There's absolutely no doubting that in the early 1950s, Hugh Marston Hefner created a brand that would go on to become one of the most recognizable of the 20th century. Playboy was unlike any publication at the time, with its quality contemporary writing, and highly curated (albeit sexualized content) the magazine very successfully fabricated a fantasy world enjoyed and experienced by millions of men; and Hefner was at the center of it.
"Middle-class American society in the 1950s was notoriously strait-laced and the combination of tastefully photographed women and intellectually stimulating articles appealed to the post-war urban male.
Hefner famously remarked, "I never thought of it as a sex magazine. I always thought of it as a lifestyle magazine in which sex was one important ingredient."
"It was an unqualified success, selling more than 50,000 copies within weeks of its first issue hitting stands. Hefner had found a niche in the market for men's publications, which was then dominated by hunting, shooting and fishing periodicals."
The second issue saw the creation of the publication's iconic branding - bunny ears and bowtie wearing women. For decades to come, the brand would enjoy the revenue raked in by products merchandized with the popular symbols.
With all that said, and acknowledging Hefner as a media mogul and highly successful entrepreneur, I couldn't help but adopt a more critical stance when reflecting back on his life, today.
Personally speaking, the magazine and brand as a whole obviously presents women in highly sexualized photographic content that is primarily geared towards a male demographic. But beyond that, it represented fantasies that were either dated or stereotypically untrue, depending on which way you look at it. The male centric enterprise employs and portrays women in a manner that they viewed as "sexy", and not the other way around. Female perceived fantasies have never seemingly been part of the narrative of Playboy. The female voice or vision is visibly absent from the brand regardless of what many say.
Are these active choices on behalf of the business? How much of say did Kate Moss have on her cover shoot? Are the famous Hollywood faces proud representatives and subscribers of the Playboy universe, or are they simply complying with the vision and direction of a much elderly man with a rather unsavory appetite to be intimately connected to much younger women?
The way I see it, Playboy reinforced, and still to this day does, the attributes of the patriarchal society we live in; and in recent years, with us riding yet another wave of feminism within our social ecosystem, I couldn't see the publication surviving as it was; though today, back in circulation, still with nude photography serving as core content, but apparently adapted to a more modern audience, has Playboy really evolved? Is it alleviating some of the questions and criticism posed in the past though? In my opinion, not really, but for different reasons. I'm troubled by the fact that Playboy continuously found itself to be at the epicenter of criticism due to the retro nature of the content, not the content itself.
Writer Peggy Drexler "railed against the magazine’s portrayal of Kate Moss as a “man’s fantasy at the ready.” “It is no longer every man’s fantasy to dominate a woman dressed as a furry woodland creature,” she wrote. “It is no longer every woman’s fantasy to oblige.”
And I couldn't agree more.
Another great read on the matter is Gloria Steinem's, "A Bunny's Tale."
How do you feel about Hugh Hefner's legacy and career? Do you think Playboy, apart from being highly triumphant household name amongst male readers, has considered the opinions and evaluations of women at all? Hugh Hefner was a great business man, I'll give you that, but is no one else creeped out by his obsession for women nearly 60 years his junior?
Quote credits: BBC, The Cut.