Did Hugh Hefner Empower or Exploit Women?

On Sept. 27, Hugh Hefner, editor and founder of Playboy Magazine, died at age 91.

Although Hefner has passed, his complicated legacy will continue to be a subject of debate. Since his death, many writers have discussed whether his legacy should be remembered for better or worse, a conversation that has been echoed in broader political discourse.

People have likened Hefner to entrepreneurs like Jay Gatsby, Walt Disney and “Citizen Kane”, all of who also left a lasting impact on their respective industries, however controversial.

Many credit Hefner for his early, impassioned support for the Civil Rights Movement. More broadly, Hefner was devoted to liberal values before American society found it palatable.

His commitment to his values was clearly illustrated with the publication of “The Playboy Philosophy,” 25 installments of libertarian arguments he wrote starting in 1962 supporting abortion rights, decriminalization of marijuana and the repeal of 19th-century sex laws.

His biographer once reflected that Hefner championed and contributed to many philanthropies, “particularly those involving movie preservation or First Amendment rights.”

Playboy also positively impacted American troops overseas. “Playboy became connective tissue between troops deployed and a country wrestling with questions about its core identity,” Alex Horton explained for the Washington Post.

Arguably, Hefner’s most important (and controversial) impact on American pop culture and politics though was his role in the sexual liberation of women throughout the 1960s and ‘70s.

Slate’s Christina Cauterucci was critical of Hefner’s impact on sexual liberation, characterizing it as another mechanism for men to control sexual depictions of women.

“[The women in Playboy are] following the explicit instructions of the men who make and buy the magazine,” she wrote. “Hefner kicked off his new magazine at age 27 with an act of exploitation, spending $500 on the rights to an existing naked photograph of Marilyn Monroe and running it without her consent.”

Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian elaborated on how Hefner catered to the female fantasy of “male attention, self-esteem and success.”

“In the decades that American women were liberating themselves at home and in the workplace — and actually forcing the creation of new legal concepts like sexual harassment and date rape — he managed to convince many women that taking off their clothes for men’s pleasure was not just empowering, but a worthy goal in itself,” Abcarian wrote. “The deception was also extremely profitable; Hefner became a multimillionaire along the way.”

Atlantic writer Sophie Gilbert commented that Hefner’s portrayal of sexual liberation in Playboy Magazine “demystified” sex and, above all, commodified it.

She argued that women began to embrace Hefner’s ideals of sexual liberation by the early 2000s, particularly with the popular and predominantly female viewership of the E! Show “The Girls Next Door,” starring women who were Hefner’s “girlfriends” and lived in the Playboy Mansion.

Gilbert went on to criticize the editor as incredibly controlling of the girls featured on the show. “The show was classic Hefner: highly profitable conformism disguised as sexual freedom,” she wrote.

Holly Madison, one of the girlfriends featured in “The Girls Next Door,” wrote a book documenting the horrors of living with Hefner, describing him as overly controlling and sexually demanding.

However, “Girls Next Door” co-star Kendra Wilkinson said that she as well as thousands of other girls were “appreciative of Hef.” “I couldn’t be more thankful for our friendship and our time together,” she said. “I will miss him so much but he will be in my heart forever.”

Conservative pundit and anti-feminist Ben Shapiro summed up his complicated legacy quite succinctly.

“So the feminist take on Hefner in the 1960s was that Hefner was someone helping to objectify women, which was 100 percent true. And then, the feminist take became ‘he’s empowering women,’” Shapiro said on his podcast.

“He’s giving women the opportunity to do what? Disrobe in front of men if they see fit and this is empowering? Women always had that power,” he argued.

Julia Hartley-Brewer, a columnist for U.K.-based The Sun, agreed with Shapiro’s take on Hefner.

“His true legacy is to show how, with enough greed and cynicism, you can build an enormous fortune from one of the oldest maxims in the world: sex sells,” she wrote, disagreeing with the premise that Hefner was good for female empowerment.

Hartley-Brewer felt that Playboy just commodified women and that Hefner helped perpetuate “a society where women are seen as things to look at, to touch, to have sex with and not as real valuable human beings.”

Needless to say, Hefner is a man with many legacies in the hearts of the American people — and in the writing of America’s pundits.

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