When news broke of the Playboy founder’s passing on September 27, the internet, without pause, chimed in on the life and the legend behind the iconic man in the robe.
To many, 91-year-old Hugh Hefner was a revolutionary; possessing gumption and a driving force for change. Although the output of his work was of an *ahem* more controversial nature, his insurgence in the media industry was in fact not too dissimilar to the groundswell of various movements plaguing the current political and social climate across the world today.
The men’s magazine he founded in the 1950s was the first that sought to take nude photographs mainstream, which obviously spurred a deafening uproar from readers, censors, critics, and celebrants only to be surpassed by the uproar from Hefner himself. He fought free-speech battles in courts, defied segregation, drew accusations of exploitation, and lived a life of seemingly breezy bachelorhood as publicly as possible.
The reaction to his passing has been mixed – here’s a selection of responses so far from media and commentators:
“Those who deemed him a purveyor of smut had long since been sublimated by the sexual revolution Hefner helped release. And feminists, who were soldiers in the same sexual revolution as Hefner but who belittled him for placing men at its centre, had moved on to bigger targets who made Hefner look tame by comparison,” writes the Guardian.
While celebrities were quick to post their glowing tributes, Hefner’s death also sparked an opportunity for equal rights advocates to cast light on the flaws of Hefner’s supposed ‘sexual revolution’.
“Hugh Hefner is now being celebrated as a ‘cultural icon who helped change the world’ – and he did change the world, but not for the better. Hefner normalised the sexual objectification of women and paved the way to porn culture. Hefner’s legacy is selling male fantasies of women’s bodies and women’s sexuality as ‘freedom’. But really, it’s just more of the same old misogyny.” – Glamour
A little closer to home, New Zealander and former bunny Sandra Costa, looked back on her time at the mansion during the 1960’s as a positive, life-changing experience.
“He was fabulous. I had a wonderful time working for Hefner,” Costa told The AM Show. “He used to say to me, ‘You know, you can do everything,’ and I believed him…He gave me the real strength to be able to get out there and do it.”
American Vogue took a more demure approach, citing Playboy magazine as an instrumental force against the nation’s hypocritical puritanism and a forum to publish the work of some of the world’s most influential writers of its generation.
“Hefner [won] civil liberties awards for his support of progressive social causes, and understood the importance of optics, inviting black guests to his televised parties at a time when much of the nation still had Jim Crow laws.” – Vogue
The magazine’s province was later overrun by the internet, and the same forces that Hefner helped unleash would ultimately render his commercial empire basically obsolete.