Hugh Hefner died on 27 September 2017, at the age of 91. It seemingly took all of five minutes for people to start arguing over whether he was a progressive icon or a glorified sleaze merchant. As a prospective lawyer, I naturally spent far too much time trying to explain to several people that the truth is somewhere between those two extremes.
It was honestly surprising to see the magnitude of both adoration and loathing levelled at Hef. Some people regarded him as a super-suave he-man who was unfailingly cool and charming well into his 80s. Others called him a vicious pimp and hoped there was a hell just so he could burn in it. The most visceral reaction seemed to come from feminists who were understandably angered when a few people tried to suggest Hefner was a feminist icon. There have been many men who have been much more misogynistic, but the guy did make his fortune portraying women as sex objects, and some of the stuff that went on at the Playboy Mansion bordered on the nightmarish. Still, the idea of wishing eternal suffering on anyone seems distasteful to me. Especially when the person in question became a shambling caricature of himself in his final years, dry humping the leg of his lost potency. Intensely disliking him makes sense, but hating him enough to take pot-shots at his corpse is a bit much.
It’s also important to remember that this is a guy who became a progressive icon in the 1950s. You might have to bear with me on this one, because I’m about to compare Hugh Hefner to Bam Margera. If you don’t know, Bam Margera was a member of Jackass and CKY, and introduced the world to such things as BMX jousting and beating up your dad while he’s on the toilet. He was a phenomenally talented skateboarder and stuntman who got famous at twenty. He then spent the next fifteen years doing what a lot of twenty-year-old skaters would do with tons of cash and fame; getting high holy hammered with other kids. He was recently the subject of a Vice documentary where they covered his life, newfound sobriety, loss of his best friend, and return to skateboarding. In that documentary, one of his former Jackass co-stars notes that “the age you get famous is the age you stay at forever,” and while Bam Margera does sincerely seem to be getting his act together, he was certainly trapped in his adolescence for well over a decade. Why grow up when you have everything you think you want?
That’s exactly what happened to Hugh Hefner. By his late twenties, he was rich, famous, surrounded by beautiful women, and (most importantly) infuriating the establishment. On top of that, people kept indulging him. For example, more than fifty years after the publication of the first issue of Playboy, he appeared as himself on the popular animated sketch comedy Robot Chicken, dropping easy one-liners, and basically showing off how he could still date women in their twenties. Sure, everything was an obvious act, but some people take themselves much too seriously, and to his credit, he certainly wasn’t doing that. He became famous in the 1950s, and built his own world around that high point in his life. At its heart, it was pure fantasy, but he never had any incentive to come down from his monument to his best days, especially when so many people were willing participants.
But it isn’t 1953. Hell, by the 1960s, Hef was well on his way to becoming backwards. Decades have passed since the days when Playboy could have been considered even remotely provocative, and in the end, he was little more than a passive misogynist from an age when being politely condescending to women was somehow respectful. Frankly, it’s remarkable that so many people cared about his passing, one way or another.
That said, since I’ve gone through enough effort to write something of a eulogy for the guy, I might as well draw attention to a couple of lessons we can learn from his passing (or at least the reaction to it).
First, we have a cultural tendency to completely glamourize or demonize certain people. I’m guilty of this too, as anyone familiar with my opinion of Donald Trump or Doug Ford can confirm. Certainly, some people can be irredeemable jackasses or paragons of decency. But, for the most part, we’re only human. I used to idolize Hunter S. Thompson, and still think he was one of the greatest journalists in history. He was also cruel to his wife, squandered much of his talent, and as much as I think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of the great works of American literature, it was basically a chronicle of an epic crime spree. My dad idolizes Winston Churchill, because the guy had the quintessential acid wit. He was also a racist who basically orchestrated a famine in India, and got kicked out of office after trying to continue World War II with a proposal to invade Russia (you know, because it worked so well for the Germans). People are people, no one’s perfect, and a lot of us are capable of being total jerks.
Second, bad people can actually be a force for good, and good people can do a lot of harm by prioritizing their intentions over results. One of the arguments I heard condemning Hugh Hefner was that he gave the sex trade a false veneer of legitimacy. I’m not disputing that, but it’s not actually a bad thing. Disapproving of the commoditization of women’s bodies is fine, but no good stems from keeping sex work on the fringes of society. Sex work being illegal means that it must be done in the shadows, where the victims of the trade are placed at greater risk of violence. If Hugh Hefner did in fact legitimize sex work, good, because it’s not going away, and no problem is solved by ignoring its existence. Disliking what he did is understandable, but he might have actually done more good than the well-intentioned people who ended up harming vulnerable women by trying to outlaw the world’s oldest profession. Sometimes, a douchebag forces people to have a necessary conversation they’ve avoided for far too long.
Anyway, so long Hef. You were an interesting man of questionable character, which very well might have been why so many people found you so interesting. You made the world face ugly realities, and you looked cool doing it. At the very least, you were a hell of a lot better than the pick-up artists and MRA swine we have to deal with today.
Oh, and, uh, thanks for that stack of dirty magazines I thought was so cool when I was twelve.