In the less than 24 hours since the announcement of Hugh Hefner’s death, there’s been an outpouring of reactions to the news—but not all of them are glowing tributes.
While the Playboy founder was undoubtedly a media pioneer and cultural icon who reinvented the way mainstream America talks about sex, some critics argue that he viewed women solely as “sex objects” and was an enemy of the feminist movement. Yet Hefner did support some aspects of women’s rights: Under his watch, Playboy established itself as an early advocate of women’s reproductive rights. Here’s a look at both sides of the debate:
The feminist’s friend
In a 1986 Newsweek cover story, Hugh Hefner proclaimed himself a feminist—and some women have agreed. “Playboy stood on common ground with the liberal elements of the women’s movement,” writes Loyola University of Chicago Professor Elizabeth Fraterrigo in Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America. For one thing, Fraterrigo notes, the publication challenged the “family wage ideology that insisted on responsible husbands/fathers caring for financially dependent homemakers.”
According to Fraterrigo, Hefner agreed with much of Betty Friedan’s 1963 feminist text, The Feminine Mystique, and said that the book “had a direct parallel to [his] feeling” that the way society operated “didn’t make sense. In normalizing women’s sexuality, Hefner’s fans argue, he helped the women’s liberation movement.
Playboy threw its support behind legalizing abortion, sex education, and birth control. The publication published pro-choice articles and interviews and filed an amicus curia (friend of the court) brief in Roe v. Wade, the landmark case legalizing abortion across the U.S.
Finally, under Hefner’s watch, Playboy published a host of notable female writers, including Margaret Atwood and Germaine Greer. He also appointed his daughter, Christie Hefner, president of Playboy Enterprises in 1975, then CEO and chairman in 1988. She served in that dual role until 2009, making her the longest-serving female chairman and CEO of a public company in U.S. history. That’s a pretty big deal, considering the fact that there are fewer than 5% female CEOs on the Fortune 500.
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The feminist’s foe
Despite Hefner and Playboy‘s advocacy on behalf of women’s reproductive rights, not all observers see him as an ally. Rather than empowering women, some argue that he “gave them just one more restrictive role to choose from,” as University of Exeter Professor Thekla Morgenrot told the BBC. That role, writes feminist writer Jessica Valenti, was as “collectible sexual trophies.”
One of Hefner’s most famous critics was the feminist icon and journalist Gloria Steinem, who posed as a “bunny” (as waitresses at Playboy clubs were called) for a Show magazine story in 1963. She portrayed the job as demeaning, writing that the outfit bunnies were forced to wear was “so tight the zipper caught my skin” and that “just about” all of the bunnies stuffed their bras to enhance their cleavage. “I think Hefner himself wants to go down in history as a person of sophistication and glamour. But the last person I would want to go down in history as is Hugh Hefner,” she wrote then (though she declined to comment on this story).
Former “Playmates” (women who lived with Hefner at his Los Angeles home, the Playboy mansion) have conflicting reports as to his treatment of them. Some, like Pamela Anderson, are publicly mourning his death (“You taught me everything important about freedom and respect”), while others depict life at the mansion as oppressive.
As for Playboy‘s activism, Fraterrigo notes that critics saw it at the time as “merely serving the best interests of Playboy, promoting more sex for women while reducing male responsibilities for unwanted pregnancy.”
But perhaps the best insight into Hefner’s conflicted relationship with the women’s movement comes from a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair. When told by the interviewer that feminists believe he treats women as objects, he answered with, “They are objects!” and then, in the same breath—seemingly as a defense—rattled off the ways in which Playboy has fought on their behalf.