Hugh Hefner, the founder of all things Playboy, died last night at the age of 91. That means today, celebrities from all points on the relevancy spectrum are posting their reactions on social media, and you’re reading nostalgic Facebook statuses about Playboy from people you barely know, and who barely knew the magazine. In 2017, this is what happens when a famous person dies. Their persona and legacy is buffed and shined by public, performative grief, and aside from a few outliers edgy enough to take an opposing viewpoint (#hottake) and tell it like it is, the recently deceased becomes less and less a real person, and more and more an idea of who that person was.
And while Hugh Hefner isn’t the first complicated celebrity to die—this year, the culture struggled to find the right way to memorialize Chuck Berry, who basically created rock and roll, but was also pretty horrible to women—his death represents a tricky situation. With Hef, this ambivalence has less to do with his job, and more to do with the fact that he did his job for so long. Whenever someone has been a public figure for so long, it can be hard to settle on one way to remember him. You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a self-parody. To millennials, Hefner was mostly a symbol of a patriarchy clinging grotesquely to its privilege and youth. Also, a reality TV star.
That makes him sound like Trump. But of course, he was more than that.
You can learn all about his biography—the good he did for women’s rights (he was an early agitator for birth control as well as safe and legal access to abortion), while perpetuating some damaging gender roles and beauty standards—at a regular news site. What’s really important is what a cis-gendered, white man in his 30s has to say about a man he never met.
Hint: it’s complicated.
In university, I lived in an apartment with four other guys. All of us were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This wasn’t a coincidence. Because of the all-encompassing nature of the faith, not to mention the strict lifestyle (no drinking, smoking, drugs, coffee, premarital sex, masturbation or porn), in university especially, Mormons tend to want to live with other Mormons.
Still, we were a mixed bunch. I was on my way out of Mormonism after realizing non-Mormons didn’t regularly consider suicide because they felt so guilty about getting to third base with their girlfriend. One of my roommates, whom I’ll call Bert, would later come out and also leave the church. Another one, let’s call him Ernie, had anger issues. (Yes, there were two more—including one who wasn’t white!—but they don’t factor into this story).
Before we continue, can we just take a moment to imagine the intensity of our combined repression? Just a roiling stew of faith, testosterone, and shame. What was your university experience like?
Apparently, Hugh Hefner had a conservative upbringing. His goal with Playboy was to fight back against the kind of puritanical American attitude that refused to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, sex. Like a parent, he wanted society to have it better than he did. He wanted a world where you weren’t expected to marry the first woman you slept with, at the age of 22. Basically, Hefner made Playboy to rescue men like my roommates and me. My roommate—Ernie with the anger issues—saw it differently, though. To him, Playboy was conceived and published and licensed out to clothing makers and TV producers to ruin us.
I know this because one night he and Bert got into an argument. Bert was watching The Girls Next Door, the reality show about Hugh Hefner’s three busty blonde girlfriends, in which he sometimes made cameo appearances. For those unfamiliar with the show, the fact that it was branded with the iconic bunny does not mean it was a Playboy production. It was less scintillating than your average episode of The Bachelor, and probably dumber. Potter Stewart—the Supreme Court justice who famously said that while he might not be able to intelligently describe pornography, he knows it when he sees it—would definitely give The Girls Next Door a pass.
Ernie was not as lenient. He raged against his roommate, demanded to know why he would let such filth and wickedness into the apartment, especially when he knew that Ernie was ferociously fighting the constant temptation to look at pornography. Bert refused to concede that the show was bad—at least not morally. As a reality show on E!, he understood that the show’s target audience wasn’t straight dudes looking to see some skin, but rather women and homosexuals looking to see some drama. Ernie just got angrier. If Bert’s life wasn’t threatened, his safety surely was.
Looking back now, the experience seems oddly appropriate. It represents Hefner’s legacy in a way. In his defence of the First Amendment, and his celebration of (a very specific kind) of physical beauty, he made some people very, very angry. But, at the same time, especially later in life, he seemed harmless. Less a pornographer or rebel than an old codger. As divorced from his libertine persona as Ozzy Osbourne eventually became from his heavy metal days.
Reality TV is a hell of a drug.
Around this time, I was developing my own relationship with Playboy and its founder. Like I said, I was on my way out of the Church and starting to loosen my up my lifestyle. One of my first intentional acts of rebellion was buying a digital subscription to Playboy. I could say it was for the articles, but that wouldn’t be entirely honest.
It’s hard to convey how big a step this was for me. Actually, hard isn’t the right word. Humiliating is better. It’s humiliating now for me to convey how dramatic buying Playboy was to me. Before then, I’d look at Playmates online every week or so, only to feel horribly guilty afterward. I’d tell myself that it was hardly porn, but that justification didn’t work. I knew I was sinning, and I therefore knew I was probably going to go to hell.
I cried after I signed up for my subscription. Literally. And it wasn’t the tears of the newly emancipated. I cried like a character in a short story, realizing they aren’t a child anymore. I had planted a flag in the sinful world. This was my life now. I was officially not going to fight this particular temptation. And while it was freeing to give up guilt, and it was nice to see naked women, it was sad letting go of my religious identity.
But also, there were some good articles.
I don’t know if I ever daydreamed more than I did in university. Sure, as a kid you create and inhabit imaginary worlds, but that’s so active it hardly feels the same as daydreaming. In my mid-twenties, fuelled by ego and entitlement, I let my mind wander. I would plan the books I would write—or more accurately, the blurbs that would be written on the books I would write. I would tumble into make believe futures where I’m writing for, then editing, then running my favourite magazines. I’d be the guest on my own talk show and give dazzling silent interviews to myself while I walked home from school.
I was studying magazine journalism, and so—aside from the carnal wonders in its pages—I read my new Playboys through that lens. I remember deciding that Playboy—or at least the vision of what Playboy could be—was the perfect magazine for men. Like Esquire and GQ (though not quite as good), it was smart, engaged, and culturally astute. But unlike Esquire and GQ, which both published (admittedly problematic) features and photos of beautiful women, Playboy showed nipples. Men love nipples!
The truth was that I loved my idea of Playboy more than I cared for the magazine. But I think my idea of Playboy was close to Hugh Hefner’s original conception: libertine, erudite, sophisticated, horny and pretentious.
I stopped reading Playboy regularly after university, but I’d still pick it up every now and then. I followed and had opinions about their journey away from nudity and back. I realize now that Playboy isn’t the perfect magazine for men. And that’s not a dig against Hefner—who should have ceded control and faded from view decades ago—or his son Cooper, who’s running the book now. Playboy is the perfect magazine for men in college. The brand knows this, even if they don’t admit it freely. That’s why they rank party schools, and have campus fiction contests, and throw their logo on some really bad cologne. It’s a magazine for men who daydream about being men. It’s like a fraternity when fraternities are forced to wear blazers instead of backwards caps. It’s the magazine for that guy in your English class who starts most of his sentences with ‘actually,’ and is a big fan of Chuck Palahniuk. It has its moments; it isn’t dumb. But it’s not real.
And now, neither is Hugh Hefner. Maybe that’s how he always was. He has been compared to Jay Gatsby, which is exactly right. It’s not that he was a phony. He was a creation. That creation did some tangible, important things. It wasn’t nothing to have a man push for reproductive rights back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, or for equal pay. It wasn’t nothing to publish intellectuals and bring their views into the mainstream. But, Hefner, like his magazine, was always more of an aspiration.
That’s why, when Hefner got older, and reality broke through that aspiration, it seemed, well, a bit gross. His persona cracked under the weight of old age and tell-all books and grottos filled with Legionnaires’ disease.
But before all that, the idea of who Hefner was, and who he wanted men to be, wasn’t all that bad. Oh, it wasn’t perfect—not at all—but it could have been worse. And maybe that’s all any of us can hope for after we die, that someone will look over the work that we did, the small way we changed the world, and say that on balance, we weren’t that bad.