In the days since the passing of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, some media outlets, such as the liberal publications “Vox” and “Newsweek,” have praised him as an equal rights pioneer and staunch advocate of social justice issues. Much of the defense lies with Charles Beaumont’s 1955 story envisioning a world where the majority of people were gay, and defended the publication by saying “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society, then the reverse was wrong, too.”
Hefner wrote an editorial for Playboy in 2012 in support of marriage equality, stating that “No one should have to subjugate their religious freedom, and no one should have their personal freedoms infringed … This is America and we must protect the rights of all Americans.” However, a few pieces speaking in favor of marriage equality and gay rights do not erase the fact that Hugh Hefner and Playboy have repeatedly engaged in misogynistic practices that have set back the progress that feminists have made, and frankly acts as a precursor that has normalized the sexism that was so prevalent in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Hefner essentially popularized the misogynist tendencies present in Trump’s campaign. Feminist journalist Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy bunny and reported that Hefner would pressure women in the Playboy Mansion to have sex with him, and would have the women in the mansion give similar treatment to men that he would invite to the property. Additionally, Steinem reported, most of the women who worked there were not paid the full amount that they were promised, often having pay cut through a demerit system and workplace rules that made them cover much of their personal upkeep. Frankly, this treatment is not surprising, given that Hefner once stated that “the notion that Playboy turns women into sex objects is ridiculous. Women are sex objects … That’s why women wear lipstick and short skirts.” These are not the words of a pioneer of equality, but they’re certainly reminiscent of Trump’s “grab them by the p***y” comments that he refused to genuinely backtrack.
Playboy and Hefner’s treatment of women made public misogyny a larger part of general culture, and as a result led many to accept Trump’s treatment of women in the 2016 election cycle. For example, Trump’s treatment of Miss Universe pageant contestants, which included barging into their changing room and making lewd comments about their bodies, didn’t seem to faze many people. Hefner’s influence in popular culture is largely to blame for the lack of disgust.
Hefner constantly objectified, disrespected and preyed on women throughout his decades-long career, and saw any feminist opposition to his treatment of women as a personal affront and a war to be fought. “These chicks are our natural enemy. It is time to do battle with them … What I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart,” Hefner wrote in a leaked 1970 memo. His aggressive and violent language demonstrates an unwillingness to accept any criticism of his actions as anything but unwarranted acts of aggression show that he truly had no respect for women, and truly did see them as sex objects, and nothing more, a pattern that was repeated in Trump’s campaign and administration.
Hefner and his son would later go on to denounce Trump, but that does not absolve them from their compliance in popularizing misogyny. It does not excuse decades of abuse and misogyny, and it certainly does not undo his erasure of decades of women’s progress by reducing them to sex objects for popular culture to gawk at.