The evolution of Playboy


Brandi Nevarez

Hugh Hefner died on Sept. 27 at 91. He created a magazine that encouraged the exploitation and oversexualization of women. He also published articles that pushed the boundaries of the First Amendment.

Hailey G. Boyle, Arts and Life Editor

For those of us who actually read “Playboy” for the articles, it is a sad day. The founder of the landmark magazine, Hugh Hefner, died on Sept. 27 at 91.

Most obituaries either celebrate him as a pioneer who defied free speech and social norms, or they condemn him for his lifestyle choices and chauvinist treatment of women. But it’s not that simple.

Most people know the Chicago native through his notorious reputation – aided by the tell-all books and interviews from former girlfriends, playmates, and Playboy bunnies.

No one can deny that Hefner was a philanderer who bordered on misogyny. Former girlfriend Holly Madison said in her book “Down the Rabbit Hole,” “[he] encouraged competition – and body image issues – between his multiple live-in girlfriends.

But under that velvet smoking jacket and strawberry-flavored lube was the Editor-in-Chief of one of the most important magazines of the 20th century.

Hefner founded “Playboy” in 1953. The magazine regularly challenged the First Amendment by pushing the boundaries of freedom of speech and the freedom of the press; in the first issue, he published nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe.

Hefner was arrested for “promoting obscene literature” in 1963. The case went to trial, however, the jury was hung.  

Hefner also used the magazine as a platform for his political beliefs.

Hefner published  Charles Beaumont’s “The Crooked Man,” a short story where heterosexuality is oppressed in a society where homosexuality is the norm in a 1955 issue. The magazine received many angry letters, but Hefner replied, “If it is wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society, then the reverse is wrong, too.”

Many distinguished writers have contributed original short stories throughout the years, including Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, Margaret Atwood, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, Ian Fleming, and Kurt Vonnegut to name a few.

“Playboy” also included many landmark essays and interviews during the Civil Rights Movement as well as the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Gore Vidal’s essay “Sex is Politics” criticized heteronormity and the patriarchy in 1979. “Roots” author Alex Haley interviewed Malcolm X in 1963, as well as Martin Luther King Jr. and George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, in 1966.

Philosopher Marshall McLuhan contributed his essay “Include Me Out,” exploring how technology changed the American economy and media, in 1968.

“Playboy” was more than just a smut rag your brother thought was cleverly hidden under his bed. It was important for pushing the boundaries of the First Amendment.

Hefner campaigned for same-sex marriage, advocated for abortion rights eight years before Roe v. Wade, and furthered the cause of the Civil Rights Movement. However, I would not call Hugh Hefner a social justice warrior.

First Amendment aside, I completely agree with writer Julie Bindel when she wrote in the British newspaper, The Independent, “[Hefner] caused immeasurable damage by turning porn, and therefore the buying and selling of women’s bodies, into a legitimate business.”

Many former Playmates and girlfriends have come forward exposing Hefner’s sexist practices: controlling their makeup choices, calling them fat and encouraging eating disorders. Madison said in her book, “His legacy is full of evidence of the exploitation of women for professional gain.”

Writer and activist Gloria Steinem famously went undercover in Hefner’s New York Playboy Club as a cocktail waitress in 1963. While wearing a cotton tail and bunny ears, she witnessed countless mistreatments towards the other waitresses and her.

She said in her article “A Bunny’s Tale,” the women were no more than “meat on a hook” whom Hefner “nickeled and dimed” every chance.

He charged them for the upkeep of the uniforms, they were not allowed to gain weight and given demerits for breaking any of the rules. They were also encouraged to sleep with the key holding members and management.

Hefner’s complicated legacy gives me mixed feelings.

The journalist in me respects the man who founded a magazine whose 60-plus year legacy chronicled America during a time of the political and sexual revolution.

But the woman in me will be disgusted at the man who was, for lack of a better word, a glorified pimp.

Hugh Hefner claimed to be an advocate for sexual liberation. The question I have for you is: who did he liberate?