BY JEANETTE LENOIR
The standard image of what a sexy, beautiful and “most desirable” American woman looks like can arguably be credited to the late Hugh Hefner. And that sex symbol looks like a thin, glamorous blond white woman. It’s evident what kind of women Hefner preferred because he married and surrounded himself with this particular white Barbie type his entire life. And, he built an empire based on his perception of sexy and beautiful women coupled with an unapologetic bachelor lifestyle. All at the cost of exploiting women—starting with Marilyn Monroe—normalizing their objectification, and solidifying them to a place of sexual servitude in American society.
Janell Hobson, Associate Professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Albany says the commercialization of white women’s sexuality actually came about after the exotification of women of color through the lens of Anthropology. “The nude body was already on display,” she says pointing to National Geographic, “which was used in an interesting way by white men and western men as a kind of early prototype of Playboy except the nude women in those magazines were African women or Asian women, or Pacific Islander women.” She says Playboy made it palatable to show white women in a similar fashion.
Playboy’s Launch is Rooted in the Exploitation of a Star
Granted, Playboy was not the only magazine at the time of its debut in 1953 that was setting a certain standard of beauty in America. Women’s magazine like Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Day and Good Housekeeping had their own standards of what was beautiful too. “What Playboy did was introduce female sexuality upfront,” says Hobson, adding that Playboy centerfolds were playing on the kinds of ideals that were white and blond. Hobson says it’s also important to remember how Playboy stepped onto the world stage. “Playboy launched through nude photos of Marilyn Monroe at the time. Photos that she did not consent to, and had to basically reposition herself when Hugh Hefner was able to purchase the rights of the nude photos that she did for a calendar company…Nude photos that she was doing while she was struggling to become a star, and trying to pay rent.” She says Hugh Hefner wanted to capitalize on the fame that she had. “Not only did Playboy launch through this kind of representation of white womanhood but specifically through the star power of a Marilyn Monroe.” Hobson says that’s a history that shouldn’t be overlooked in terms of what it means that he was able to launch Playboy through this kind of exploitation. And, adding insult to injury, in 1992 Hefner purchased the burial vault next to Monroe for $75,000; haunting her in life and now in death.
The Impact and Legacy of Playboy Is a Complicated One
A part from the nude photos, the magazine in its early days was paving new roads during America’s civil rights movement that came to national prominence in the mid 1950s. Hefner published literature and serious journalism work from prominent black figures like James Baldwin who wrote about the Atlanta child murders and Alex Haley who interviewed civil rights leaders of the time for the magazine. “And, writers like Margaret Atwood was able to get her science fiction stories published in it…I mean, there were clear key classic articles that came out of that,” Hobson says. The magazine, despite its exploitation of primarily white women was also being cutting edge, “both in terms of a kind of intellectualism that it was putting forth but at the same time making sure that it was still marketable and saleable through highlighting white women’s nude bodies.”
Another complicated factor is, in time, Playboy also featured black women on its cover. The magazine had a black model on its cover in 1970, (Jean Bell) and in 1971, (Darine Stern) before Vogue did with Beverly Johnson in 1974. Also, in 1974 Playboy had a 4-page pictorial of black Playmate Claudia Lennear in its August issue. “She was a background singer who was rumored to be the inspiration behind Rolling Stones Brown Sugar that they were singing about. Iman had a Playboy spread back in the 1980s that played on this whole wild African Safari [theme]. Those are ways in which I think when you do see women of color and black women in particular; they are made to take on this kind of exoticized representations. So, whether we’re talking about the blond, you know, girl next door or the exotic African woman, they’re definitely ways Playboy was playing with those images,” Hobson says.
Nevertheless, Hefner was not alone in his objective to use women for his own benefit and wealth; many others share in this American heritage that still exists in our modern culture. One significant piece to Hefner’s legacy, according to Hobson, is what he was putting out there, which was far from the norm of that era. “I think he was really just putting out there a kind of hedonistic bachelor lifestyle…you know, you don’t have to get married or settle down and be a family man. You can always have your bachelor pad and if you’ve got enough money, you can get these young beautiful women dressed up in Playboy Bunny suits that cater to your every whim.”
Hugh Hefner and Women’s Sexual Liberation
Considering the era when Playboy made its debut and how it launched using photos of a woman who didn’t consent, or received a dime for the popular first edition, one can easily surmise that Hefner did more for men’s sexual liberation than for women. Hobson explains, “Representing that kind of bachelor pad lifestyle, he was making it acceptable for men to not be ashamed to pursue a life outside of marriage and family. But, for women, they still had to be in these positions of servitude to that, so what might be a kind of sexual liberation for one sex certainly didn’t necessarily translate to the other.”
This appraisal is plainly evident when writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organizer, Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny. Her investigative exposé bluntly revealed this uncomfortable reality. In her report, A Bunny’s Tale, Steinem witnessed firsthand how Hefner ran his operation by luring young women to apply for what was advertised as “the top job in the country for a young girl” only to be faced with catering to men in the most objectifying manner imaginable. From the revealing outfits, the long hours on mandatory 3-inch heels to the manner a Bunny serves cocktails to her clients using the Bunny Stance or Bunny Dip to ensure they don’t break their tight corset costumes; the indignity of it all will undoubtedly be analyzed and critiqued for generations to come. The promise of a glamorous jet setting lifestyle being courted by wealthy powerful men and making between $200 and $300 a week was exposed by Steinem as a sham when she uncovered what actually happened to Playboy Bunnies.
Undoubtedly, Hefner contributed to the larger media narrative of what a desirable American woman looks like however, Hobson says, “I don’t know if he had the main driving force because keep in mind, to be a Playboy centerfold is to not be a woman who is respectable. So, even if he was playing with images of blond innocence and girl next door, they were nude, so they were already seen through the lens of the pornographic.” She says he didn’t necessarily influence what was beautiful but rather what was sexy. Hobson says Miss America, which was at the height of its popularity around the same time as Playboy’s debut, was giving the larger culture ideas of what was considered beautiful. “And, that was respectable.”
Here Bunny, Bunny, Bunny!
The cost of being a Playboy Bunny was impactful in more ways than one. For example, according to Steinem, Bunnies were required to take “a complete internal physical” to ensure they were free of venereal and other diseases like syphilis. And, although the NYC Board of Health didn’t mandate restaurant servers to take physical exams in order to work, Hefner did. Of course, one can’t help but wonder why the need for these types of tests, when it’s explicitly written in the “Bunny Bible” that Bunnies’ are forbidden from dating club members. Nevertheless, and conveniently left out of the written manual, is the suggestion that Bunnies “are to go out with Number One Key Holders” which are the big shots that included “important members of the press, club executives” and other VIP’s. Number One Key Holders were granted the most access to the Bunnies, even having them take part as “bona fide guests of the club.”
Following the success of Playboy, Hefner was at the top of his game and was highly sought after by the media for interviews. During one such interview he described his vision and the principles behind his club saying, “The club is really an extension of the concept that was developed in the magazine and it’s an attempt as much as possible to kind of bring to life the many of the notions that are popularized in the magazine; The concept of relaxed urban living, good food and drink, pretty girls and good entertainment.” He left out an important part; for men. The Bunnies not dating the customers is one of the things Hefner promoted. He went on to say that the Bunnies are forbidden to date the customers, “To separate business from pleasure,” he asserts, even though the women were found to be pressured to date Number One Key Holders and “make them happy.” Perched on his rotating bed, Hefner adds, “Playboy’s philosophy is a personal expression of my own views, and some of the social and sexual views of our time.”
The preparation to become a Playboy Bunny in the 1950s was extensive. Training, which in the beginning lasted three weeks, were unpaid despite the long hours required to do so. Also, Bunnies were charged $2.50 a day for the upkeep of their costume, $8.15 for the eyelashes and blush they had to wear, and $5 for the black nylon tights. They were paid—mandated by state law—$50 a week, however Hefner structured his business to chip away at every available cent the Bunnies earned. From getting demerits and merits that had monetary values attached to them for screw ups and good deeds, to having to split their tips in half with the Playboy Club. Another farce uncovered by Steinem is the difference in Bunny pay. Table Bunnies can keep half their tip in addition to their weekly paycheck minus the charges noted above. Hat Check Bunnies on the other hand, were not allowed to keep their tips. They were paid a flat $12 for 8 hours of work, a significant amount less than what was advertised. Also, these Bunnies were forbidden to tell club members that their tips were going to Hefner. Instead, they were instructed to, “Just smile and accept tips gratefully.”
Hugh Hefner’s Role in America’s Race Relations
The legendary civil rights activist, writer and entertainer, Dick Gregory, who recently passed away, commended Hefner for his work to advance the civil rights movement by opening doors for black comics to work at his clubs, a rarity for many during that time. And, in line with the Playboy culture, Bunnies were instructed to laugh when a comic like Dick Gregory was on stage. “I think that he’s done a lot for men. What has he done for women other than to make more women’s bodies visible in terms of placing their bodies on display, exploiting their beauties, their sexuality, and keeping a Harem of sorts?” Hobson asked rhetorically. Adding, “I’m thinking about a music singer like R. Kelly who has all kinds of young barely legal women in his mansion and the description of it sounds like abuse but it also sounds very much like what Hugh Hefner has been doing throughout his life but yet we would recognize one as being abusive, and the other we want to call hedonistic and libertine. And, I think we need to think about why we are willing to give him that leverage.”
Love him or hate him; Hefner, who studied psychology, was a trend setter who also impacted race relations in the country and that can’t be overlooked or ignored. “He did change things because Playboy came around a time of ultimate and ultra sexual conservatism. He tapped into this opportunity for sexual release as it were. So, because women’s bodies were used to define that kind of sexual release, it gets called liberation,” Hobson says. Hefner made sexual liberation more permissible and accessible through his magazine and that was significant during a time when American culture was more conservative, but like Hobson asserts, we would be remiss to confuse his impact on our society as part of women’s sexual liberation, or a boost for the feminist movement. The fact is, he liberated men and held women captive in sexist stereotypes that are still prevalent today.
Another contributing factor is how black cultural expressions, like the Hip-Hop genre enabled pornographers like Hefner to fetishize black bodies. According to Hobson, “That genre redirected the cultural gaze on the butt, which interestingly Playboy doesn’t really fetishize the butt that much, they usually fetishize the breast. Hip-Hop redirected Playboy’s gaze to the butt, and the butt’s that they focused on were mostly black women, Latino women and eventually included white women like Iggy Azalea, Kim Kardashian and Latinos like Jennifer Lopez to the point where in 2014 Vogue had to put out a whole article called, ‘We’re In The Era Of The Big Booty’ so, look how long it took for Vogue to recognize that particular aesthetic.” She says it wasn’t until white and Latino women were part of the big butt obsession that main stream media started to recognize it as part of a women’s appeal despite what Hip-Hop has done to refocus men’s sexual appetite and gaze. Hobson says it shows that as a culture we’re still invested in whiteness as the norm. “The main stream media still wants to keep whiteness at the center,” she says. Essentially, Playboy fetishized women’s boobs and Hip-Hop fetishized women’s butt’s. And what do they have in common? Hobson says, “They’re both driven by men and male sexual desire; even if the race is different.”
Partly due to Hip-Hop culture, Hefner opened up space to think about sexuality differently but, still, only through the realm of exploiting and ogling women’s bodies. It’s apparent Playboy was not opening up opportunities for women to explore their own sexuality. “And, even then I don’t know if we’ve gone far enough in terms of addressing what female sexual empowerment would be or could be,” Hobson says. She notes that when the real women’s sexual revolution happens it will look much different than what we see in Playboy, Hustler, Vogue Magazine, or even in Hip Hop music. She says the next sexual revolution will be more inclusive. “It would look like a diversity of bodies so it’s not just skinny women or white women. It’s big women, all kinds of women, it’s men, it’s transgender, it’s queer, it’s all kinds of stuff.”
Ultimately, Hefner’s legacy is centered on men’s pleasure by way of sacrificing the progress made by the women’s liberation movement. Thanks to Hefner, feminism took a hit on the chin when Playboy launched in 1953, despite the images we see of smiling Bunnies in sexy costumes. Hefner died of natural causes on Wednesday, October 30 at the age of 91. And, in a perverse way; tattooing the notion that it’s still a man’s world even in the afterlife as he takes his place in eternal rest next to Marilyn Monroe.