Hugh Hefner: An American Cultural Icon

Hugh Hefner, the maverick founder of Playboy Magazine, truly changed society as we know it. However, how he is to be viewed is a matter of debate. During his demise in 2017, an outpouring of grief was brought by the public. Many were sad at his passing, but some were angry because of his sudden position as women’s rights champion.

Hefner had long divided public opinion in the country, as some consider him a cultural revolutionary and the ageless sophisticate, while feminists saw him as a male chauvinist who disrespected women. But whatever views the public may have of him, it was undeniable that the Playboy founder had a big influence that lingered in American society.

Here are the reasons why Hugh Hefner, called Hef, was a cultural icon:

He was the face of the American sexual revolution. 

Hugh Hefner created Playboy, a controversial magazine that has become a pop culture mainstay. When Playboy first launched in 1953 during the Eisenhower administration, the society in America was puritanical and sexually repressive. Hefner’s image of the “Playboy lifestyle” ushered a more libertine view of sexuality that went against the puritanical elements of the times. That time, women are sexually repressed and were only allowed to represent two womanly roles: a chaste virgin or a loving mother. 

Playboy offered a break from these society’s ideals of a woman and challenged the era’s sexual restrictions. Hefner was considered by some as a sexual revolutionary who encouraged women to be sexually free. Some people say that Playboy’s impact could be seen as positive in many ways. 

Though it can be assumed as a sexist magazine, Playboy enabled a lot of progressive messages, and it was more pro-women than many gave credit for, according to Carrie Pitzulo, author of “Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy.” Hefner and his magazine supported abortion rights, access to Equal Rights Amendment and birth control, and gave funding to rape crisis centers.

During the early years of Playboy magazine, the Playmates were significant in telling the world that good girls like sex, too. That message wasn’t said out publicly during the ‘50s and the ‘60s. In that sense, Playboy helped fight the notion that a woman is either a good girl or a bad girl. 

However, this idea of sexual freedom that Hefner and Playboy brought to society has been complicated. Others say that the values in Playboy magazine were not quite as feminist as Hefner and supporters claim. Elizabeth Fraterrigo, author of “Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America,” noted that Playboy promoted a sexualized pop culture that complicates the notions of sexual freedom, “driving the culture to embrace narrow standards of physical attractiveness and sexual expression.”

Some people also blamed Playboy for a looser moral climate prevailing in America today, claiming that it led to exploitation and hard-core pornography. Critics believe that Hefner laid the groundwork for the crisis of Internet pornography.

But no matter what people’s views are about Hef, the way Playboy made sex a mainstream topic was revolutionary. 

He normalized the objectification of women. 

Hefner’s Playboy did change women from repressed housewives to objects of sexual desire and women with sexuality to show off. His creation also helped strip the prudish nature of the society of their time. But while women were revolutionized as sexual objects, they were still presented – sadly – as objects. 

Through Playboy and his bon vivant womanizing lifestyle, Hefner promoted the idea of women as sex objects, making the objectification more accessible through a magazine. The company publicized this ideology on a global scale, making Playboy responsible for turning the buying and selling of women’s bodies into a legitimate business. The Playmates, no matter how positively we view it, has been presented as objects of men’s sexual desires. 

And this is not just a collective opinion about Hefner. He actually exclaimed, “They are objects!” when an interviewer from Vanity Fair confronted him with the fact that feminists oppose him for treating women as objects. 

He encouraged men to pursue an eternal bachelor lifestyle.

As the founder of Playboy, Hefner revolutionized the image of heterosexuality in popular culture. His ideals changed people’s courtship and bedroom habits, and may have even influenced the path of modern American politics. 

Playboy was launched when the images of wholesome families in the home was the norm in American culture. It was a time when the society was experiencing waves of moral panic over the corrupting influence of comic books on the youth. But while Disney was producing The Mickey Mouse Club on TV, Hefner was publishing pictures of young women, scantily-clad, in his magazine. Hefner made the photographic depiction of female nudity legitimate, while it was privately viewed before as postcards or pinups in men’s locker rooms. Even with the criticism of social conservatives, nude women were on a display in a magazine all of a sudden. 

It was this mainstream conformity that Playboy helped men break away. Hefner marketed social rebellion in a business culture package. He sold the life of an eternal bachelor, who can wine and dine women and take them to the bedroom, but drop them if the word “marriage” even pops out. He lived out the life of an ageless sophisticate – a man immersed in the sex, women, jazz, and the luxuries of life. Hefner empowered men to cast aside the earlier social customs of committed courtship and embrace dating freely, not even exclusively. He influenced men to cast aside the milestones of being a grown-up and behave like boys in adult bodies. Playboy sold the James Bond lifestyle to middle-class men.

Men not only bought Playboy, but also the products advertised in the magazine. They spent their money on stereo systems, bachelor pads, and high-end kitchen gadgets – all to practice what Hefner preached. 

His magazine was at the forefront of issues that still divide.

It was a common joke for someone to say that they just read Playboy for the articles. As critics said, if you delve deeper into the magazine, you will see that it’s more than the nudity – it often included serious and provocative articles. Hefner also made the publication into a forum for progressive politics and sexual freedom, advocating for free speech and civil rights. He employed the works of respectable authors and quality journalism, as showcased by the works of John Updike, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut. 

For many decades, Hefner advocated for reproductive rights and equality for LGBT people. His support for transgender causes and featuring a transgender model in Playboy was a revolutionary move in his time. In an era where the American South was still under the Jim Crow law, Hefner insisted on desegration at his Playboy Clubs and among guests on his TV program. 

Though feminists reviled Hefner, other women defended him, noting that their financial freedom was due to lucrative compensations offered by Playboy Enterprises. His daughter, Christie, became a CEO of his company during a time when women leaders were rare in corporate American. 

While some people blame Hefner for the pornography epidemic, some say he did improve the position of women in the society by opening up the discussion of sex. Also, Playboy is seen to contribute to the advancing and defending the freedom of the press, and fighting black retrograde obscenity laws.

The Playboy interview became a major vehicle for newsmakers, eliciting confessionary tidbits like Jimmy Carter’s famous 1976 admission that he had lusted after women and “committed adultery in my heart many times.” The magazine also featured interviews with civil rights figures like Malcolm X, and Hefner usually invited black guests to his televised parties. 

He is a publishing legend.

Hefner published the first Playboy magazine from his kitchen. He was just 27 then, and he had no idea that it would become a cultural juggernaut, as he decided not to put a date on the first edition because he was unsure that it would make a second.

His doubt was understandable, because a magazine featured nude photographs of women pushed the boundaries of the puritanical, middle-class American society. However, the magazine became a hit as it sold more than 50,000 copies, tapping into a market of men looking for more than hunting and fishing magazines. 

Soon enough, it became the biggest men’s magazine in the world, selling seven million copies a month on the peak of its success.

Hefner said he launched the magazine in part because he was raised in a lot of repression in a strict Methodist household. He also believed that the major civilizing force in the world isn’t religion, but sex. 

Hefner became a publishing legend, a proponent of free speech and a champion of civil rights by publishing Playboy in an era when cultural policing was the norm. He audaciously pushed the First Amendment and courageously defended his editorial decisions. 

He was always experimenting with publishing controversial and cutting-edge stuff while helping launch the careers of notable writers, including Margaret Atwood and Joseph Heller. 

But due to the advent of internet, print publication has steadily declined, and Playboy was not excempted. The proliferation of free Internet pornography also lessened the demand for Playboy. In 2016, the magazine only had 800,000 subscribers, against its circulation of 5.6 million in 1975. In an effort to survive, the company recently rebranded its online content as “safe for work,” removing nudity from its magazine covers in the process. Due to this decision, Playboy expanded its reach to more digital shelves and newsstands. 

He was a living example of hustle and reward. 

Long before the hashtag #entrepreneurlife became a thing, Hefner was living the story of hustle and reward. In 1952, Hefner quit his job as a copywriter for Esquire after he was denied a $5 raise. The year after that, he took out a mortgage loan of $600 and raised $8,000 from 45 investors, including $1,000 from his mother, to launch Playboy. The first issue did not have a date because he did not know if there would be a second issue. Published in December 1953, the first Playboy featured Marilyn Monroe from a 1949 nude calendar shoot she did under a pseudonym before she was famous. The issue sold more than 50,000 copies and the rest was history.

Hefner, like his counterpart Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone, was a rare editor-owner, who lived the life he pushed in his magazine. His story was a fun entrepreneurial story, and Hefner lived a life that most baby boomer men fantasized of having.