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Remembering the best of times: Hugh Hefner’s Playboy

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In news you’ve already learned from at least two electronic devices, and will continue to learn all weekend, Hugh Hefner, founding editor of Playboy magazine, is dead. He was 91, but you already knew that.  You were also aware that he died at his Playboy Mansion, a residence decorated both in the Gothic-revival style and jizz.

We have not yet learned if the chap died doing what he long professed to love best with his young wife Crystal, and/or any other former Playmate(s). We do know that “Hef”, as he came to be known, possibly at his own behest, left an imprint on the popular culture more indelible than even those sticky maps of the Philippines one might find upon the Mansion’s softer furnishings.

If Hefner hadn’t given tits to the many, some other efficient American provider would.

We do know that many, many outlets will bang the fuck on for at least a week about “sex”. How much of it Hefner was responsible for, how much of it he may have enjoyed. We’ll read feminist, libertarian and puritanical accounts of Hefner and the so-called sexual revolution. Was it good for women? Was it bad for women? Why won’t women just stop being bitches, pop on this thong made of bacon, and come sit on me in the profoundly chlorinated hot-tub of my desire, the confinement I so often mistake for freedom?

Look. Do yourself a solid, and avoid this rot. Who even knows what kind of mass publication is good for “society”, or “bad” for women? One could argue, and not without principle, that the magazine Modern Bride has caused more real injury to my sisters and brothers than a stickbook.

(To be fair, it’s not just the bridal magazine doing harm. See also The Economist, Family Circle and Men’s Health. What is with Men’s Health? I have asked my shrink to remove it from his waiting room, as I suspect it supports maintenance of two distinct neuroses among readers. First, it may inflict upon certain men the anguish of physical comparison to other near-fictional men, and I don’t see why even more of the population should suffer that. Second, it sustains among certain men the delusion that they are looking at jacked male bodies for the workout inspiration, not the warm feeling in the pants. It is surely better to acknowledge one’s desire than shroud it in sporty denial.)

Playboy was, for a time, quite something. Black power hair on the cover. Black power coverage inside.

Playboy good. Playboy bad. Playboy bad, but also, possibly, good.  What does it matter? Considered only as a magazine of images, Playboy was not the instigator of social behavior, but the product of these relations. if Hefner hadn’t given tits to the many, some other efficient American provider would.

No, Nancy. I’m not arguing there is an innate male need to consume mass-produced images of female bodies—many that bore, in the later decades of the magazine, eerie resemblance: Milk Arrowroot complexion, blond, unfeasibly globular mams. I would propose the possibility that many of us are naturally drawn to arousing spectacle, perhaps a few of us are drawn to produce it. (Which is fine, right? Many of us are wont to masturbate, and many of us are too lazy to do all the mental work ourselves and/or are sensibly terrified to be alone with our sexual imaginations. It can be safer and more convenient to use someone else’s, at times.)

What I am arguing is that the Western twentieth century produced Playboy, just as much as Hefner—still editor-in-chief, perhaps checking out potential Playmates with his loupe, at the time of his death. Hefner may have claimed his pivotal role in the “sexual revolution”, and it is true that his publication, whose US circulation peaked at more than seven million, was once very widely consumed. It certainly left its impression on male desire—it’s from Hef and not from nature the chesty blonde came to acquire her global value. More than that, though, it was an impression of the time.

I’m not talking about the pictures as accurate social document, here. (Although, some nerds have tried to do that, linking the proportions of annual Playmates to wage growth and decline.) These, for many phases of the publication, just showed us a bit of what Hef fancied. Though there was a time in the early 1970s where models were far more assorted, Playboy returned to variations on its first, and still most famous, Playmate—actually, then “sweetheart of the month”—Marilyn Monroe. The Marilyns became more Marilyny through the 1980s and ‘90s. Bigger eyes, bigger breasts, bigger hair. I attribute this, and I think not unreasonably, to the then fading eyesight of the editor-in-chief.

Personally, I read old Playboys and remember that people once believed that the future would be better and bolder.

What I am talking about is how desire is turned to profit. And, then, how profit reshapes desire. That was always going to happen, and we can’t blame Hefner for that.

We should, in fact, take a minute to admire him for featuring a 1963 interview with Malcolm X, conducted by Alex Haley, who would later assist the great leader in completing crucial memoir-manifesto, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I own a 1971 edition of Playboy which recounts, with no little deference, the feminist event known as Town Bloody Hall. The words of Germaine Greer and lesbian separatist Jill Johnston are given more space than those of debate participant, and Playboy contributor, Norman Mailer. But, I’m sure several other publications have prepared their “We DID read Playboy for the articles” takes for your consumption. Read them. It’s true, people did. (Hefner once thanked his Playmates for their contribution at a Mansion party, quipping that without them, he’d just be the publisher of a minor literary journal.)

Playboy was, for a time, quite something. Black power hair on the cover. Black power coverage inside. It was when the magazine was at its most radical and surprising that sales of the magazine were greatest. But, as any realist who works in commercial print or image now knows very well, popularity is no guarantee of profit.

Cutting the cost of production and minimising the risk of lost revenue can prove more advantageous for many media than keeping sales high. You want to stay in business in this business? Then just keep offering the thing that has worked in the past—Marilyn—and reduce your labour costs by creating an oversupply of it. In this case, put Marilyn in competition with all the other Marilyns.  Exclude non-Marilyns. Forget about Malcolm X. Permit your only point of pornographic difference to be shots of already-famous ladies who fancy getting their gear off for their fortieth birthday.

Playboy is not what it was. It even banished nudes for a time. But this is not the particular fault of Hefner, who was once, on a business scale, a courageous, anti-racist, mild feminist man.

It’s the fault of profit. Whose influence can be felt everywhere, from trends in pubic hair to the waiting room of my psychiatrist. What you gonna do?

Personally, I read old Playboys and remember that people once believed that the future would be better and bolder. I remember that people like Malcolm X were once widely admired for their reason, and that rad-fem lezzers could be given a fair hearing. Profit was simpler then, so the culture was permitted to be more complex.

Anyhow. Rest in Porn, Hugh Hefner. You lived long, you briefly published well and I imagine that your younger self would now be grateful to be spared the spectacle of such a financially intricate, culturally tedious present.

11 responses to “Remembering the best of times: Hugh Hefner’s Playboy

  1. This mirrors my feelings very closely, and Helen is at her [funny] best here. What is MIA in many stories about Hefner and Playboy is the context of the times when the magazine was first published.

    Today is like it is—in part—because of the existence of the magazine. I began reading Playboy around 1970 (18-ish) and discovered many writers who have remained firm favourites (Nabokov, Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Heller, Vonnegut Jr, Capote, Mailer, Bradbury, Hunter S. Thompson, Steinbeck, Arthur C. Clarke, Dahl, Vonnegut, Vidal, and Atwood—not many sheilas), and of course I looked at the pictures—not all were blonde!

    I stopped buying the magazine over 20 years ago, but believe its influence on me has been mostly beneficial, or at least benign. On the other hand, I was introduced to a number of writers by Esquire magazine in the ’70s and ’80s, Jim Harrison chief among them.

  2. Then there’s women’s comments such as “Other decent female friends of mine were as appalled by this magazine’s popularity as I was. All I endured was one brief look.” which I read this week. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices to be appalled, just as men have to put up with the pictures for the sake of the articles,

  3. Thanks, Helen

    As always you bring reason to the table of argument. Thought to slim pickin’s. Intellect to the irrational.

    Yep, I read Playboy. Got my education both social and sexual, partly from it. Gynecological issues aside,
    who knew about clitorises – not me. Until Playboy showed me what to look for.


  4. Of all the things I had to trade sailing across the pacific, Playboy magazine was the most popular especially with the women. They would pore thru the pages giggling with great hilarity, I can only guess because under their clothes existed real unpretentious women.

  5. A mate in LA took me to the mansion for dinner and a movie which Hef introduced while wearing black silk pajamas. Above the door was a nude photo of his current wife. Hef was a supporter of the Film Archive which my friend ran and thus the entre.
    It was probably twenty years ago and I don’t remember which film but it was shown in his home theatre and it was his private cinema.

  6. So nice to come home from the pub after a few beers and be regaled by you Helen. Just wish I could have had some of your superb (as ever) insight to quote when discourse on the life and times of “the Hef'” was the (oft heated) point of discussion earlier this eve. Yet again – if only a small part of it pays for your daily bread – support of the Daily Review pays dividends. Cheers.

    1. That’s very sweet, R. Thanks so much for your contribution. This is a good place to discuss stuff like Playboy in a serious but popular way and I’m so glad to know that you feel such work worth supporting.

  7. I only looked at it for the pictures in my mid teenage years, whenever I was lucky enough to come across one. Who knew it had articles worth reading?

  8. Hey playboy is all some of us had in the 70s – hidden away in some out shed – I did read an article in it once about David Bowie… and it has been said that Hef made it uncool to be a racist in the 50s and 60s – all I know is never ever say that The Economist is a bad mag – you made me cry …

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