Hugh Hefner – Pioneer or Pornographer, Revolutionary or Exploiter?

How will history judge the founder of Playboy? That the iconic magazine had good journalism is undeniable, but equally true is that it sold because of the nudity.

In the bad old pre-liberalisation days when India was a closed, socialist economy, the customs department was very alert to attempts to smuggle in foreign goods. At the airport, they checked luggage for not just gold, but also everyday items like two-in-ones, cameras and even pens. High also on their list was another item – Playboy magazine. This was banned in India and any copy in the luggage was instantly impounded. Ditto for attempts to send it by mail – Khushwant Singh had once written about how the post office did not allow copies mailed to him to get through. (Whatever happened to the confiscated copies, we always wondered.)

Playboy was incendiary, not simply because it was seen as a waste of precious foreign exchange, but also because it could affect the collective morality of the nation.

The net outcome of this prohibition was that the occasional copy that did slip through – brought in by not just passengers but also airline crew and shippies – was very valuable. They eventually found their way to neighbourhood circulating libraries where hormonal teenagers and lascivious uncles paid good money for them, including for old copies (for maximum 12 hours only), which were inevitably handed over surreptitiously in a brown paper bag. The library owners checked carefully to see if the gatefold had come back undamaged.

Playboy also used to publish books, including joke books that were full of sketches and jokes of the kind that would not pass muster today. Sexist is the kindest word that would apply to them, though there was no dearth of jokes involving rabbis and priests.

In time, one began to realise that Playboy had a lot of reading material too. (The popular joke – I only read Playboy for the interviews, was not entirely untrue.) The long pieces, the fiction and of course the interviews were of a very high quality – the list of its contributors reads like a who’s who of the literary firmament of the time, from Norman Mailer to P. G. Wodehouse, Joyce Carol Oates to Vladimir Nabokov. Playboy Advisor, the section that talked about high-end stereo systems, cars and other luxury products, provided – especially to us Indians, starved of foreign goods – a glimpse into the high-life in the decadent West.

By and by, the broader contours of the Playboy story too became clearer to us in distant India – we understood how Playboy was more than a magazine, it was a cultural and political phenomenon. Hugh Hefner had launched the magazine in 1953 (with a center spread of Marilyn Monroe) and not just scandalised the US but also played a role in kick-starting the sexual revolution. The first issue – undated, because he was not sure there would be a second one – was sold out.

The magazine entered the 1960s with a robust circulation and a reputation for attracting top talent and fitted in well with the rebellious, counter culture narrative, even if it was more corporatised than the trippy generation that was emerging would have cared for. In its own way, Playboy advanced new ideas on not just sexual freedom but also race and politics. It had become an icon as did its creator.

In the first ever Playboy interview in 1962, Miles Davis spoke not just about jazz but also how he, as a black musician, viewed the world. “In high school I was best in music class on the trumpet, but the prizes went to the boys with blue eyes. I made up my mind to outdo anybody white on my horn,” he said. Black men did not speak like this at the time. Hefner sent the interviewer, a young writer called Alex Haley, back to Davis to get more on the same theme. It was the perfect start to what was to become one of the magazine’s most enduring features – Timothy Leary, Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Carter, Stanley Kubrick, Steve Jobs – they all have been interviewed by the magazine. (There was an ‘interview’ of sorts with Jawaharlal Nehru too, but the Indian embassy in Washington protested, saying it was little more than a collection of the leader’s public statements.)

The women’s movement, starting around the same time, inevitably took note of Playboy. Much before she became a feminist writer, Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny in a club and exposed poor working conditions and exploitative attitudes in her book, “I was a Playboy Bunny.” She later wrote that a woman reading Playboy “feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manuel.”

Rosie Boycott, co-founder of the feminist magazine Spare Rib has written that it had a revolutionary effect and it shook up prudish western societies – “that is why it has divided women ever since: was Playboy an intrinsic and vital part of the liberation of women, or was it, as many believe, the forerunner of all today’s abusive, misogynist pornography? I admit to leaning towards the latter point of view.”

“But what was hard to argue with, and why I believe Playboy played a crucial part in the sexual revolution, was that Hefner always insisted that women had desire, indeed that we had a right to desire, just as society assumed men had. Over the ten-year period from the early sixties to the time that Spare Rib launched, Playboy championed birth control, equal pay and abortion rights, something both impressive and surprising. Again, it can be dismissed as a cynical ploy to disguise soft porn as something campaigning and serious, but Hefner went further, writing about civil rights, racism and gay liberation at a time when those topics were mainly confined to small-selling alternative publications,” she wrote on the occasion of the magazine’s 60th anniversary.

Hugh Hefner at the premiere of Sylvester Stallone's movie F.I.S.T., April 1978. Credit: Alan Light/ Flickr(CC BY 2.0)

Hugh Hefner at the premiere of Sylvester Stallone’s movie F.I.S.T., April 1978. Credit: Alan Light/ Flickr(CC BY 2.0)

In the 1990s, Hefner, who had borrowed 8,000 dollars to start his magazine, presided over a huge empire with clubs, television channels and publishing in its fold. At its peak, the magazine had sold over seven million copies, but since then circulation had begun to decline. Raunchier magazines like Hustler and lad magazines such as Maxim and video were providing tough competition. Hefner’s larger-than-life image – his famous mansion and the parties held there were legendary – but that could not stop circulations from dipping. The Internet, with its free content – pornographic and otherwise – dealt another blow. By 2015 it sold just 0.8 million – a decision was taken to drop the nudes (The decision was criticised as a “big mistake” by his son Cooper, who is in his 20s.)

One by one the properties, including the company itself and the famous mansion, were put on the market. The latter, where the man who always wore silk pyjamas and was photographed posing with women decades younger than he was, was sold to his neighbour just before he died.

Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner (centre). Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser/File Photo

How will history judge him? As a path breaker or a pornographer, a shrewd businessman or a dirty old man, a man who brought talk of sex into the open or an exploitative creep who made his millions by objectifying women for the prurient pleasure of males? It depends on how his life and work is measured. That Playboy magazine had good journalism is undeniable, but equally true is that it sold because of the nudity. And what may have been true in the 1960s, when radical ideas of personal freedom of all kinds were just sinking into popular consciousness, may look completely out of place in the 2000s. Not just the nudes, but even the humour today would be considered politically and socially incorrect. But equally, the women who were chosen to model for Playboy did it of their own volition – doesn’t that give them agency? We live in times when often dispassionate debates about such issues is difficult – Hefner was certainly a man about whom easy judgements will always be difficult come by.

Join The Discussion