“Sex is the driving force on the planet. We should embrace it, not see it as the enemy.” – Hugh Hefner.
The man who men wanted to be, and who women wanted to be with.
Throughout his college days, Hefner admired the likes of Esquire magazine and felt inspired. Seeking more than a suburban dream with the white picket fence, Hefner set out to create a magazine in which men from all over America could relate to. In this, he could create a dialogue which discussed women, culture, and how to live the bachelor life. Playboy, although initially named Stag Party, sought to speak the undisclosed desires of American men. As Hefner said, “The notion of the single man began in the 1950’s. The idea of the bachelor as a separate life was new and obscure.” Marilyn Monroe graced the first issue of Playboy in 1953 and the rest was history.
Hefner embarked on a mission to awaken a sexual revolution. He launched ‘Playmate of the Month’, an idea which Hefner had thought of whilst writing for a campus humour column named Shaft. Women posed for nude photos which many considered sexually liberating. This sought to promote the desirability of the everyday woman; the waitress from the restaurant, the secretary at the office. In profiling the women, a short excerpt talked about the girl’s hobbies, their occupation and a general idea of their personality, arguably humanising the idea of the pin-up girl.
Playboy emerged within a context of conservative sexuality. Many couples slept in separate beds and saved themselves until marriage, including Hefner himself. Playboy presented the opportunity to be open with sexuality, for men to appreciate the female form in all its glory, and for women to feel liberated by their own bodies. The lifestyle of Playboy was accessible through the magazine, watching Playboy After Dark, or attending one of the famous Playboy establishments.
During this era, an increase in sexology came to the forefront with Masters and Johnson’s work “Human Sexual Response”. The work was revolutionary to the way Americans viewed female sexuality, revealing that women were capable of multiple orgasms whilst their male counterpart was not. But not everyone was ready for new found sexuality to invade their homes. Hefner faced an obscenity law suit in 1963 after publishing nude pictures of Jayne Mansfield, described as “obscene, lewd, lascivious, and filthy”. When the charges were dropped following a hung jury, Hefner viewed it as a victory – not only for the magazine, but for freedom of speech.
Following Hefner’s death on 27 September 2017, many have argued that Playboy did not seek to liberate women at all, only to oppress and dehumanise them; exploiting their bodies for the pleasure of men. In many ways, this is true. The pictures of the Playmates were an object of visual stimulation, there to provide for the man’s desires. The women had to emulate the obedient counterpart, particularly within the Playboy clubs, where bunnies had to abide by strict guidelines. Looking at the development of the Playboy empire through the eyes of a 21st century context, it did of course add to the objectification of women and their bodies. However, if we consider Playboy within its own context – originating in the 1950s, in a post-war world which sought to augment the idea of marriage and children – Playboy offered a fantasy solace for all. Men and women all over America were waiting for someone to confirm that their sexual appetites did not make them outsiders.
More than this, Playboy not only aimed to reconstruct ideas of sexuality, but to be actively involved in dialogue of civil rights and global affairs. Playboy offered commentary on the Civil Rights Movement, publishing interviews with Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King Jr. It candidly discussed the Vietnam War, and opened a forum in which men who were serving could share their uncensored experiences. It fought for women’s abortion rights fiercely, demonstrating that men were not the only ones who should have the right to choose the bachelor life. Considering this, it is hard not to view the Playboy Empire as not only the driving force of shifting perspectives within the American sexual realm – but also influential in shifting those of women’s rights, global affairs and civil rights.