Playboy is a minefield. For a while now, I’ve resisted adding to any commentary, simply because the whole thing has been analysed to death. That was, until I heard the news that Hugh Hefner has proposed to his latest 24 year old girlfriend, Crystal Harris.
Reactions from press and public alike have ranged from the fairly placid and impartial ‘if they love each other, then good for them!’ to the rather more vitriolic ‘the woman is a whore, and she’s in it for the money!’
Whilst I wish I could agree with the former, Crystal is only 24 and Hefner is 84 years old- there’s obviously something more at play here. I yearn to nod my head in agreement with the well-wishers, and bid the couple good luck in their impending marriage, but the cynic in me just won’t allow it. In an ideal world, their business would be entirely their own, but Hefner’s personal life has always created publicity storms. Perhaps the media would leave them alone if they were two entirely private individuals, but they’re not- Hefner tweeted his engagement plans to his 446,721 Twitter followers on Christmas Eve, and in the past he’s allowed documentaries and reality TV shows access into his private life. Hef made is personal life public a long time ago.
However, that’s not to say I agree with the latter reaction. It’s too simplistic. There’s one stance that is often left out of the Hefner debates, and that is: ‘Hugh Hefner is thinking with his dick’.
Why isn’t this stance commented on more often? Is it because we expect this behaviour from a man who has made millions from young women’s bodies? That this somehow make his actions excusable, whilst his girlfriends and bunnies and playmates often face judgement and scorn? Why are these women considered gold diggers, whilst Hef hobbles away in his dressing gown, judgement free? What’s so controversial about pointing out the fact that Hugh Hefner often thinks with his dick? Is this aspect taken for granted? Is it a given? Most importantly, is it because he’s a man?
She may be in it for the money, but I doubt he’s in it for solely for her personality and wit.
In his critical analysis of Hefner’s sudden and meteoric assimilation into Western culture (Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream), Steven Watts notes:
‘Hefner and playboy popularized an ideology of sexual liberation in the 1950s that began to erode traditional values…. Hefner entered public life as the pamphleteer of the sexual revolution… [He] propagated the deceptively simple idea that sex should be fun. Hefner once quipped ‘we believe sex should be enjoyed right along with other nasty pleasures like drinking and gambling’.
But in the 1950s those ‘nasty pleasures’ were enjoyed almost exclusively by men, and what Hefner is really saying here is that women and sex should be enjoyed like any other vice. Consumed, enjoyed, and eventually discarded. Hefner rebelled against the traditional values of sex, religion, propriety and morality- but Hugh Hefner is not really interested in female sexual liberation unless it’s convenient for him. He peddles in that ever present lie of female empowerment- the doctrine that promises young women fame, money and the world if they’re willing to take their clothes off for it. That’s never really seemed like empowerment to me. Quite the contrary- it sounds like a play right into the misogynist’s hands.
Ladies, Hugh Hefner has never had your best interests at heart- unless, of course your best interests correlate with his. In this sexual ideology, women are vices- fun, naughty and illicitly thrilling- but like all vices, they’re enjoyed transiently, used up, discarded, and it’s on to the next one. Enjoy the thrill and excitement of gambling, order another whiskey, but once the game is over and the drink is consumed- next! Hefner played a significant part in the sexual revolution, but only for men.
Playboy’s sexual ideology is actually quite conservative (despite the obvious exceptions) – it’s rather repressive in terms of female sex and sexuality, as well as promoting hetero normative ideals- there’s very little endorsement of homosexual sex – unless, of course two women are pleasuring each other for the benefit and arousal of an on looking man.
It comes as no surprise, then, that, at 84 years old, Hefner has discarded his playmate girlfriend number one of seven years, Holly Madison (the woman who he was always reluctant to marry) in favour of other blondes, who he has consequently ditched in favour of 24 year old Crystal Harris.
Crystal Harris hasn’t fallen for his charm, say the critics. She’s agreeing to marry him because he’s old, and she’s rubbing her hands in glee at the amount of cash that will inevitably come her way once Hefner has popped his clogs. What a vindictive, opportunistic, shrewd business women his latest lady is. Perhaps these are valid assumptions, but if I were to buy into them I’d also have to accept the assumption that Hefner is somehow being conned, or taken for a ride. I find that hard to believe.
It would be naive to suggest that Hefner is some kind of creeping predator, ensnaring young, impressionable young women, making them his ‘victims’, inviting them to join his lurid sex empire. That’s the sort of reaction I’d expect from certain factions of the religious right- all too ready to imply that the young women who choose to take part in this Playboy business are weak damsels in distress, waiting to be saved. No, that would be short-sighted. It’s very clear that these women know exactly what they’re doing, and the benefits they’ll get out of it- celebrity status, centrefolds, reality TV shows, etc.
What isn’t naive is to suggest that sex, sexuality and sexiness are entirely transformed once the aspect of money becomes involved. The phenomenon of Playboy’s sexuality reduces everyone to mere body parts- women are just curves and limbs, men are encouraged to think with their dicks. There’s no doubt that Hugh Hefner contributed significantly to the mid-20th century sexual revolution. Whether you’d argue that his effect was a positive or negative one, his images of sex, sexuality and sexiness have always been restrictively narrow- overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly slim, and overwhelmingly blonde.
It would be very indicative of society if this couple were held up in admiration as some kind of model partnership. They don’t, which is fortunate- Hugh Hefner and Playboy have always split opinion and prompted debate.
Power, money, wealth and sex are inextricably linked- a predictable by product of a still misogynistic and capitalist society.
Or, the couple could just be in love. Who am I to judge?