The legend of Hugh Hefner has always fascinated me. My mental projection of the 83-year-old King of the Playboy Mansion, draped in his bunnies and boobies, may well be nothing more than a comic caricature. Who really cares? Hefner is, as we all know, a pop culture icon. But essentially he's a very simple symbol of energy, charisma and pure joie de vivre. Somewhere in the midst of the circus, he's also a symbol of honesty.
“I’ve felt from the very beginning that women were the major beneficiaries of the sexual revolution, because it was the women who were kept in bondage, viewed as little more than cattle, or something owned by the husband or father. I attempted to change all that, but I changed it from a male point of view. When the feminist movement turned against Playboy, I felt it to be very counter-revolutionary.”
Of course, Hugh Hefner would say something like that. But his argument is a good one. And as a young modern feminist, I have never found Playboy’s content offensive, even if it's not my taste. I’m more interested by how the magazine’s reputation was founded on the showcase of literary genius such as Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac, as much as the showcase of naked ladies. Or its famous interviews with Martin Luther King, Nixon, Lennon, Miles Davis and Roman Polanski.
Elsewhere Hef points out that “Being a sex object, if understood properly, is a compliment”. This, I think, is really what I’m trying to get at. The feminist backlash of 60s and 70s was probably inevitable, then. But today’s highly-strung, paranoid haters are too quick to project their jealousy, insecurity and resentment on to the nearest scapegoat. Obviously the debate is more complicated than that, and I wouldn't want to be a traitor to my generation. But it would be nice if everyone could just learn to relax and have some fun.
The starting concept for Playboy was simply that beauty is everywhere. It’s a celebration of sensuality, of the body, of life and art. Hefner himself is a pioneer, an entrepreneur, a shameless hedonist and a life artist. He’s stopped at nothing to reinvent himself, to become the person he wanted to be. It's not my thing, but he seems to have done it with integrity... and I think that’s pretty cool.
The Life and Times of Hugh M. Hefner is published by Taschen, out now.