I’ve spent years looking at what was actually in Playboy, and it wasn’t just objectification of women

Hugh Hefner at a Playmate of the Year party in 2005. Stringer/ Reuters

Over the nearly 70 years since Hugh Hefner, who died recently at the age of 91, laid out the first issue of Playboy on his kitchen table, the magazine and his personal lifestyle embodied the ultimate expression of heterosexual male privilege and sexual freedom.

Because he was surrounded by young, beautiful women well into old age, celebrants saw in Hefner an almost heroic figure who challenged American sexual puritanism, fought for free speech and lived the ultimate straight male fantasy. Others, especially many feminists, lambasted him for objectifying and exploiting women.

As a historian of American gender and sexuality, I’ve explored the ways in which Playboy magazine promoted its own version of masculinity and femininity at the height of its influence, the 1950s to the 1970s.

I was given unprecedented access to the Playboy company archives in Chicago, and had the opportunity to speak with Hefner about his politics and philosophy. I also spoke to the editors and centerfold Playmates from the era.

After years of research, I came to the conclusion that the sexual politics of Hefner and his magazine were much more complicated than most observers – for or against – have acknowledged.

Launch of Playboy

In 1953, Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, was an ordinary man living an ordinary life. He had everything a middle-class man was supposed to want, including a wife and children. But Hefner felt constrained by the conservative post-World War II culture that pressured men like him into traditional domestic life.

His vision was not of a mere magazine, but of a total lifestyle for himself. He fantasized about fun-filled days and sex-filled nights, freed from the obligations of marriage and fatherhood. His genius was in imagining that other men had the same dreams – even if he was the only one who would make that fantasy a reality.

The first issue of Playboy, in December 1953, featured nude Marilyn Monroe photographs, a cosmic stroke of luck for Hefner when he acquired them from the Baumgarth Company, who owned the rights to the prestardom Monroe photos.

The magazine flew off the stands. Subsequently, it grew in popularity so quickly that Hefner had to skip an issue in 1954 in order to expand his production capacity.

The centerfolds, feminism

The wild success of Playboy – which grew from a popular magazine into a media and pop culture empire in the 1960s – can be attributed to Hefner’s particular treatment of sexuality.

Playmate dancers perform during Playboy magazine’s Playmate of the Year celebration in Las Vegas in 2010. Steve Marcus/Reuters

He wanted to make discussions of sex and nude pictorials respectable to bring them out of the proverbial gutter and onto the coffee tables of middle-class Americans. So he paired sexuality with the various other interests he imagined that a hip, urban man might desire – jazz music, highbrow fiction, fashion, decorating and cooking tips, and by the 1960s, progressive politics and cutting-edge interviews.

Of course, it was the sex that most people associate with Playboy, in particular the Playmate centerfolds.

When the women’s movement emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, feminists like Gloria Steinem and others railed against the sexism inherent in the Playboy worldview. They argued that Hefner was a chauvinist who exploited young women for his own sexual and financial gain.

They pointed to the nudes as evidence of the ways in which Playboy prioritized (mostly white) male heterosexual power and privilege. The Playmates, in this way, seem to say that women are only as valuable as as their sexual attractiveness to men.

Not objectification?

Those interpretations are not wrong, however, I would argue that they are incomplete. The magazine offered many, often competing, messages.

Hefner did not just promote hedonistic sex, but supported loving, committed relationships. In the prominent letters-to-the-editor columns, Hefner and his staff held a constant dialogue with their millions of readers about social, sexual, and political issues. They offered advice regarding the personal questions that were submitted.

Over and over, readers were told that mutual respect and dignity were crucial to mature, loving relationships. Both men and women were steered away from infidelity. Men were told that they needed to take responsibility for unplanned pregnancies. Women were told that their sexual needs were as important as their partners’.

When it came to the Playmates, the women featured in the magazine, it wasn’t their nudity that made them so iconic. Hefner created a formulaic look that stood apart from the existing sex magazines of the time, which tended to be degrading, cheap and shaming. In those brown bag publications, nude pictures were of nameless, thoroughly objectified women with vacant eyes – bodies to be consumed.

Hefner portrayed the models as real human beings in recognizable settings, such as getting ready for work, and included biographical sketches and secondary photos that showed them in their daily lives.

The women were college students, aspiring actresses or secretaries. In some cases, he even showed them, in accompanying photos, in their role as daughters – having Sunday dinner with their parents.

Rather than objectifying, Hefner consciously attempted to humanize the women who appeared in Playboy.

By sexualizing the “girl next door,” as she would come to be known, Hefner challenged the postwar cultural insistence that “good” girls confine their sexuality to married monogamy. Hefner told his readers that the Playmates were the types of women they might find at the office, on the subway or in the library.

As Hefner’s biographer Steven Watts wrote,

“within a few years of starting Playboy…Hefner became a serious, influential figure in modern culture…[he] played a key role in changing American values, ideas, and attitudes.”

Through the pages of Playboy, Hefner helped shift cultural conversations about appropriate feminine sexuality – for better and for worse.

The 1960s culture

Hefner with models at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills, California . Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Certainly, there was sexism too. One can find much evidence of it in the pages of Playboy, in the 1950s and early 1960s – including explicitly hostile, anti-women articles.

But, I would argue that Hefner’s iconic Playmates need to be understood within their historical context. They were the product of a very conservative time in which men and especially women were expected to uphold strict standards of sexual propriety. In those early years of Playboy, the centerfolds offered readers an expanded vision of female sexuality.

No doubt, it served the needs of the randy bachelor. But many readers – including women – appreciated the freer, more modern view of heterosexuality that Hefner promoted. In 1972, one member of the activist group Buffalo Feminist Party noted in a letter to the editor, “the many positive steps Playboy…[has] taken toward a re-evaluation of American society and mores.”

Indeed, after the upheavals of the 1960s, including the sexual revolution and feminism, the commercialized sex offered in Playboy would have a different meaning. Once American society embraced many changes informed by modern feminism, including women’s sexual liberation and some reproductive rights, the message of the postwar Playmates – that “good” girls liked sex, too – would lose its power.

In the late 20th century, the centerfolds seemed like a throwback to a more sexist time. But in the early, influential years of Hefner’s empire, his vision of the sexy girl next door helped modernize American sexual culture.