Hefner was many things, but a women’s rights advocate was not one of them

Photo credit: Rewon Shimray

The man of Playboy bunny ears and “The Girls Next Door,” Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy empire, died at age 91 last Wednesday.

His legacy was a major part of the change in American ideals and standards. He was revolutionary in pushing some early libertarian stances. He was progressive during the 1950s and 1960s when rigid American laws and customs were being questioned.

But he was not a champion for women’s rights, and he should not be praised as such.

The first issue of Playboy magazine was published in 1953. Hefner used $600 of his own money and other borrowings, including $1,000 from his mother, to publish this first issue. Marilyn Monroe was grinning on the front cover of the first issue and posed nude in the magazine’s pages. The cover said “Playboy: Magazine for Men.”

The magazine was for men, not women. Women did own their sexuality, but under Hefner’s critiquing eye. The Playboy empire began decades of influence on standards of beauty that matched Hefner’s personal taste in women.

Hefner embodied a new social order that fought hand in hand with American ideals of purity and social correctness.

For example, it wasn’t until 1965 during the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court case that married couples had the right to use contraceptives under the right to Privacy Act. Television couples were not allowed to be sleeping in the same bed until the television show “Bewitched” in 1964.

Hefner’s Playboy was at the center of this sexual revolution. He also played a role in the civil rights movement by inviting black guests to his televised parties, costing him several sponsors.

During a time when contraceptives were illegal, the media portrayed couples sleeping in separate beds and while Jim Crow laws gave America a caste system, Hefner published a magazine that praised sex and free speech.

The late Hefner considered himself as a driving force in sexual liberation of women in the 1960’s, who were at the time finding their voices and fighting for rights like health care and equal pay.

But as Hefner moved women from societal constraints, he cast them into their own roles as sexual objects.

In 2009, when Hefner’s documentary “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” came out, Hefner told Daily News how he saw women.

“The notion that Playboy turns women into sex objects is ridiculous,” Hefner said in the interview. “Women are sex objects. If women weren’t sex objects, there wouldn’t be another generation. It’s the attraction between the sexes that makes the world go ‘round. That’s why women wear lipstick and short skirts.”

Women are more than sex objects—in fact, women are not objects at all.

Playboy was an empire going beyond the magazine—there were night clubs, television shows and merchandise. The Playboy Club opened in Chicago in 1960. Feminist icon and journalist Gloria Steinem went undercover in 1963 as a waitress, putting on the satin bunny ears and cotton ball tail. She wrote an article called “A Bunny’s Tale” for Show Magazine, detailing her experience.

Steinem was a bunny for 11 days, immersing herself in the culture of advertised glamour and excitement. She lost 10 pounds and became a half size bigger in shoes from wearing high heels that made her feet swell throughout all her shifts.

“A woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual,” Steinem said in her article.

Hefner’s Playboy bunnies do not look like the rest of the country. True feminism represents all women of different races and sizes. It is equality, not just from Hefner’s pick of busty blondes. The average size of American women is a size 16 compared to Hefner’s size 2.

Hefner’s “The Girls Next Door,” reality TV show followed the lives of him and his three girlfriends, Kendra Wilkerson, Bridget Marquette and Holly Madison, from 2005 to 2010. Hefner’s girlfriends changed throughout the seasons.

Former girlfriends spoke out about their experiences with curfews, dress code and intimacy with Hefner. He exploited the female body and the dreamland of living in a playhouse as a polygamous or concubine system lookalike.

Some would argue that all of Hefner’s Playboy bunnies and girlfriends made this decision on their own. This is a true and valid argument to make—the free will of bunnies. But when women who have been backed into a corner of inequality and oppression for centuries see a ladder out, they are willing to take it.

There isn’t just one type of feminism. We can only judge the effects of Playboy and Hugh Hefner’s vision; the women who are and were Playboy bunnies make their own decisions. A playboy bunny could be a feminist just as a female politician could.

We are living in the aftermath of a Hefner vision of feminism, often misguided and misogynistic. Playboy is a part of our culture, from costumes some wear to a magazine others continue to read. There are true feminists who are worth celebrating, but Hefner’s legacy and influence on how we see women and beauty is undeniable. With Hefner’s passing, women no longer have to live up to his standards, but the standards they set from themselves.

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