Hugh Hefner's complicated legacy

Hugh Hefner with Playboy "Bunnies" at the Playboy Club in Chicago, 1960.

Don Bronstein

The death of Playboy creator Hugh Hefner at age 91 has sparked a lot of reaction, not least from our Faith Salie: 

We said a final goodnight this week to the man in the silk pajamas, Hugh Hefner. He left behind a legacy, and also a question: Do we eulogize or criticize him?


Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.


You can fall down the rabbit hole spelunking the depths of contradictions about Hef.

He was an outspoken advocate of racial equality. The first interview for Playboy magazine in 1962 was of Miles Davis, written by Alex Haley. He featured the first black Playmate in 1965.

He was also a proponent of LGBT rights, arguing that homosexuals should enjoy the same sexual liberation as heterosexuals. 

Playboy welcomed a transgender model in 1981. His magazine -- that some people really did read for the articles -- brought attention and rational thought to the HIV/AIDs crisis.


The May 1964 cover.


But, in the name of female emancipation and fighting repression, Hef took women and made them bunnies. He called feminism "foolishness" and, of women, he exclaimed, "They are objects!"  

Objects that made him a millionaire and a legend.

I once acted in a TV show with some Playmates. The wardrobe department found it necessary to cram my bra with several silicone inserts just so I wouldn't look relatively, disturbingly under-endowed. 

And that's also Hefner's legacy, that women are not enough just as they are. 

At the same time he purported to give all women the message that they should do what they want with their bodies, the bodies he celebrated and literally embraced were only invariably youthful ones that fit an airbrushed, arguably damaging fantasy.

So, was Hugh Hefner a libertine or a dirty old man? Someone who empowered women, or commodified them?

The answer is, yes!  

This is America: Our icons are complicated. 

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