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Hugh Hefner’s media empire may be something to admire, but the underlying cultural achievement is pretty reminiscent of those of broken societies, broken families, and broken individuals. The next time you see an article about whether women can have it all, think about how Hugh Hefner has been celebrated as a thinker and revolutionary for arguing that men should have whatever they want, whenever they want it. As for what women want, well, hopefully it lines up.
The thoughts and revolution Hefner sired called upon the darker impulses of human nature that have run freely throughout much of human history: More for Hugh, less for you. There’s no intellectual redemption for the “Playboy Philosophy” (his phrase) when its proof of concept lines the graveyards of civilizations past. Life at the Playboy Mansion was often depicted as a fantasy, but more realistic accounts suggested the fantasies were “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Citizen Kane,” two entries in the cultural lexicon where men don’t come off well.
While the period was certainly no heyday for women’s rights, at least Renaissance painters exulted the human form with respect, in ways that helped to develop our conception of human rights and a just society. Art history is full of examples where such masterpieces survived censorship and mankind was the better for it. These works often fortified the moral strength of Western Civilization or reflected on its faults. Man is a noble creature, or ought to be.
Hugh Hefner argued the opposite. While he put on airs that made it seem like he had been groomed by the best of Western Civilization, he fortified the petty cultish depravities that Western Civilization’s leading lights sought to dethrone. A society that is ordered according to the precepts of the “Playboy Philosophy” would look remarkably like a society ordered according to that of an adolescent boy — the only difference being that there might be better whiskey, but only if you’re able to find people willing to take the time away from indulging themselves and learning the sciences necessary to farm the ingredients, distill them, and age a final product. In such a society, would whiskey be the only thing worth waiting for?
You don’t need to dig deep to figure out how much Hef loved inspiring generations of man-children. Just consider the title of the magazine: Playboy.
The name conjures prolonged adolescence, arguing–no, insisting–that men are not men, but youths preoccupied with playthings and pretending to be men: By donning a kind of costume, you too can be like a man. In fact, the costume has been instrumental to Playboy’s success, because it adds a veneer of nobility and sophistication where there isn’t much. The smoking jacket, the highball, the pipe, the parties, the mansion were part of the package, but accessories to the real product. That would be the women, objects reduced to their measurements and their hobbies. That’s not liberation. That’s subjugation to the Playboy’s appetites, which have been made paramount.
Hefner’s impact on men was subversive, especially in that we never much concern ourselves with it. He fostered the expectation that the male who “has it all” is generally childless and undomesticated, focused on consumption and self-gratification rather than on the real factors of life like childcare, housekeeping, and duty to family. One could learn plenty about what makes a good martini or a swell suit, but not how to develop the character of a young child.
As the center of the magazine, women weren’t partners but assets to be evaluated like a second-hand Buick. Every leaked set of celebrity photos is a painful affirmation that this expectation thrives, but Jayne Mansfield, an early Playmate and actor who knew French, Italian, Spanish, and German, once said that the public didn’t care about her brains but her measurements. You can’t buy intimacy for the cover price, but you can get close.
This is of a piece with the horror stories shared by female actors humiliated by megalomaniacal male Hollywood producers. Consider Hugh Hefner’s role in enabling that culture. When he launched Playboy, Hefner acquired nude photos of Marilyn Monroe without her permission and published them as the magazine’s first centerfold. People would be surprised to know that Monroe was mortified by the publication. It’s also not common knowledge that Hefner had never met her. These omissions from the legend of Hugh Hefner tell us that Hefner has won the argument that women are just flesh. He even paid $75,000 to be buried next to Monroe, and bragged that the idea of lying next to her into eternity was “too good to pass up.”
“Too good?” While it’s the kind of moral inversion we’d expect from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape, it’s hardly conspicuous. Can we be confident that your average Playboy subscriber would disagree that the opportunity to lie next to Marilyn Monroe for all eternity is “too good to pass up?” Would they ask if she would have wanted that? The idea of eternity and the safe repose of the soul demands some pursuit of moral clarity. The graveyard is a somber, holy place, where we pray for the loss of loved ones, but when Hefner walks among the tombstones, he gropes them.
Perhaps that’s expecting too much of Hefner, but he’s the one who argued the seriousness of the “Playboy Philosophy,” and preposterously claimed that it was about consenting adults. It is a serious philosophy, but in the way that cancer is serious. Hefner believed that “People should be able to do what they want,” unless one of those people is Marilyn Monroe. At which point she should do whatever Hefner wants. Because Hugh Hefner gets to have it all and Monroe’s consent was just a technicality.
At least Hefner had the humility to admit that his philosophy was not a unique or original point of view. Correct. Hefner didn’t achieve anything that Caligula hadn’t already mastered to greater effect. Unbridled self-gratification to the detriment of others isn’t a new idea. It is the oldest idea, and one Hefner defended as the path to a good life, even in conversation with thinkers like William F. Buckley, who interviewed him on Firing Line about the “Playboy Philosophy.”
Buckley: “The Playboy [editorial] line refers to the ‘bugaboo of sin.’ As I understand it the ‘bugaboo of sin’ is your reference to those theological sanctions that attempt to restrain certain people to giving way to lustful anxieties on the grounds that to do so is wrong. What I don’t understand is why you simply brush aside the very concept of wrong and right, why you feel that they are highly irrelevant provided you have two consenting adults.”
Hefner: “What I attack is the notion that right and wrong should be related simply to the notion of sin, simply to the notion of ‘thou shalt not,’ rather than related to the real ultimate interest of the human beings involved. That’s what the philosophy is all about.”
Buckley: “But do you suppose that the people who wrote the Bible—some people would even allege that they were divinely inspired—are against the ultimate interests of people? Are you suggesting that a happy man like St. Francis of Assisi is a result of your pursuit of hedonism?”
Sure, not all men can be happy or godly like St. Francis, and that’s our plight as human beings. But women already know what to think of a man who, upon first contact at a bar, acts like Hugh Hefner: This is a boy who thinks he has it all.
J.P. Freire is a writer in Washington.