Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy, has died. Along with countless others, I am offering prayers for his soul. But apart from the man himself, one has to look at the legacy he left behind.
It’s a curious and strange thing that Hefner managed to make an old, sad sin seem progressive to so many. In one of the books we publish here at Ignatius Press, Subverted, author Sue Ellen Browder talks about how the early goals of the women’s movement—many of them good—became fused to the “sexual revolution” agenda of magazines like Cosmopolitan and Playboy, an agenda that promoted a materialistic worldview with commodification of bodies and experiences. Each individual was seen as someone who was only free if that person shook off the old inhibitions of religion, communal responsibility, and morality and struck out to have it all: all the sex, all the clothes, all the interesting travel and experiences.
As Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) said in his book The Ratzinger Report, “There is something diabolical in the coldblooded perversity with which man is corrupted for the sake of money and profit is drawn from his weakness, his temptability and vulnerability in the face of temptation. Western culture is hellish when it persuades men that the sole aim of life is pleasure and self-interest.” Hefner understood that weakness well, and his work was hellish.
But one other thing struck me when reading a discussion about Hefner’s passing online: most of the quotes I saw from him seemed to point to a fear of real women. His whole philosophy of objectifying women through the images published in his magazine always seemed to boil down to an object you project an desirable image upon. You don’t call her a woman, you call her a girl or a playmate. You don’t need to know anything about her other than name and age and measurements. She needs to seem happy and glad to be with you. But this isn’t a woman: it’s a fantasy.
I’ve read many comments from women talking about the shock and disillusionment they felt as children when happening upon Playboy magazines. Is this really what our fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and uncles think about women? Is this how they see us?
The temptation then for men is to compartmentalize: No, these are just fantasies. I respect all the real women in my life. But that just means you’re dismissing all those women in the images as not real. And telling the women you know that you can’t deal with their reality, their personhood. For fear of them, you’ve set up a place to escape into a fantasy where women aren’t people, they are just eager bodies waiting for you.
This isn’t just a problem in overt pornography. In many novels and movies, women exist in the plot as mere devices or as prizes for men to win by their deeds. This has been pointed out by feminist writers, and often ignored or derided by people who are reacting against the extremes that many feminists go to in asserting “rights” to abortion and contraception. Yet it feeds into that same fantasy that Hugh Hefner exploited: rather than dealing with women as three-dimensional people, a shallow construct is substituted instead, usually designed to be pleasing to men and flattering to the ego of the hero. It’s not pornography, no, but it’s also not healthy.
Since this is a blog primarily about novels, I’d recommend reading better stories as one way to combat this tendency. Sigrid Undset, Fiorella De Maria, Gertrud von le Fort, and Dorothy Cummings McLean all come to mind as authors we publish who have written great stories about women. More people should be reading them—both men and women.
During what might possibly have been the height of the reign of Playboy’s influence, 1979, St. John Paul II visited the United States. In his homily at Boston Commons, he addressed the fear of reality that Hefner’s philosophy stood for: “Faced with problems and disappointments, many people will try to escape from their responsibility: escape in selfishness, escape in sexual pleasure, escape in drugs, escape in violence, escape in indifference and cynical attitudes. But today, I propose to you the option of love, which is the opposite of escape.”
Out of love, then, let us pray for Hugh Hefner. And pray for those who have been victimized by his philosophy, that they may also seek love and reality instead of escape into fantasy.
Image: detail of “Two Satyrs” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1618, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.