Was Playboy’s Hugh Hefner the feminist icon he claimed to be?

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Hugh Hefner, the iconic founder of Playboy magazine, died at his home, the Playboy Mansion, of natural causes at age 91, Playboy Enterprises said in a statement on Wednesday. Here, Rosie Boycott, co-founder of feminist magazine Spare Rib and former editor of Esquire explains how Hefner’s project changed society’s opinion on sex forever


Before there was Playboy, both in the UK and in America, there had been nudist magazines. One of the best-known was Sunshine & Health. But those people in Sunshine & Health, the women – and there were men too, were not necessarily attractive people. The whole point of the nudist magazine was to say to the reader: nudity is not lewdness. What was important about Playboy was that the nude model, invariably a good-looking young woman, was looking at the camera and making contact with the reader, and there was a kind of an illicit relationship between the man who was the consumer and the woman who was the exhibitionist in those glossy pages.

In other words, what was so startling about Playboy was that the images that Hugh Hefner put on its pages were of women saying, “I like sex, just like you do.”

That was the key to its revolutionary effect and why it has divided women ever since: was Playboy an intrinsic and vital part of the liberation of women, or was it, as many believe, the forerunner of all today’s abusive, misogynist pornography? I admit to leaning towards the latter point of view, and I’ll try to explain why. First, a little history.

Before the revolution

When the 27-year-old Hugh Hefner published the very first edition of Playboy in December, 1953, it was 44-pages long and had no date on its cover as Hefner wasn’t sure there would be a second edition. That first run sold 54,175 copies at 50 cents each and it featured Marilyn Monroe on the cover. She was the ‘Sweetheart of the Month’, a term which later became the ‘Playmate of the Month’. On the cover, she is waving her hand; inside the magazine you get to see a whole lot more. Hefner had not shot those now famous photos; he had purchased them from a local printer who made calendars. Hefner was honest about his aim: “We want to make it clear from the very start, we aren’t a family magazine. If you’re someone’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life”.

The world into which Playboy launched was prudish and uptight. It was a world, in Britain as well as in the US, where women could not get a mortgage, buy a car or even rent a TV, unless their husband or father counter-signed. If a woman did have a job – almost always from dire economic necessity – she was paid a fraction of her male colleague’s wages. Sexually, we were living in a world where abortions were illegal, the pill still a distant future, and our behaviour rigorously policed by a society which expected its women to be chaste, a society which said that sex belonged in marriage, never outside it and not before it. The idea that women could actually enjoy going to bed with a man was, publicly at least, unheard of and shocking.

I came of age at the end of the Sixties, when all those tenets were being challenged. I worked on an underground magazine called Frendz. Marsha Rowe, the co-founder of Spare Rib, was working on OZ, which, more than any other underground magazine, challenged every aspect of sexual behaviour. The infamous OZ trial, which saw the three OZ editors in the dock of the Old Bailey charged with obscenity [for a sexualised Rupert Bear parody created by a 15-year-old schoolboy], jailed and released within three days, threw a glaring spotlight on the hypocritical prudity of our world and our obscenity laws.

In the ‘alternative society’ sex was high on the agenda, but it was still from a male point of view. Even though Marsha and I both defended the rights of OZ magazine to publish crude sexual cartoons, within time we realised that the sexual liberation espoused in the alternative society meant that women were meant to be sexually available, more or less any time. To be anything else risked being labelled ‘old fashioned’, ‘prudish’ and ‘scared’. It might have been a very different world from the one my mother had grown up in, but it was not a world where women could flourish in their own right. The result was Spare Rib which we launched in 1972.

Playboy, meanwhile, was in its hey-day, selling millions of copies across the world (its bestselling edition was November 1972 – four months after we launched Spare Rib – when it sold 7,161,561 copies). Hefner’s genius was to realise that, in order to have some redeeming social value, Playboy must offer something other than beautiful, naked women to the buyer. Over the years the crème de la crème of authors and novelists – Vladimir Nabokov, PG Wodehouse, Margaret Atwood, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, even the late, impeccably correct Doris Lessing – have appeared in the magazine. Sure, they were paid enormous fees, but I think it went further than just money. Hefner’s mix of sex and high literature was read by everyone who mattered from the world of politics, business and the arts. There was a certain, undeniable class to Playboy, a risqueness which proved attractive to writers and readers. For a short while, in the early days of Spare Rib, I had a transatlantic fling with the editor of OUI magazine, Hefner’s short-lived, younger version of Playboy. Did I feel guilty? Yes, a little, but I was of the view that sexual liberation was a key part of women’s liberation and the philosophy of OUI (ballsier, tougher and much more independent than Playboy) was appealing.

The feminist fightback

But as feminism gathered pace, no amount of literary acquisitions could prevent the brick-bats raining down on Hefner’s head. Gloria Steinem reputedly said that a, “woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual,” and indeed, feminists of the late Sixties and early Seventies were quick to dismiss Hefner and his magazine as being nothing more than the mouthpiece of a world which wanted to keep women as objects of men’s desire and nothing more. Hefner always countered by saying that his centrefolds are ‘friends and equals’ and, unlike most contemporary porn, Playboy models do have names, jobs and opinions. In their interviews, they’re assertive and intelligent (profiles that are always demeaned by Playboy’s habit of always including their measurements).

But what was hard to argue with, and why I believe Playboy played a crucial part in the sexual revolution, was that Hefner always insisted that women had desire, indeed that we had a right to desire, just as society assumed men had. Over the 10-year period from the early Sixties to the time that Spare Rib launched, Playboy championed birth control, equal pay and abortion rights, something both impressive and surprising. Again, it can be dismissed as a cynical ploy to disguise soft porn as something campaigning and serious, but Hefner went further, writing about civil rights, racism and gay liberation at a time when those topics were mainly confined to small-selling alternative publications.

Twenty years after co-founding Spare Rib, I became the editor of Esquire magazine, which had just launched in London. Along with GQ, we were the only men’s magazines on the market. When I took the job, I was hounded by the question, “How could you, a feminist, edit a men’s magazine which includes pictures of seminaked women?” In the States, in pre-Playboy days, Esquire had been a huge seller, with its mix of high calibre journalism and fetching photos of fully-clothed, though raunchily posed, starlets. Hefner, at the time, was a promotional copywriter on Esquire and he saw his chance, launching Playboy in direct competition to Esquire and almost instantly overtaking it in sales. In time, Esquire reversed their ‘no breasts’ policy but it was too late to turn the tide.

I would answer the question in much the same way as I tried to answer my father, in December of 1973. Our Christmas issue of Spare Rib had shown a woman with her head thrown back in the supposed joys of orgasm. The cover line: ‘Orgasms? Have one yourself for Christmas’. Part of feminism’s mission was to reclaim our sexual rights and needs, or as Hefner put it years earlier, our right to desire. Unfortunately, my furious father wasn’t convinced by my embarrassed attempt to explain and the magazine was banished behind the fridge at my sister’s house where it would remain until she moved 30 years later

I relished the job at Esquire because it seemed to me that feminism will always be a one-sided, and thus ultimately unfulfilled mission, if men aren’t equally engaged. I had inherited a magazine culture where four or five pages featuring sexy actresses in various states of undress were de rigueur.

So we showed breasts, but never full-frontal nudity. I felt comfortable provided the way they were photographed showed them clearly in control, proud of their bodies, up for some fun, never with that look of submission that characterises so much top shelf pornography. Kate Moss appeared on our cover painted gold: she recently did another, far more suggestive I thought, photo shoot involving net, jewels and velvet. Now she is to appear on Playboy’s 60th-anniversary cover.

Playboy, by the Nineties, had become a shadow of its former self; leapfrogged by a determined and ruthless porn industry to whom its cheeky centrefolds were merely quaint, the sort of image that might appear on a box of chocolates at Christmas time. In time, the same thing happened with our UK men’s market: Maxim, Stuff, ZOO, Nuts took the basic mix of fashion, cars and stuff and injected pornographic images that are both ruthless and unsettling. When that happened (in the mid- Nineties) I left Esquire, aware that I was going to have to push the boundaries in ways that I didn’t feel comfortable about. In all those magazines, and across the internet, it seems to me that women have, once again, lost their voices and their sexual independence, existing solely for the pleasures of men, and for whatever sexual demand a bloke might desire. It is scary stuff and it’s a million miles from the women who posed for Playboy during its golden years and the kind of magazine that Hefner created. Will the presence of Kate Moss, featuring as Playboy’s 60th anniversary centrefold, change that? Sadly, I fear not.

“I was Playmate Of The Month”

Marina Pepper, 46, is an activist and Liberal Democrat local politician. She was Playmate of the Month in March 1987 aged 19

“I was approached by photographers from about the age of 16 as I had what in those days was called a ‘pneumatic’ figure. The next thing I knew I was in The Star. I didn’t really have much of a say in it. I was probably too young to have an opinion.

Around that time, I met some men at an audition and they told me, ‘You look too intelligent’. So I worked on the ‘daft look’ and suddenly I got Playboy.

For me, glamour modelling simply allowed me to be time-rich. I could be involved in politics. I got about £17,500 for my Playboy shoot, which I was flown out to Chicago for. The hats I wore were by Philip Treacy and my lingerie came from a posh shop in Knightsbridge. There’s a picture of me drinking tea like a naughty inversion of English habits.

One day, when we stopped for a break I went into the tea room naked except for some jewellery. The next thing I knew, I was being hauled into some editor’s office, being asked, ‘What the f*** are you doing, walking around naked?’

For them, my modesty, the supposed innate goodness that is at the heart of every Playboy model should have overridden any kind of practical considerations. The Playboy model is enshrined; their ideal centrefold is a virgin who’s never appeared anywhere else nude. In Chicago, there were activists picketing the Playboy offices. I did wrestle with feminist principles, but probably not in a recognisable academic form. It was actually noted that in my shoot I was too ‘closed’, as I had my hand across my body so there must have been something inside me that said, ‘You can have the image, but you’re not having me.’

Looking back now I think there’s an irony to it, like images of Fifties housewives. We know that isn’t how life is, but it’s sort of retro chic. But ultimately Playboy promotes inequality and women as objects. It’s a quirky, historical, vintage comfort but it doesn’t have any relevance.”

This article was originally published in December 2013, to mark the 60th anniversary of Playboy.

Images: Rex Features