With the death of Hugh Hefner, the architect of the Playboy empire, comes tributes and stories of his life. One wonders about his origin story, the price of his mansion and why he loved to wear pajamas. Hefner’s death gives us reason to revisit the debate about whether Playboy made room for sexual expression and free speech — or whether it ushered in a pitiful era of objectification of women with still-lingering effects.
What can we say about Hefner’s impact on sexual culture? Did his empire broaden the sexual landscape in the U.S. and abroad? As researchers who look at popular culture, gender and women’s sense of value and sexual selfhood, we assert that Hefner’s effects have been detrimental.
Most centrally, Hefner defined sexuality solely as men’s desire, in which women aim to achieve physical attractiveness as a life project. In this definition, women can consider themselves sexually successful if, and only if, they are desirable to men (or “f*ckable”, as noted by female comedians like Amy Schumer, Tina Fey and Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
Playboy culture advocated objectification rather than reciprocity, without democratizing heterosexuality and asking men to cultivate, earn and fail at desirability, as women do.
More damaging still, Hefner’s work popularized and entrenched a broadly unachievable — and powerfully racist — vision of women’s beauty. While Hefner included Black male writers in the magazines, the prescribed objects of lust hewed centrally to a single archetype: Blonde WASPs with tiny waists and large breasts.
Hefner was, after all, also a WASP and he offered his own ethnic category as producing the chiefly beautiful and sexually alluring women. Decades of plastic images of bright blonde, fully made up, extremely thin (but buxom) women have deeply harmed the collective sexual imagination, obscuring other possibilities and marginalizing the idea of multiple forms of beauty.
As feminist scholars and sociologists, we realize the landscape of beauty is not completely flat, and important challengers have emerged. For example, in the early 2000s, Unilever produced a Dove Real Beauty Campaign that challenged Hefneresque ideals, even as it reaffirmed the importance of female beauty. Dove billboards, television commercials and viral videos included women with non-conventional bodies, freckles, curly hair, a multitude of skin tones and a multitude of ages.
The campaign shocked and even offended some who wanted billboards to reflect Hefner’s formula. In conversations with young women about the campaign, we heard complaints that the campaign didn’t go far enough — didn’t really show larger size women, cellulite or the full range of racial diversity.
Other women felt wary about advertisers’ power to build our aesthetic cultures and its use of feminist empowerment principles to sell products like firming cream. Young women also asked more fundamental questions: Why do women have to see themselves as beautiful, seek conventional affirmations or show so much casual nudity?
The Dove campaign may feel like old news, but the questions it engendered remain startlingly relevant. A new cosmetic company with an equally flashy media campaign, Glossier, again is featuring nude female images and working against Hefner’s racist aesthetics by using racially diverse models.
The Glossier images go beyond the near-naked bodies shown in the Dove Real Beauty Campaign, showing fully naked pregnant and non-pregnant round bellies as well as real and unexpected curves. The campaign aims to “lay the foundation for a beauty movement that celebrates real girls in real life,” but this marketing pitch still asks us to objectify women, just a wider range of them.
Another Hefner effect is the almost obligatory nakedness of women in popular culture. Full or near nudity is expected not just for models but is readily offered up by famous actors, star athletes, musicians and Instagram stars. The ready-access to such images every day in newspapers, billboards and internet porn may partially account for the demise of Playboy on the magazine stands.
We do not want to minimize the growing pressure men face. For example, last Valentine’s Day, a Business Insider article suggested men grow a beard, build muscle and find women less attractive than themselves. That said, the casual nudity and emphasis on physical form remain relatively one-sided. There is a stubborn pairing of feminine success with physical attractiveness that we find troubling, especially as gender scholars and mothers of young daughters.
So what of Hefner’s legacy? Most enduringly, Hefner normalized a one-way sexual gaze. More specifically, his vision of sexual attractiveness naturalized and amplified a racist, narrow, fat-phobic aesthetic culture of beauty and sexuality that includes little likeness to the majority of women — women many people actually desire and engage sexually with.
Hefner impacted everyday popular cultural aesthetics and expectations: Nudity is what women are and do. Companies such as Glossier and Unilever have undeniably made inroads toward anti-racist and body-positive imagery, opening the sexual and aesthetic imagination on a big, public screen.
While men may be the objects of desire, and may buy products like Dove soap and deodorant, they are not obligatorily naked in these advertisements. More fundamentally, they are not mandated to be aesthetically appealing to be successful.
This undemocratic sexual world has significant room for improvement and we hope that Hefner’s passing may spark conversations on precisely this point. Hefner’s indelible image of a greying man in a silk robe may have come to feel familiar and even endearing (or repulsive), but it probably doesn’t inspire much lust. A real sexual revolution should include women’s sexual imaginations, not just use of their bodies, and that we have yet to see.