Hugh Hefner’s legacy: Narrow visions of sex and beauty
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.