Hugh Hefner’s Death Sparks Conversation on Sexism in Media

By Olivia Libowitz
Elm Staff Writer

In case you missed it, Hugh Hefner is dead. What did you think when you read that, if you didn’t already know? Did you think, “Dang, another icon gone,” or did you think, “Good. One less misogynistic scumbag to worry about”?

Those are the two ideas that seem to be flying around in the wake of his passing. People are polarized; they either worshipped him or spit on his grave. Oddly, it’s hard to find a neutral opinion on the Playboy founder and millionaire. I myself have a distaste for Hefner, and find much of his brand to be repugnant, but I have to look at the full scope of his behavior in order to write this piece.

Big name players are taking bold stances in the wake of Hefner’s death. While it is hard to find big named stars trashing Hefner, we have also seen an outpouring of love and affection from celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Pamela Anderson, and Nancy Sinatra, as well as several surprising tributes, such as the one from Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., which stated that Hefner, “was a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement. We shall never forget him.”

Obviously, Playboy and its creator did not go through Hefner’s six decade reign without much criticism. They were accused of everything from misogyny and racism to pedophilia and assisting Bill Cosby with sexual assault. Yet here is still a large collection of women and socially aware individuals lauding him. Perhaps writer Joss Whedon’s tweet summed it up best: “Wait, is it possible Hugh Hefner did good AND bad things? *head explodes*.”

It’s true. Throughout his long and lucrative career, Hefner has come by many a scandal and many a success. A recent People article about his life discussed how Hefner gave $25,000 toward a reward that aided in the finding of the corpses of the three men killed in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer. He was known for hiring black models and black entertainers for his parties, as well as claiming in a 2013 Playboy that the fight for same-sex marriage was “a fight for all our rights.”

Hefner’s choices haven’t always morally checked out. In 1963, Gloria Steinem wrote a vicious tear down of the Playboy Mansion, having gone undercover there for several months. She reported atrocious conditions such as painfully small corsets and uncomfortably high security. She didn’t quote the bunnies saying anything negative, though.

There are records of Hefner’s obsession with Marilyn Monroe—posting nude photos of her in his magazine without her permission. Even though she told Life Magazine that it didn’t negatively impact her career, there’s no denying that it was, well, gross. He even bought the tomb next to hers, though they never met. If a stranger screen-shot your Instagram pictures, posted them on his own Instagram, then bought a grave next to your family plot, you’d probably have a question or two about his moral compass as well.

If the girls in the Mansion never complained while they were there, and Monroe didn’t out right condemn Hefner for using her photos—is it fine? Should we condemn these women for supporting him? Was it a sort of “Harry Potter,” House Elf situation, where even if it seems morally wrong, the people most involved don’t want to be removed from the situation? At the end of the day, we shouldn’t condemn either group, his supporters or his critics. It’s not the fault of those who Hefner helped for not throwing him under a bus. He launched many careers, donated to many charities, and had more than a fair share of friends. He even stood up to defend transgender model Tulla after her tabloid outing.

But to his critics? You’re also right. Hefner fetishized black women, criticized feminists as the enemy, and objectified women until his dying day. The way I see it is to accept that there’s a way to do good without being good, and do bad without being bad. In the case of Hefner, it might just be a little too close to call.

If you want a morally upright celebrity to mourn this week, one who inspired us all and didn’t buy the grave next to Monroe, try Tom Petty.

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