, he made his daughter, Christie Hefner, chairman and CEO when women in power were far less common than they are today.

“If there’s a little sliver of sexual liberation in that, then I would say that’s a good thing,” Tarrant said. “It brought conversations around sexuality into the public instead of repressing them.”

On Thursday’s “The View,” host Whoopi Goldberg gave Hefner credit for giving women jobs when they might not have worked otherwise. “I just feel like if a woman decides that she’s taking her destiny into her hands, that’s empowering to me,” she said.

But Playboy also pushed negative ideas about what it meant to be a man, said Braudy.

“Playboy, for at least two generations of men, defined masculinity, and masculinity was about screwing women, having bachelor pads that were very sexy so that women could be seduced by the ambiance, and having women as secretaries and dutiful wives rather than equals,” Braudy said.

Hefner presented the magazine as a literary bible. World-class writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Alex Haley wrote for Playboy. “I read Playboy for the articles,” became a national joke, as the articles provided intellectual cover for the nude pictures.

“The men who bought it didn’t want to think about it as porn, but themselves as intellectuals,” Dines said. “Average guys would not have bought it” had the magazine been solely focused on porn.

But the magazine wasn’t open-minded when it came to beauty standards. Tarrant suggests looking at  centerfolds across the years to see how little they changed.

“He celebrated women’s sexual beauty, but only if you were a certain size, shape, hair color and race,” she added. “The idea of sexual beauty is limited. The tropes are really limited.”

Playboy was limited in other ways, as well. Both men and women could write articles, but especially in the beginning, it was mostly men who were published. Mostly women posed nude.

“Pornography commodifies sexuality,” Dines said, adding that Playboy put a price on women as if they were prizes.

Braudy, who was introduced to feminism while researching her Playboy article, noted that it was always going to be hard for the magazine to be objective and “feminist” when the needs of women clashed with what it was pushing for men.

She said that during her attempts to publish an objective article about feminism, Hefner came to shake her hand — but only to insist that she agree with changes to the story that would have contradicted everything she had set out to do.

“I realized if we were going to be successful, then men were going to give up a lot of power and a lot of privilege and it was going to be interesting to see how they handled it,” she said.

Hefner had many opportunities to handle criticism, which continued after his death.

“Hugh Hefner earned his fame and fortune by sexually exploiting and trying to control women. That’s not a legacy that anyone should celebrate,” Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of the women’s advocacy group UltraViolet said in a statement to TheWrap.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement: “Hefner was a not a visionary. He was a misogynist who built an empire on sexualizing women and mainstreaming stereotypes that caused irreparable damage to women’s rights and our entire culture.”

In a 1994 interview with the Advocate, Hefner said of feminism: “What a lot of women have come to call ‘sisterhood’ is merely an unhappy childhood raised to the level of a political agenda.” In a 1970 interview on “The Dick Cavett Show,” he called two feminist critics “girls.”

Well aware of accusations that he exploited women, he fought hard to defend his reputation. He boasted to Rolling Stone in 1986 that “there has never been a casting couch connected to Playboy,” though he acknowledged relationships with Playboy Playmates, and married two women who appeared in the magazine, including his widow, Crystal Harris.

When several of Bill Cosby’s accusers said Cosby had raped them at the Playboy Mansion, Hefner called the allegations “truly saddening” and said he would “never tolerate this kind of behavior.”

He engaged in a long fight with Peter Bogdonavich in the 1980s after the director accused Hefner of raping Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy centerfold who was later killed by her ex while living with Bogdonavich. Hefner strongly denied the allegations, and blamed Bogdonavich for a stroke he suffered in 1985.

Gloria Allred, an attorney who has devoted much of her life to filing sexual harassment suits, was briefly involved in litigation involving Hefner and Bogdonavich. She also represents one of Cosby’s accusers.

“I did see Hugh Hefner approximately one year ago when we took his videotaped deposition in the lawsuit of Judy Huth vs. Bill Cosby,” Allred wrote TheWrap earlier this week. “Ms. Huth alleges in her lawsuit that she was the victim of sexual misconduct by Mr. Cosby when she was at the Playboy mansion when she was only 15 years old.”

She added: “Mr. Hefner answered all of our questions and was very cordial and professional. I have known Mr. Hefner since the late 70’s and I know his daughter, Christie. My heart goes out to her and to his family on his passing.”

Now, Hefner is expected to spend eternity alongside Marilyn Monroe.

In 1992, he paid $75,000 for the gravesite next to Monroe, the woman he put in the first issue of his magazine, in 1953, without her permission.