Hugh Hefner: liberator of women’s sexuality, or glorified pimp who commercialized the sexualization of women? That’s been the big debate since the death of the Playboy founder.
I’m in the latter camp, but let’s not forget that it’s not just women who suffered from Hefner’s vision. Hefner’s conception of The Good Life also degraded men. It dehumanized them and reduced them as well. Here’s why:
To be a man under Hefner’s conception involved being sexually liberal, obsessed with status and showing that off through objects and things (women being in this ‘objects and things’ category, next to cars and mansions and lavish parties), and having an interest in discussing the big thoughts of the day alongside abstract concepts.
Which all leaves little room for, well, pesky little things such as feelings, and emotions, and relating to other people in an honest and vulnerable way, and being able to have human connections. It does away with men being allowed to have an inner life. Only living for themselves, and not having any duties to others or any consideration for them, negates the ability to be part of a community in the first place. In short, Hefner’s vision of The Good Life left little room for men to be human.
Hefner’s male was more into competing than relating, and this is evident in the way he lived his own life. He appears not to have had many close relationships and lived largely as a recluse (documented by Tom Wolfe as early as the late 1960s). He was well known for making casual appearances at his own parties and then disappearing to work, or to sleep.
Hefner was certainly not having close emotional relationships with the women in his life. His harem of girlfriends and Playmates weren’t there for heartfelt conversations. Former girlfriend Holly Madison once said: “He knew roughly four things about each girl: her name, her age, where (approximately) she was from and how well she behaved and followed the rules.”
And neither did he appear to have close male friends either, and how could you when the MO of the day was to show off your wealth and supposed glory, leaving little room to be vulnerable, to open up and share your hopes and fears and dreams and failures with someone else. It left no room to be emotionally honest and intimate with others. So not only did Hefner’s vision do away with men being able to relate to women, but it did away with men being able to relate to other men, leaving each man to fend for himself.
Now, none of these stifling conceptions of men and women are exactly new, which is what makes the praise for Hefner as some sort of revolutionary especially interesting. For it appears less that Hefner championed new roles for men (and for women), but that he magnified existing mores that required men to be stoic, to keep their feelings hidden, and to instead chase material success as a way of signaling their worth to society and also to themselves.
Here was a man who appeared so traumatized by the betrayal of his first wife, that he spent the rest of his life overcompensating through legions of women as conquests, perhaps to prove that he ‘had it’ and could get a woman. And a man who couldn’t just be but had to make clear he was a baller and to prove to others and himself that he mattered, through the procurement of cars and hosting lavish parties and showing off his wealth while doing so in a smoking jacket (and of course then disappearing, as it was less about enjoying the parties himself rather than making clear to others he could afford to throw them).
Hefner didn’t appear to be enjoying the fruits of the lifestyle he championed. The sex was scheduled like clockwork and lacked any passion. In later years, the Playboy Mansion was in ruins, with carpets peeling and soaked in dog urine. His mission was more about conquest and domination, and therefore showing that he somehow mattered.
This all makes me wonder what would have happened if Hefner had been able to actually open up and mourn his losses, to reveal to a close buddy that he was heartbroken, to mourn and mope and feel bad and maybe even cry for a few months, or years, and then move on.
Maybe this is all getting a little psychoanalysis 101, but it taps into a bigger social problem; many men are raised from childhood without being allowed to truly express themselves fully. Boys don’t cry, they man up and get on with things. They don’t share their fears but they show they matter through competition and dominance over others.
Being socialized to not share your feelings essentially tells someone that their experience does not matter, that they are not worthy, and that no one really cares about them. Which leads to trying to gain self-worth through being a workaholic, through joining the rat race and trying to get ahead through material wealth and consumption and using others to prop up a fragile sense of self. It goes all the way to ending up depressed and isolated and lonely and feeling constantly rejected and like you don’t belong in the world. Denying someone an inner life essentially denies their very humanity.
The conception of men only being into sex, abstract thoughts and success is nothing new, just as treating women as sexual objects isn’t new. But just like Hefner glorified and magnified the degradation of women, his vision of The Good Life also further stifled and ultimately dehumanized men.