Hugh Hefner: Liberator or Objectifier?

Opinions  /  by Emilia Onuonga '20  /  October 06, 2017

Katie Davis '18 / The Lawrence

Last Wednesday, Hugh Hefner, the man who created the Playboy magazine and media enterprise, died at 91 years old. His Playboy industry was known for the “bunnies” who; dressed in tight bodices, rabbit ears and tails; served as waitresses at Hefner’s clubs and parties. Upon hearing of his death, many celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Jenny McCarthy, and Norman Lear took to Twitter to wish the “legend” a peaceful rest. In one of those tweet, Larry King praised Hefner as “a GIANT in publishing, journalism, free speech & civil rights.” Hefner often credited himself and the Playboy industries as inciters of the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. However, though Hefner was progressive in advocating for abortion, African-Americans, and the LGBTQ+ community, he was far from progressive regarding women's liberation. In fact, instead of liberating women, Hefner limited women. The institution he created was one that objectified women to please men.

Yes, women are sexual beings. The problem with Hefner’s mindset is that he limited women to being only sexual and ignored that women are also smart, powerful, humorous (the list goes on and on). From Hefner’s first publication in 1953, “Playboy” magazine was a wild success. Its readership grew to one million by the 1960s and then to 7 million by the 1970s. While plenty of men’s magazines were published at the time, many of them were flagrantly vulgar and unrefined. Hefner’s ability to find a balance between vulgarity and appeal made “Playboy” magazine mainstream.

People who praise Hefner often praise his “Playboy's Philosophy,” which he wrote in 1966. This “Playboy Philosophy” essentially advocated for freedom of speech and also expressed support for decriminalization of marijuana laws, abortion rights, and a replacement of 19th century sex laws. Many also praise him for putting a naked black woman on the cover of one of the issues at a time when accepting black woman at all was far from the norm. While Hefner’s progressive mindset in a conservative time is nothing to shy over, we must remember that he aimed to profit off objectifying women. Simple sexualization of a black women does not equate to social progress. Black or white, the magazine worked to establish women as sexual objects. How does pleasing men correspond directly to women's liberation?

One way Hefner continued to objectify women was by putting them in the iconic bunny costumes. After the magazine’s popularity had skyrocketed, Hefner decided to extend the enterprise by opening the Playboy Club, a chain of nightclubs and resorts that featured iconic waitresses known as the “bunnies.”

One of these bunnies, Gloria Steinem, would soon bring to light the controversies of the Playboy enterprise in an article she published in 1963. Gloria Steinem, a 28 year-old woman, worked under cover for “Show Magazine” by becoming a bunny. In the article, Gloria explains how she went under the code name of Marie Catherine Ochs and changed her age from 28 to 24 years old. When first receiving the costume, Bunny Mother Sheralee helped Gloria put on a costume that was “so tight that the zipper caught [her] skin as she fastened the back.” Gloria also describes how the uncomfortable costumes were made to accentuate her breasts and how she later had to deal with repulsive customers. Gloria’s articles are famous for sparking many feminist campaigns against Hefner. This presentation, as well as the treatment of women, reflects how Hefner simply disregarded women and wanted to present them as sexual objects.

Why does our society praise a man who walked around in silk pajamas and paid women for sex? Magazines such as “Playboy” encourage men to think that they can treat all women as they treated those bunnies. This treatment of women should not be allowed; this treatment should not be mainstream.

During an interview with Hefner, a reporter reminded him that “Feminists still oppose [him] for treating women as objects,” a comment to which he replied, “They are objects!” Hefner continued, “‘Playboy’ fought for what became women’s issues, including birth control. We were the amicus curiae, friend of the court, in Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to choose. But the notion that women would not embrace their own sexuality is insane.”

Hefner claimed that he helped liberate women, but I fail to see how paying women to put on less clothes or simply take all of them off empowers them. Rather than empowering women, Hefner empowered men to simply regard women in public as sexual objects. Women are sexual beings, not sexual objects, and Hefner’s enterprise limited rather than liberated women. So yes, let’s keep on praising Hugh Hefner, the man who made the objectification of women iconic.