Hugh Hefner: Liberator or Exploiter?

When I first heard of Hugh Hefner’s death late last month, the first thing to came to mind was disappointment. As a big fan of his reality tv series ‘Girls of the Playboy Mansion’, his death confirmed there would never be a series reunion or spin off which made my sister and I very upset. We were always in awe of the glamourous girls, fancy cars and luxurious European holidays portrayed on the show. Hef, perceived to us, to be simply the cute old guy in the silk robe and sailors hat, trotting along in the background awkwardly caressing his 20- something year old companion.



Who knew that years later so much debate would arise around the integrity of this man upon his death. At the mere age of 13 when the show’s final episode aired 7 years ago, the ‘Hef’ that had been portrayed to me, through the eyes of a child seemed quite frankly, harmless. I never considered Hugh Hefner as the media mogul, Playboy founder or of the morals he represented to the world. Until today. Now as an informed, educated young adult, I will put my fangirling days of Holly, Kendra and Bridget (Hefs 3 girlfriends during the show FYI) aside and consider: ‘was he really as bad as they all say? A great sexual liberator or sexist exploiter?


A polarising figure, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner received both glorification and criticism on the news of his passing. There is no doubt that Hugh Hefner was a cultural icon who reinvented the way mainstream media talks about sex. However, to the surprise of many, Playboy, as a representation of Hef himself, stood on common ground with liberal elements of the women’s movement in the mid 60s.  Elizabeth Fraterrigo notes in Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America that, the publication,

[Playboy] challenged the “family wage ideology that insisted on responsible husbands/fathers caring for financially dependent homemakers.”

Playboy has also thrown its support behind legalising abortion, sex education, and birth control. Quoting Valentina Zaraya, “the publication published pro-choice articles and interviews and filed an amicus curia (friend of the court) brief in Roe v. Wadethe landmark case legalizing abortion across the U.S”.



1970 Playboy magazine cover. Displaying magazines support of abortion and womens rights.

Despite the formidable representation that Playboy is all soft-core porn, the publication is not limited to its center fold reputation. Throughout its years, Playboy has been home to legitimate pieces of journalism, on current affairs and political issues, all written by the most notable authors of the time; many whom which were female. Under Hefner’s direction, Playboy published a host of female writers, including Germaine Greer, ironically enough, regarded as a major voice of the second- wave feminist movement and Margaret Atwood, author of the acclaimed novel the Handmaid’s Tale, a story entailing female oppression. Click here to read my article on The Handmaid’s Tale wink wink.

In arguably his most female empowering move to date, Hefner appointed his daughter, Christie Hefner, president of Playboy Enterprises in 1975, then CEO and chairman in 1988. Considering the fact that today less than 6.4% of CEO’s are female, Hefner’s decision to make a woman the leader of his predominantly male focused organisation, more than 40 years ago, makes a powerful statement to what Playboy stands for, even today.

“That many women are not just comfortable in their sexuality, but reveling in it and are acutely aware of deploying their power.”  – Kath Kenny

Christie Hefner served in her dual role until 2009, making her the longest-serving female chairman and CEO of a public company in U.S. history.

Hugh Hefner with daughter and Playboy CEO Christie Hefner.

Despite the above illustrating a ‘pro Hef’ argument, many critics argue that he viewed women solely as “sex objects” and was infact an enemy of the feminist movement. One search of his name on Google will give you thousands of articles supporting this and recounts of the destruction he caused to all females. And I don’t fully disagree, the world of sexuality will always be a controversial topic, and there are certainly avenues that Hefner could have opted for to lessen the blow. But Hefner and his brain-child Playboy aren’t the first and won’t be the last to revel and profit in the nudity of women.  So props go to the guy for at least trying to make a positive difference to women’s lives whilst doing it.


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