Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner died earlier this week at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles at age 91. When news of Hefner’s death broke, many in the media rushed to release their pre-written obituaries, and predictably social media was buzzing with praise for the world famous playboy. The Washington Post called Hefner a “visionary” and said that he “introduced nudity and sexuality to the cultural mainstream of America and the world.” Others reflected on Hefner’s philanthropy and civil rights activism.
As always seems to be the case in the internet age, Hefner’s death sparked an outpouring of “fake” grief on social media sites. We see this phenomenon every time a “celebrity” passes away. Many thousands of people who never met Hefner try to outdo each other in the depth of their despair over his death. Way back in 2014, The Guardian was asking why we buy into the concept of grieving over the death of people in the public eye.
Hugh Hefner’s legacy is a complicated one. Hefner may have opened his wallet to support black and gay rights’ causes, but he did so on the back of a fortune amassed through the objectification of women. Writing in the Independent, Julie Bindel called Hefner a “pimp and pornographer” and said that claiming that “Hefner was a sexual liberationist or free speech idol is like suggesting that Roman Polanski has contributed to child protection.”
There can be little doubt that Hefner was a misogynist of the most extreme variety. As reported by Daze, as long ago as 1963, undercover reporter Gloria Steinem spent two weeks in the Playboy Mansion and said that women working there were treated like dirt. It seems that nothing much has changed since. In 2015, the Mirror reported that British twins Carla and Melissa Howe said living in the Playboy Mansion was like “being in prison.” They also claimed that all of the men visiting Hefner were “perverts” and that most of the women were fighting to escape Hefner’s clutches.
One cannot deny that some women achieved fame and fortune through their association with Hugh Hefner. Nor should it be forgotten that he allegedly treated women as “dogs” and pimped them out to his society friends. Hefner called the women’s liberation movement “the enemy” and said that “the notion that Playboy turns women into sex objects is ridiculous.”
The Daily Mail reports that Hefner’s former valet, Stefan Tetenbaum, revealed that Hefner hosted sex parties that he dubbed “pig parties,” and even that he filmed celebrities having sex in order to blackmail them into keeping his activities quiet.
Hefner and Playboy may have opened the road for women to embrace and make money from their sexuality, but he did so by objectifying women. The very name of Hefner’s Playboy empire suggests that women are no more than playthings. Of course, Hefner’s philanthropy shows that he had a social conscience, but that philanthropy came at the expense of women across the world.
When someone like Hefner dies, people are quick to celebrate their achievements, and perhaps it is right to do so. However, we should never forget that Hefner built his net worth by exploiting and objectifying women. That part of Hefner’s legacy is not something we should celebrate.
[Featured Image by Jae C. Hong/AP Images]