Hugh Hefner Has a Much Darker Legacy Than Anyone Would Expect

Hugh Hefner — the man, the myth, the legend — passed away this week. He was a luminary of pop culture and recognizable all over the world. He’s been the center of praise, and ire of progressive ideas. To many, he was a symbol of male sexuality — the pop culture equivalent of the male libido. But were all these views held by so many an accurate depiction of the man, or were they a fabrication we made of a deeply troubled man with an archaic mindset toward women? You decide.

Did Hugh really set women free?

Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion in 2003.
Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion in 2003. | Robert Mora/Getty Images

One of the many things people laud Hugh Hefner for is the fact that in many people’s minds he set women free. That freedom came from embracing their nude selves and was not only liberating, it was revolutionary at the time. Women were generally told to cover up as much as possible. But then Hugh came along and wanted to break those chains.

Next: Maybe it’s not so simple.

Maybe it’s not so simple

Hugh Hefner in a red robe and captain's hat
Hugh Hefner poses at Playboy’s 60th Anniversary special event on January 16, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. | Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy

But was it really liberating for women? You have to look at the “ideal” that Hugh was looking for in his Playmates. Each one (for the most part) was around 5-feet 7-inches tall, blonde, with a little curve in the hips, and large breasts. That ideal permeated throughout our culture.

Women thought that was the ideal they should aspire to: lose weight, gain weight, tummy tuck, face lift, hair coloring, breast implant, wear make-up, waxed private areas, etc. He essentially created an almost unattainable beauty standard for women and unrealistic ideals for men, much of which pervades our culture even today.

Next: He really screwed up men too.

A chauvinist in gentleman’s clothing

Hugh and Crystal Hefner in 2014
Hugh and Crystal Hefner in 2014. | Charley Gallay/Getty Images

When men looked upon Hugh, they saw everything that they could ever want. They saw money, power, influence, and of course, beautiful women surrounding him at all times. Men aspired to be him, and actually read his advice column in Playboy on how to be a “gentleman” (yes, men actually did read the articles). Men could learn easy ways to start up conversations, what scotch to drink, or how to look for the “right signals,” like if she dangles her shoe when she sits, that means she’s an “incurable flirt.” All seemed well-intentioned until you look at the big picture.

Next: What Hugh was actually doing to young male brain

Those lessons ruined much of men’s personal lives

Crystal and Hugh Hefner in 2013
Crystal and Hugh Hefner in 2013. | Charley Gallay/Getty Images

When you actually look at the lessons that Hugh was teaching you, he wasn’t actually teaching you anything about how to be a gentleman. He occasionally would touch on opening the door for a lady, but only if you were on a date. Nothing about how that should always happen regardless of whether or not she was going to sleep with you. All those lessons were lessons in how to con a woman into sleeping with you.

You would follow Hef’s lead and create a facade that made you more appealing. You would cultivate a persona completely different from your own. You would essentially lie to get a woman in bed. Those were the only lessons he ever really taught. Those ideas get reinforced into your life, however innocent they may seem.

Next: The subtle ways chauvinism was propagated.

Subliminal advertising kept women oppressed

A woman lays naked in front of a shoe
A woman lays naked in front of a shoe |

Aside from the fact that women were viewed as objects in the magazine (whether men wanted to admit that or not), there were other clever ways of maintaining the status quo of “a woman’s place in society.” Above is an example of the types of advertisements that were in Playboy.

“Keep her where she belongs,” it reads, as if to suggest that she belongs at a shoe store. Furthermore, the layout suggests she belongs naked on the floor, and it’s up to you to keep her there. You may think that this is an oversight of the advertising department, but Hugh was reportedly an extremely detail-oriented micromanager, and oversaw everything in his magazine.

Next: How Hugh actually saw women.

Hugh saw women as little more than sex objects

Publisher of Playboy magazine Hugh Hefner
Publisher of Playboy magazine Hugh Hefner with his bunnies | Helmut Kretz/Getty Images

When Hugh was asked about the Playboy symbol and why he referred to the women who posed in Playboy as “bunnies,” he went on and on about how his ideal women were subservient, attainable, and not too bright.

A girl resembles a bunny. She is never sophisticated, a girl you cannot really have. She is a young, healthy, simple girl – the girl next door. We are not interested in the mysterious, difficult woman, the femme fatale, who wears elegant underwear, with lace, and she is sad, and somehow mentally filthy. The Playboy girl has no lace, no underwear, she is naked, well-washed with soap and water, and she is happy.

All horrific sexism in that view aside, that is a view into the mind so many men have praised. He didn’t want a revolutionary girl, he didn’t want a girl that would talk back, and he really didn’t want any sort of revolution for women, despite the many views he and others held that he was going into usher in a time of sexual revolution and female liberation.

Next: “But playboy doesn’t publish any nude photos anymore.” Ask yourself why. 

Stopping nudes wasn’t revolutionary — it was merely a business decision

US Playboy Magazine publisher Hugh Hefner is pictured
U.S. Playboy Magazine publisher Hugh Hefner is pictured | GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

When the announcement came that Playboy wasn’t going to publish nude photos anymore, the world reacted by thinking that it was a revolutionary move: a sign that the objectification of women was coming to an end. The truth is that they stopped doing it because they were being beat at their own game.

Pornography is so prevalent and available, there wasn’t really a reason to keep paying women to pose nude. Gloria Steinem put it best: “For Playboy to stop publishing nude photos of women … is like the NRA saying that it’s no longer pushing handguns because machine guns and assault rifles are so easily available.” Steinem, after all, has worked for Playboy and wrote one of the most damning articles about working at one of the famed “Playboy Clubs” in the 1960s.

In the end, Playboy went back to nudes mere months later, backtracking on what little social progress the original decision represented.

Next: What was it really like to work for Playboy as a Bunny?

Was it really that great to be a bunny? (Hint: It wasn’t)

Hugh Hefner, CEO of Playboy Enterprises, poses for a photo with his three girlfriends, Holly (L), Bridget (2R) and Kendra (R) during an interview with journalists at his mansion in Los Angeles, CA 23 August 2006.
Hugh Hefner, CEO of Playboy Enterprises, poses for a photo with his three girlfriends, Holly (L), Bridget (2R) and Kendra (R) during an interview with journalists at his mansion in Los Angeles, CA 23 August 2006. | HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

Gloria Steinem’s article series gave a shocking account of what you had to go through just to be a bunny at one of the clubs. The outfits were so tight that your legs would often go numb. The “bunnies-in-training” were forced to undergo pointless pelvic exams. On top of all that, they controlled you financially. The club would keep half of your tips and charge each bunny “maintenance” costs associated with the costume.

It wasn’t just the club either. Bunnies at the Playboy Mansion underwent incredibly humiliating circumstances while there. They were held to a strict code of conduct. Every morning, the girls had to line up at Hef’s door to get their “allowances,” where Hef would condescendingly count out crisp bills while chastising them for “not participating” or something else that he wasn’t happy about.

Carly Howe told the Mirror, “When you’re here you have to be in by the 9 p.m. curfew. You’re not allowed to invite any friends up to see you.” That sentiment was echoed by Holly Madison in her book Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny, when she wrote about how “everyone thinks that the infamous metal gate was meant to keep people out. But I grew to feel it was meant to lock me in.”

Next: How do we move forward?

It’s pretty simple

US Playboy Magazine publisher Hugh Hefner
Playboy Magazine publisher Hugh Hefner | GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Don’t be like this guy.

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