Growing up, the Playboy bunny logo was about as deeply ingrained into my psyche as the McDonald’s golden arches. Hailing from a family of intellectuals, both were considered déclassé; an embarrassment to my American heritage. I grew up relatively sheltered and was encouraged to read books and run around in the woods over watching TV and playing video games. Up until the age of 12, I was convinced that my parents had some sort of surveillance technology that would track if and when I turned on the television and watched something I wasn’t supposed to. 

As such, I played the role of good girl very well until I couldn’t take it anymore. I was tired of being out of the know when it came to all things pop culture. After spending the night at a friend’s house, I finally figured out how to watch MTV and E! all by myself – turns out all it requires is turning on the TV and changing the channel. By the time I entered middle school, I was living my best latchkey kid life and had ample time to consume all the brain melting media my parents had restricted for all those years. I remember dancing along to Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie music video and binge watching The Girls Next Door – a reality show following the lives of Hugh Hefner’s three girlfriends. 

Even as a pre-teen, I recognized its cringe factor. A bunch of fake blondes with big tits acting vapid and claiming they loved Hugh – an 80 something creepo. Despite my staunch feminist upbringing, which frowned down upon the concept of trophy wives (or in this case, girlfriends), I couldn’t help but be influenced. “Why can’t I have blonde hair like my sister?” and “How old do I have to be to get a boob job?” were actual thoughts that ran through my head. Thinking back to that early indoctrination into patriarchal capitalism – in which women are trained to hate themselves so that they will invest their time, money and energy into being desirable for men – makes me sad. 

While I’ve done a pretty good job of deprogramming this narrow way of thinking – in large part due to widespread societal changes championing body inclusivity and inner beauty – I’d be lying if I said I gave no fucks. The name in my Amazon delivery address may be Goddess Jules and I sure as hell participate in more women’s circles than most people I know, but I’m not sure that I’d be able to practice the same level of self love I currently do were I to have an overweight BMI or an inability to make hot hipster boys fall in love with me. That’s less of a testament to my vanity and more of an indication of the work I still need to do in order to learn to be okay with myself. 

Sitting down and binging the first five episodes of the highly touted Secrets of Playboy docuseries definitely took me a step closer towards enlightenment in a sort of roundabout way. You see, the interviews with over-botoxed 65 year olds, who were Playboy bunnies back in the 1970s, served as a much needed reminder of what I don’t want to become –  a woman overly obsessed with her looks even in her later years. Sugar babying certainly distorted my perception of beauty and societal expectations, but my experience comes nothing close to these poor Playboy bunnies. 

While many of them reminisced fondly about how their early years residing at the Playboy Mansion boosted their confidence, provided a sense of community, and gave them a limited degree of autonomy – most notably for the first generation bunnies who lived in a time when women were expected to be housewives – it’s clear that the positive side effects were temporary. Treated like cattle and cast aside once they aged out of Hugh’s barbie archetype, ex-playmates – particularly those closest to Hugh – were left traumatized. 

His main girlfriend between 1976-1981, Sondra Theodore, reflected in the A&E series,”I was groomed. It was a slow grooming to get to that point. And he broke me.” While his main girlfriend from 2001-2008, Holly Madison, admitted to thinking she was in love before realizing it was actually just Stockholm syndrome. What struck me as particularly twisted about Hugh’s relationships with both Theodore and Madison was that he derived pleasure from forcing good girls into doing things they didn’t want to do. There are literally millions of young women who would die to be a Playboy bunny. Of those, many of them are probably sex fiends who enjoy kink, group sex, and bisexual encounters. 

But it would have been be too easy for Hugh to find a main squeeze who was down to keep up with his ravenous sexual appetite. Instead, he seemingly went out of his way to partner with women who were not only naive, but who genuinely wanted to be in a somewhat wholesome, monogamous relationship with him. Neither Theodore nor Madison were sexually attracted to women nor were they fans of polyamory, and yet Hugh coerced them into having group sex with other women (and men) under the guise of,  “If you really love me, you’ll do this for me.” 

While dating Theodore, Hugh also hosted pig nights every Tuesday and Thursday. The “pigs” were prostitutes that would be rounded up from Sunset Boulevard for his and his friends’ amusement. There was another occasion where Theodore recalled Hugh gleefully detailing having famed porn actress, Linda Lovelace, over, drugging her to oblivion, and making her perform oral sex on a German Shepherd in front of a room full of onlookers. Talk about deranged. From the 30 glasses of Pepsi Hugh was alleged to consume in a given day to the nightly orgies and his not-so-casual amphetamine habit (it doesn’t count if a doctor prescribes it, right?), it’s quite clear that Hugh was an addict. 

Nothing was ever enough and while he presented the image of a man living the ultimate fantasy life, I have my doubts about whether or not he was actually ever happy. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of Donald Trump – a scared little boy desperate to build a world of his own so that he could convince others of his worthiness. Cause if he could do that, then maybe, just maybe, he could stop hating himself so much. No man I’ve ever encountered who is truly content and spiritually sound feels the need to overcompensate to such a grotesque degree. 

When you rewind to Hugh’s childhood, his complex starts to make more sense. He grew up in a repressive Methodist family during the 1930s and 1940s, where sex and decadence were looked down upon with the utmost disdain. In high school, he invited mega babe, Betty Conklin, to a hay ride, only for her to reject him and go with his homie instead. It was this rejection which is hypothesized to have been the catalyst for his empire – a world full of Betty Conklins who wouldn’t be able to reject him. Upon graduating college in 1949, Hugh worked as a copywriter for Esquire before going off on his own. He raised $8,000 and founded Playboy Magazine. The first issue was published in December 1953 and featured a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe. It was an instant success, selling nearly all 54,000 printed copies within weeks. 

In 1954, Hugh serialized the wildly popular novel, Fahrenheit 451, across three issues, which helped set the high profile tone of Playboy’s content. ​​By the time of his death in 2017, he had sold tens of millions of copies of Playboy worldwide and amassed a $50M dollar fortune. As much as we like to associate Playboy with raunchy images, Hugh did a stellar job of melding high brow with low brow. Playboy featured high profile interviews, as well as boundary pushing articles about civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, at a time when no one in the mainstream was talking about these sorts of things. 

A Martin Luther King Jr. stan and anti-segregationist, Hugh’s world – while certainly misogynistic – was one of the few places throughout the 1960s and beyond where Black people were treated as true equals. In his own way, Hugh was also very pro women’s lib, although the Gloria Steinem bunch hated his guts. The content of Playboy was pro-choice, pro-birth control, and pro-marriage equality. In a lot of ways, Hugh was a visionary and integral part of the sexual revolution. While it’s easy to look back on Hugh’s sexist track record, the fact of the matter is he used his heteronormative white male privilege for good, championing the interests of marginalized groups in a way that was palatable to the mainstream.

The Don Draper family men weren’t going to listen the radical, bra-burning feminists about abortion rights or Malcolm X about the need for Black empowerment, but they were going to read the articles featuring important, progressive voices of the time in the pages of Playboy, sandwiched between pictures of beautiful women. Hugh was a master of soft diplomacy and while he certainly oppressed and controlled the women in his inner circle, he was also a revolutionary who helped liberate a country stuck in the dark ages. 

No one person is inherently good or evil. Hugh was a complex man who positively contributed to the cultural zeitgeist, while also wreaking havoc. If there’s one thing doing this Hugh Hefner deep-dive has taught me, it’s that when you’re a visionary, you have to accept that some people are going to love you and some people are going to hate you, and it’s up to you to not give a fuck. As Hugh put it, “If you let society and your peers define who you are, you’re the less for it.”

Culture
Feminism
Feminist
Sex
Jules

Jules

Author

Based in Brooklyn, Jules has dedicated her twenties towards harnessing her pussy power, exploring the muse, whore, and wild woman archetypes along the way. When not blogging, you can find her sweating the toxins out in a hot yoga class or sipping a matcha latte at a pretentious coffee shop, whilst she scribbles away in her journal.


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