As I heard Hugh Hefner passed away this week, I had a horrible memory. I was a fan of Playboy once. Well, ish. Bare with me; it was 2005 and ‘The Girls Next Door', then called 'The Girls of the Playboy Mansion', premiered on Channel 'E!’. It was still the relative beginnings of the reality TV era, and unlike the over saturation of it all today, being invited into glamorous peoples’ lives, trying to guess what was real and what was scripted, was still pretty fun and appealing.
I immediately found Holly, Kendra and Bridget – the three live-in girlfriends of Hugh Hefner – fascinating. At first I couldn’t work out if these girls were even real or not. The painted smiles, the high pitched laughs, the designer clothes, the silly storylines – it was all so performative and bizarre – but also, so endearing. Over the seasons, as their popularity on and off screen grew, so did my love for them - Bridget was my favourite – more ‘normal’ in appearance, and the peace-keeper of the house. I even decided they were probably empowered; women who had, in a world that requires women to be ashamed of their sexual behaviour, chosen to live this non-conformist, poly-amorous life, in full view of the world.
But by about the third season it became clear that there was a much darker side to their life. Kendra, we saw, came from a life of extreme poverty and disadvantage. Her clear lack of opportunity and education made me feel queasy, as she and her mum cuddled up with their ‘saviour’ Heff on screen, thankful to him for choosing her, aged 18. Although sex was never openly referenced on the show, years later she’d say in an interview quoted by People Magazine: “I had to be very drunk or smoke lots of weed to survive those nights – there was no way around it.”. Holly, now married with two children, also confirmed in her tell all book ‘Down The Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a former Playboy Bunny’ that sex with Hugh Hefner, although never discussed, was mandatory. Multiple girls would ‘perform’ for Hefner whilst porn played on the TV screens, and be given drugs to get through the event, as noted in this book extract:
"'Would you like a Quaalude?' Hef asked, leaning toward me with a bunch of large horse pills in his hands, held together by a crumpled tissue... 'Okay, that's good,' [Hef] said, nonchalantly. 'Usually, I don't approve of drugs, but you know, in the '70s they used to call these pills thigh openers.'"
This chilling quote reminds us of Bill Cosby, friend of Hefner, who allegedly used Quaaludes to drug and rape countless women – including model Chloe Gains, who claims that Cosby raped her in the Playboy Mansion in 2008.
In her book, Madison also talks of Hefner’s controlling behaviour. His 9pm curfews; making decisions about her hair and clothes; general emotional abuse and of her severe depression as a result. Clearly life in Hugh Hefner’s mansion was a far cry from the happy home that 'The Girls Next Door' perceived it to be.
But outside of this private life, we could argue that Hefner did great things, he did use Playboy magazine as a platform to highlight racial inequality. In the first issue ever published, he featured an interview with Jazz artist Miles Davis, talking about how race has affected his career, even written by black journalist Alex Haley. Playboy also published articles featuring prominent black activists like Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King and Malcom X, during a time of extreme racial tension in the US. Hefner also ensured black and white membership to his club at a time when segregation was largely still happening in clubs across America.
So whilst his personal life over the years may have been of questionable moral value; many would say that his support of racial equality must be applauded. Does that mean we should then turn a blind eye to his lack of interest in gender equality?
Of course not. We must remember that most of his civil rights support benefited black men (as did pretty much of the entire civil rights movement at the time). Hefner was outright against feminism and equality of the sexes. A leaked memo by his secretary (below) shows his attitude towards Womens’ Rights campaigners of the 60s:
"What I'm interested in is the highly irrational, emotional, kookie (sic) trend that feminism has taken...these chicks are our natural enemy. It is time to do battle with them.”
Right back since 1963, when feminist icon and then journalist, Gloria Steinem, went undercover as a Playboy Bunny, she exposed the extreme sexism and abuse that lies at the core of Playboy. Steinem wrote in her expose ‘ A Bunny’s Tale’, which included interactions with a range of young, often vulnerable women - including a black woman of whom the club called ‘Chocolate Bunny’ - that Bunnys had to undergo intrusive STI screening and were expected to have sex with VIP guests.
Let that sink in. Job requirements of being a waitress in one of Hefner's clubs, included having to have sex with men they did not know.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude. In a world that judges, vilifies and shames women for being sexual beings, I support any woman’s choice to have sex and support any woman who chooses porn or sex work as part of their lifestyle. However, I am against any exploitation and abuse. How can we possibly justify supporting a man, regardless of achievements other areas, if he at the very best, aided in the mass objectification of women, but at the very worst, exploited and abused multitudes women for generations?
As we end the week where Hugh Hefner has died, and the ‘Legend’ tributes follow like sheep, I’m just ashamed I was such a fan of ‘Girls next Door’. Rather than being a sexual revolutionary, or an advocate for true equality, it is clear that Hugh Hefner was simply a man who used that show, his magazine, his clubs and his overall brand to reinforce a regressive, sexist ideology, that whilst made him millions, and launched the careers of countless women, was ultimately harmful to women and men everywhere. Harmful to the self-esteem of women who didn’t fit into his narrow box of what deems a woman desirable or valuable; harmful to women who believe it is perfectly normal to have to give sexual favours in exchange for work or shelter; and lastly harmful to men who believe their masculinity is defined by how many women can be controlled and manipulated into sex.
No, as we say our goodbyes to Hefner this week, a man that did some good things but far more bad - I for one, hope we finally start to say a fond farewell to his outdated, harmful sexist ideology too.