Hugh Hefner’s misogynist American Dream shouldn’t be confused with feminism
The iconic American founder of the Playboy empire was no crusader for women liberation, about time we get the facts rightbrunch Updated: Oct 09, 2017 16:51 IST
Hugh Hefner, iconic American founder of the Playboy empire, has died. He was 91. It was a long and by commercial, even cultural standards, highly successful life. In Cold War America of the ’50s, when a fierce anti-communist frenzy had taken hold of the nation, he pioneered a feel-good brand that targeted the most socially dominant section of the population: the libidinous heterosexual male with purchasing power.
Women of that decade, fossilised by the media, were exulting in magic home appliances and labouring over perfectly laid-out dinners for their perfect American families. It was a society primed for Playboy.
In Arthur Miller’s 1949 tragedy Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is a casualty of The American Dream and all its attendant strains. In 1953, Hefner launched Playboy magazine using nude pictures of a woman Miller would marry in 1956 – Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was quoted in Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words saying that she was neither thanked, nor really compensated for these pictures that made men millions. She’d posed for them when she was a young struggler and never intended their publication in a magazine like Playboy. She was embarrassed and ashamed that she’d done that. In true seedy stalker style, Hefner in 1992 booked the burial plot right beside hers.
Hefner’s mandate was simply captured by the magazine’s tagline: Entertainment for Men. Miller’s America and Hefner’s America have travelled divergent roads for over half a century now. And in 2017, the death of this other salesman of The American Dream has attracted plenty of attention and debate.
Whose revolution is it anyway?
The obits flew in thick and fast. The business tycoon’s successes have been extolled. He’s been credited with bringing in the “sexual revolution” and breaking of prudish taboos. From Joseph Heller to Margaret Atwood, Playboy’s famous literary articles have been mentioned. To counter the bhakts, there is the customary brandishing of celebrated feminist Gloria Steinem’s exposé: her undercover operation as a Playboy Bunny in 1963, and her grisly findings about the living and working conditions in Hefner’s harem.
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald memorably says of his hero: “He had a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” Hefner was a twisted incarnation of that special breed, subverting Gatsby’s romantic idealism. Righteous rants. Disingenuous rebuttals. Inflamed arguments. All debate about Hefner generally ends in ribald humour and a return to the inevitable position: What an empire he’s built! What a brand he’s left behind!
What I find outrageous are the eulogies that have sprung up calling him the pioneer of the sexual revolution. Friend of feminism.
Hefner masterminded a revolution for the most privileged species in America and elsewhere: the heterosexual male with spending power. About as useful as popping a Viagra right after an erection: it’s not needed.
To cut to the chase, and rescue a useful thought from the social and print media flood, I arrived at this: They say he’s a feminist because in his empire women seem to be freed of the shackles of convention. They can express themselves as sexual beings. While the perfect American housewife is busy making pancakes and babies, here are women to whom domestic routine means nothing, living it up in a palace of desire. The perfect fantasy.
It takes hardly a nanosecond to bust that myth. Whose perfect fantasy? Whose desire? Sexual expression for whose pleasure? It’s maudlin to go on. A woman spilling out of a bunny suit for men’s pleasure is a perfect symbol for a feminist dystopia, not utopia.
Looking at the male gaze
We lost another grand old institution this year. English literary critic John Berger, whose seminal work Ways of Seeing stands as the single most insightful exploration of “the male gaze”, as coined by film critic Laura Mulvey. Of how women are culturally trained – right from nude depictions in classical art – to see themselves as being seen by men. And in turn how they train their internal lens on their own appearance, often punishingly. The rest is fashion and advertising.
Thanks to feminist theorists, activists and artists, strong and transformative counter narratives have emerged, raising the level of gender discourse. It’s safe to say Playboy bunnies don’t dress like that for the freedom and joy it brings but the bread it earns. The argument can branch out into the other significant areas of discussion around the use of women’s bodies – pornography, and commercial sex work.
So this, then, is Hefner’s legacy. Liberating repressed straight men and inviting them to indulge their lurid erotic fantasies. For cheap. In public. Without guilt. Because, of course, you buy the magazine for the articles. Even Hefner knew there’s something sleazy about sleaze.
Hefner masterminded a revolution for the most privileged species in America and elsewhere: the heterosexual male with spending power. About as useful as popping a Viagra right after an erection: it’s not needed. That this isn’t feminism is obvious. To this add disturbing stories of excess and abuse from Hefner’s own life. What you’re left with is plain and simple misogyny.
From HT Brunch, October 8, 2017
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First Published: Oct 07, 2017 21:47 IST