On the Passing of Hugh Hefner

My first encounter with Hugh Hefner came through reading Gloria Steinem’s seminal essay, “I Was a Playboy Bunny”, as a 12-year-old budding feminist and writer. It failed to compute in my precocious but pre-adolescent brain. Why would a grown man want to be surrounded and served drinks by grown women in bunny ears and fluffy tails?

Having the good fortune to grow up in a truly equal and feminist family, I did not see in Hefner’s imagined world a reflection of anything I knew in my own home. I knew about sex and sexuality and bodies and birth and nudity in ways that had nothing to do with the ridiculous pageantry I later discovered when I picked up the occasional Playboy magazine. Why were these women in such strange positions? Why did they all have rectangular pubes?

I never worried that I had to look like these women, or be like these women. I knew, before I encountered Laura Mulvey’s phrase “to-be-looked-at-ness” in a media studies seminar, that these women had a static, gauzy, two-dimensional purpose far removed from the dynamic life I lived in my body, my mind, and the world. I knew there were other ways to look at women, to look at bodies, to be looked at, to look at myself.

Shortly after I discovered three-dimensional sex, I remember thumbing through a Cosmopolitan magazine and coming upon an article about how not to look fat during sex. Before I had experienced sex, I might have been very curious about how not to look fat during it. But now I knew better. The point of sex was not about how you looked while it was happening. The point of sex was about how it felt. It was about pleasure and intimacy and joy and fun and all the things a body could do besides look fat. All the things a mind and heart could feel besides worrying about looking fat, or being looked at at all. I had spent a lot of my pre-sexual life worrying about looking fat, or being fat. It was sex that began to free me from these fears.

With the passing of this man, people will talk about how he made a space for sex without shame, or at least sex with less shame. And to some degree, he did. But he and his magazine and his “empire” of grown men in pajamas also made a space devoted to reducing women to their to-be-looked-at-ness, to a flat image on a page, a very narrow standard of female beauty. It was a space that eventually normalized–even celebrated–the idea of very old men using pharmaceutical drugs to penetrate women–or brag, plausibly, about penetrating women–young enough to be their granddaughters. It enabled and sold this fantasy. In the face of the vastness and violence of much of the internet’s current pornography, a centerfold of a woman with a landing-strip bush now seems quaint. But the attitudes of possession, domination, and infantilization of women so grotesquely embodied at the highest levels of our government, and in the churches not separate from our state, are connected to these similar images and attitudes, enshrined in our culture for centuries, at the heart of the power imbalances of millennia.

Though it is women who are infantilized as babies and bunnies by the Playboy mythology, there is something infantile about the men, too, geriatric as they often are. Though the images and pajamas and mansions are meant to project power, and the drugs old men take are meant to make them hard, there is something about the softness of the soft-focus that projects, to me, the opposite. Namely, an impotence.

And so I cannot help but imagine that the man in the mansion and the many who admired and envied him somehow, for all their bluster and pillows and pools and slippery fabric, preferred their women either on the page or on their arms, either flattened out or worn as an accessory. I am not convinced that these men, or the sexuality they cultivated, were truly interested in what women look and feel and sound and smell and taste like when we are not worried about looking fat, when we are not shiny, frozen, and airbrushed in a magazine. I think this man may have preferred looking to touching, as he preferred his women covered in artificial bunny fluff, or flat and thin as paper. He died a rich man because he was not alone in these desires.

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