photo & text by nacrowe
i read the biography MR. PLAYBOY (WILEY, 2008) by UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI history professor STEVEN WATTS about HUGH HEFNER, the now-deceased founder and editor-in-chief of PLAYBOY when i was on my first trip out of ALBANIA during my PEACE CORPS years. i remember reading it on overnight trains between BOSNIA, SERBIA and CROATIA, all countries (along with ALBANIA) with a distinct brand of TOXIC MASCULINITY and a culture that finds women having to display themselves and holding themselves to near impossible beauty standards. what i am attempting to say is the book seemed to mirror my surroundings.
in many ways HEFNER gets the wrap for popularizing this casual chauvinism that in recent years has reached a dark nadir with the rise of the TRUMP ADMINISTRATION and his serial penchant for sexual abuse. it is still compelling to consider that so may women voted for him, college-educated working women. TRUMP notwithstanding, HEFNER was a complicated figure and his legacy is still controversial and hotly debated and WATTS very much seeks to present these competing takes thoughtfully of this 20th century cultural icon in his warts-and-all biography.
to understand HEFNER, you really have to go back to the post-WWII period. with the economy in high gear there was an expansion into suburbia that had lasting effects on AMERICAN consumer culture. with home ownership within reach to most white families (i'm not kidding myself with all the BS surrounding REDLINING at the time), there was new pressure to keep up with the joneses and a new mentality of conformity was rampant. its easy to see such as an outgrowth of the war effort a few years prior. match that conformity with the unique AMERICAN prudishness towards issues of sexuality and you get this interesting dynamic where urges and identities are suppressed.
a modern equivalent to this that i've witnessed is JAPAN. in JAPAN, men are breadwinners, period. the economic structure is stratified and hierarchal in the extreme and behavior both public and private is highly scrutinized and codified. when the JAPANESE uncork themselves of these shackles, it is truly interesting as their are bars there that service any number of fetishes that you don't see anywhere else. one example are bars meant to look like subways where patrons are free to grab and take up-skirt photos of models hired for such a purpose. it is truly bizarre but something that could only happen in JAPAN because of their repression.
i think what made PLAYBOY originally interesting was how HEFNER went after this uniquely conservative/puritanical/prudish attitude of AMERICANS towards issues sexuality, reproduction and women's health. part of that is political as women weren't treated equally (and in most cases still aren't) in terms of political and economic rights. sexuality in media has long been something to be mistrusted, just look at the femme fatale figure of early 20th century literature or repressive victorian ideals of conduct and dress. its all and confinement. to me this is uniquely AMERICAN as i have been to several countries abroad where there is such thing as non-sexual nudity. you may not believe me, but do yourself a favor and visit WEST AFRICA or NORTHERN EUROPE. what PLAYBOY did in AMERICA is exploit this culture of prudishness and turn it on its head.
somebody was bound to do it. almost inevitable. the resulting depiction of women from a distinctly MALE GAZE is the legacy of HEFNER. it was hinted at before in film and litearture but post-PLAYBOY it was undeniable and we live in that culture still and it holds us back from an adult conversation about women's reproductive rights as there are whole regions that want to go back and treat women like chattle.
HEFNER most certainly didn't see things this way given that his daughter co-directed his publication empire since the 1980s and he advocated progressive positions on issues of women in the workplace, equal pay, maternity leave, etc. he was even involved with the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT during his day, from which WOMEN'S LIBERATION dovetailed off of. the impact of providing a platform to MARTIN LUTHER KING JR, MALCOLM X, MUHAMMED ALI and many other "subversives" that were focused on by J. EDGARD HOOVER's illegal COINTELPRO surveillance apparatus during this period cannot be overstated. they were regularly misquoted purposefully in national print publications at the time. PLAYBOY gave them an unedited mouthpiece to state their convictions, along with those that criticized the publication itself and its presentation of women. that has to be commended.
i conceded HEFNER wasn't perfect and arguably did harm to the self-image of women throughout the 20th century. he also sublimated the collective masculine ID in some fashion that has basically informed all matters of the MALE GAZE the can be found in print, commercial, information and research media. this assumption of the MALE GAZE informing how men and women interact is something still being negotiated on a number of fronts and luckily is being infiltrated by a better understanding of co-equal definitions of gender identification and sexuality.
luckily these prescriptions seem to be slowly dying away and toxic masculinity is being replaced by a more aware, compassionate brand of masculinity. of course the old guard is still kicking and screaming and in the case of TRUMP, tweeting.
it is sad to me that HEFNER's legacy of promoting civil rights and civl liberties is now posthomonously intertwined with that of TRUMP. oh well, it is.