With the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner on Sept. 27, cultural historian and contrarian feminist
Have you ever been to a party at the Playboy Mansion?
No, I'm not a partygoer! [laughs]
So let me just ask: Was Hugh Hefner a misogynist?
Absolutely not! The central theme of my wing of pro-sex feminism is that all celebrations of the sexual human body are positive. Second-wave feminism went off the rails when it was totally unable to deal with erotic imagery, which has been a central feature of the entire history of Western art ever since Greek nudes.
So let’s dig in a little — what would you say was Playboy’s cultural impact?
Hugh Hefner absolutely revolutionized the persona of the American male. In the post World War II era, men's magazines were about hunting and fishing or the military, or they were like Esquire, erotic magazines with a kind of European flair.
Hefner re-imagined the American male as a connoisseur in the continental manner, a man who enjoyed all the fine pleasures of life, including sex. Hefner brilliantly put sex into a continuum of appreciative response to jazz, to art, to ideas, to fine food. This was something brand new. Enjoying fine cuisine had always been considered unmanly in America. Hefner updated and revitalized the image of the British gentleman, a man of leisure who is deft at conversation — in which American men have never distinguished themselves — and with the art of seduction, which was a sport refined by the French.
Hefner’s new vision of American masculinity was part of his desperate revision of his own Puritan heritage. On his father's side, he descended directly from William Bradford, who came over on the Mayflower and was governor of Plymouth Colony, the major settlement of New England Puritans.
But Hefner’s world-view was already dated by the explosion of the psychedelic 1960s. The anything-goes, free-love atmosphere —illustrated by all that hedonistic rolling around in the mud at Woodstock in 1969 — made the suave Hefner style seem old-fashioned and buttoned up. Nevertheless, I have always taken the position that the men's magazines — from the glossiest and most sophisticated to the rawest and raunchiest — represent the brute reality of sexuality. Pornography is not a distortion. It is not a sexist twisting of the facts of life but a kind of peephole into the roiling, primitive animal energies that are at the heart of sexual attraction and desire.
What could today's media learn from what Hef did at Playboy?
It must be remembered that Hefner was a gifted editor who knew how to produce a magazine that had great visual style and that was a riveting combination of pictorial with print design. Everything about Playboy as a visual object, whether you liked the magazine or not, was lively and often ravishing.
In the early 1990s, you said that Hugh Hefner "ushered in a revolution in American sexual consciousness. Some say that the women in Playboy come across as commodities, like a stereo, but I think Playboy is more an appreciation of pleasure of all kinds." What would you add to his legacy today, if anything?
I would hope that people could see the positives in the Playboy sexual landscape — the foregrounding of pleasure and fun and humor. Sex is not a tragedy, it's a comedy! [laughs]
What do you think about the fact that Trump's childhood hero and model of sophisticated American masculinity was Hefner?
Before the election, I kept pointing out that the mainstream media based in Manhattan, particularly The New York Times, was hopelessly off in the way it was simplistically viewing Trump as a classic troglodyte misogynist. I certainly saw in Trump the entire Playboy aesthetic, including the glitzy world of casinos and beauty pageants. It's a long passé world of confident male privilege that preceded the birth of second-wave feminism. There is no doubt that Trump strongly identified with it as he was growing up. It seems to be truly his worldview.
But it is categorically not a world of unwilling women. Nor is it driven by masculine abuse. It's a world of show girls, of flamboyant femaleness, a certain kind of strutting style that has its own intoxicating sexual allure — which most young people attending elite colleges today have had no contact with whatever.
I instantly recognized and understood it in Trump because I had always been an admirer of Hefner's sexual cosmos. I can certainly see how retrograde and nostalgic it is, but at the same time I maintain that even in the photos that The New York Times posted in trying to convict Trump of sexism, you can feel leaping from these pictures the intense sizzle of sexual polarization — in that long-ago time when men were men and women were women!
My 1960s generation was the gender-bending generation — we were all about blending the genders in fashion and attitude. But it has to be said that in terms of world history, the taste for and interest in androgyny is usually relatively brief. And it comes at late and decadent phases of culture! [laughs] World civilizations predictably return again and again to sexual polarization, where there is a tremendous electric charge between men and women.
The unhappy truth is that the more the sexes have blended, the less each sex is interested in the other. So we’re now in a period of sexual boredom and inertia, complaint and dissatisfaction, which is one of the main reasons young men have gone over to pornography. Porn has become a necessary escape by the sexual imagination from the banality of our everyday lives, where the sexes are now routinely mixed in the workplace.
With the sexes so bored with each other, all that's left are these feminist witch-hunts. That's where the energy is! And meanwhile, men are shrinking. I see men turning away from women and simply being content with the world of fantasy because women have become too think-skinned, resentful and high maintenance.
And American women don't know what they want any longer. In general, French women — the educated, middle-class French women, I mean — seem to have a feminine composure, a distinct sense of themselves as women, which I think women in America have gradually lost as they have won job equality in our high-pressure career system.
Trump has certainly steadily hired and promoted women in his businesses, but it has to be said that his vision of women as erotic beings remains rather retrograde. Part of his nationwide support seems to be coming from his bold defense of his own maleness. Many mainstream voters are gratified by his reassertion of male pride and confidence. Trump supporters may be quite right that, in this period of confusion and uncertainty, male identity needs to be reaffirmed and reconsolidated. (And I’m speaking here as a Democrat who voted for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein!)
Ultimately every culture seems to return to sexual polarization because it may be in the best interest of human beings, whether we like it or not. Nature drives every species to procreate, although not necessarily when there's overpopulation!
Gloria Steinem has said that what Playboy doesn't know about women could fill a book. What do you think about that?
What Playboy doesn't know about well-educated, upper-middle-class women with bitter grievances against men could fill a book! I don't regard Gloria Steinem as an expert on any of the human appetites, sexuality being only one of them. Interviews with Steinem were documenting from the start how her refrigerator contained nothing but two bottles of carbonated water. Steinem's philosophy of life is extremely limited by her own childhood experiences. She came out of an admittedly unstable family background. I’m so tired of that animus of hers against men, which she’s been cranking out now for decade after decade. I come from a completely different Italian-American background — very food-centric and appetite-centric. Steinem, with that fulsomely genteel WASP persona of hers, represents an attitude of malice and vindictiveness toward men that has not proved to be in the best interest of young women today.
So would you say that her other comment — that women reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual — is just an expression of her animus toward men?
Oh Lord, how many times is Gloria Steinem going to play the Nazi card? What she said about me in the 1990s was: "Her calling herself a feminist is sort of like a Nazi saying he’s not anti-Semitic.” That’s the simplistic level of Steinem's thinking!
Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi, all of those relentlessly ideological feminists are people who have wandered away from traditional religion and made a certain rabid type of feminist rhetoric their religion. And their fanaticism has poisoned the public image of feminism and driven ordinary, mainstream citizens away from feminism. It’s outrageous.
I hugely admired the early role that Steinem played in second-wave feminism because she was very good as a spokesperson in the 1970s. She had a very soothing manner that made it seem perfectly reasonable for people to adopt feminist principles. She normalized the image of feminism when there were a lot of crazy feminists running around (like Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol). That was Steinem’s great contribution, as far as I'm concerned. Also, I credit her for co-founding Ms. magazine and thereby contributing that very useful word, Ms., to the English language, which allows us to refer to a woman without signaling her marital status. I think that's a tremendous accomplishment.
But aside from that, Steinem is basically a socialite who always hid her early dependence on men in the social scene in New York. And as a Democrat, I also blame her for having turned feminism into a covert adjunct of the Democratic party. I have always felt that feminism should transcend party politics and be a big tent welcoming women of faith and of all views into it. Also, I hold against Steinem her utter, shameless hypocrisy during the Bill Clinton scandal. After promoting sexual harassment guidelines, which I had also supported since the 1980s, Steinem waved away one of the worst cases of sexual harassment violation that can ever be imagined — the gigantic gap of power between the President of the United States and an intern! All of a sudden, oh, no, it was all fine, it was “private.” What rubbish! That hypocrisy by partisan feminist leaders really destroyed feminism for a long time. So now feminism has rebounded, but unfortunately it's a particularly virulent brand of feminism that’s way too reminiscent of the MacKinnon-Dworkin sex hysteria of the 1980s.
Is there anything of lasting value in Hugh Hefner’s legacy?
We can see that what has completely vanished is what Hefner espoused and represented — the art of seduction, where a man, behaving in a courtly, polite and respectful manner, pursues a woman and gives her the time and the grace and the space to make a decision of consent or not. Hefner’s passing makes one remember an era when a man would ask a woman on a real date — inviting her to his apartment for some great music on a cutting-edge stereo system (Playboy was always talking about the best new electronics!) — and treating her to fine cocktails and a wonderful, relaxing time. Sex would emerge out of conversation and flirtation as a pleasurable mutual experience. So now when we look back at Hefner, we see a moment when there was a fleeting vision of a sophisticated sexuality that was integrated with all of our other aesthetic and sensory responses.
Instead, what we have today, after Playboy declined and finally disappeared off the cultural map, is the coarse, juvenile anarchy of college binge drinking, fraternity keg parties where undeveloped adolescent boys clumsily lunge toward naive girls who are barely dressed in tiny mini skirts and don't know what the hell they want from life. What possible romance or intrigue or sexual mystique could survive such a vulgar and debased environment as today's residential campus social life?
Do men need a kind of Hefner for today to give an example of how to interact with women in a sophisticated manner?
Yes. Women's sexual responses are notoriously slower than men's. Truly sophisticated seducers knew that women have to be courted and that women love an ambiance, setting a stage. Today, alas, too many young women feel they have to provide quick sex or they’ll lose social status. If a guy can't get sex from them, he'll get it from someone else. There’s a general bleak atmosphere of grudging compliance.
Today’s hook-up culture, which is the ultimate product of my generation’s sexual revolution, seems markedly disillusioning in how it has reduced sex to male needs, to the general male desire for wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am efficiency, with no commitment afterwards. We're in a period of great sexual confusion and rancor right now. The sexes are very wary of each other. There’s no pressure on men to marry because they can get sex very easily in other ways.
The sizzle of sex seems gone. What Hefner's death forces us to recognize is that there is very little glamour and certainly no mystery or intrigue left to sex for most young people. Which means young women do not know how to become women. And sex has become just another physical urge that can be satisfied like putting coins into a Coke machine.
This may be one reason for the ferocious pressure by so many current feminists to reinforce the Stalinist mechanisms, the pernicious PC rules that have invaded colleges everywhere. Feminists want supervision and surveillance of dating life on campus to punish men if something goes wrong and the girl doesn't like what happened. I am very concerned that what young women are saying through this strident feminist rhetoric is that they feel incapable of conducting independent sex lives. They require adult intrusion and supervision and penalizing of men who go astray. But if feminism means anything, it should be encouraging young women to take control of every aspect of their sex lives, including their own impulses, conflicts and disappointments. That's what's tragic about all this. Young women don't seem to realize that in demanding adult inquiry into and adjudication of their sex lives, they are forfeiting their own freedom and agency.
Young women are being taught that men have all the power and have used it throughout history to oppress women. Women don't seem to realize how much power they have to crush men! Strong women have always known how to control men. Oscar Wilde said women are complex and men are simple. Is it society or is it nature that is unjust? This was the big question that I proposed in Sexual Personae, where I argued that our biggest oppressor is actually nature, not society. I continue to feel that my pro-sex wing of feminism, which does not see sexual imagery or men in general as the enemy, has the best and healthiest message for young women.
There is a big push/pull happening in the entertainment industry about female voices and representation around directors in Hollywood. Surely there's nothing wrong with that, right, in your opinion?
All this constant complaining by women in Hollywood, I really don't understand it. I’m disturbed by women acting as if the world owes them opportunities, when there are so many hugely rich women stars in movies and music who should be using their millions to fund the creation of production companies precisely for the kind of hiring that they want. All those wealthy performers with their multiple houses — how about selling one of them? And let them do whatever feminist projects they want and see if they can sell it to the general public.
Look at the way you had George Lucas and Steven Spielberg coming together when they had nothing — they were just young men with a dream, with a vision, and they made an enormously successful series of films with global impact. Look at how many young male billionaires dropped out of college, and you got the Apple computer and Facebook.
I blame women for their own lack of imagination. There was a period when there were so many really unique and memorable films by women. Lisa Cholodenko's High Art is an example. That’s an amazing film. And what about Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts? A knock-out film with vivid characters and a wonderful sense of place. But I know how difficult it is to get the funding for films. It can be like a five-year process, and it saps people’s creative energies. And it's kind of a double whammy — when women are able to produce movies that bring in big bucks on the international stage, that’s when woman directors will get more chances. But women can certainly cut their teeth by making really important, low-budget films. I want to see them! Show us. Show us the quality of your mind and your work, okay? At a certain point, it’s counterproductive when you're claiming that someone else always has to open doors for you.
You have discussed the issue of imagery — what are your thoughts about the Playboy bunny costume?
Feminists of that period were irate about it — they felt that it reduced women to animals. It is true it’s animal imagery, but a bunny is a child's toy, for heaven's sake! I think you could criticize the bunny image that Hefner created by saying it makes a woman juvenile and infantilizes her. But the type of animal here is a kind of key to Hefner's sensibility because a bunny is utterly harmless. Multiplying like bunnies: Hefner was making a strange kind of joke about the entire procreative process. It seems to me like a defense formation — Hefner turning his Puritan guilts into humor. It suggests that, despite his bland smile, he may always have suffered from a deep anxiety about sex.
"There are lifestyle components to Playboy, but it's really a philosophy about freedom," says Cooper Hefner, who was photographed Aug. 3 at the company's headquarters in Beverly Hills.
There are all kinds of complex currents in men’s relationship to women that feminism refuses to acknowledge. The main one is men’s often very unstable or ambivalent relationship with their mothers. That's what I see in Hefner's notorious lifestyle in the Playboy Mansion, where he stayed and worked in his bedroom all day long, dressed in pajamas and a robe. It's a blatant regression to the womb world exactly as Elvis Presley evidently desired. Elvis’s wife Priscilla complained that all he wanted to do was stay in his bedroom all day long in the dark, watching TV and having hamburgers brought in. There was a strange kind of craving there for maternal nurturance. I think feminism is wildly wrong when it portrays men as the oppressor, when in fact men, as I have argued in my books, are always struggling for identity against the enormous power of women.
Hefner created his own universe of sexuality, where there was nothing threatening. It’s a kind of childlike vision, sanitizing all the complexities and potential darkness of the sexual impulse. Everybody knows that Hefner’s sexual type was the girl next door, in other words, the corn-fed, bubbly American girl who stays at the borderline of womanhood but never crosses it.
The limitations in Hefner's erotic system can be seen when one compares Playboy to the other great magazine that it inspired, Penthouse: Its U.S. editor, Bob Guccione, was then married to a very stylish British woman, Kathy Keeton, who gave her particular cosmopolitan perspective to Penthouse. It projected an adult vision of sexuality in a highly sophisticated urban environment — people flirting in limousines, glamorous women who were as free and dominant as a man about town.
When we look back at Hefner's girl next door, we see that she's kind of like a high-school cheerleader or the ingenue in a postwar musical comedy like Oklahoma. Hefner was a Midwesterner who took a very long time to change his residence from Chicago to Los Angeles, where he was suddenly moving in the fastest currents of American culture.
Hefner’s women may have been uncomplex as personalities, but they were always warm and genuine. I never found them particularly erotic. I much preferred the Penthouse style of women, who were more femme fatales. Hefner’s bunnies were a major departure from female mythology, where women were often portrayed as animals of prey — tigresses and leopards. Woman as cozy, cuddly bunny is a perfectly legitimate modality of eroticism. Hefner was good-natured but rather abashed, diffident, and shy. So he recreated the image of women in palatable and manageable form. I don’t see anything misogynist in that. What I see is a frank acknowledgment of Hefner’s fear of women’s actual power.
For ideological feminists to go on and on about how we cannot have women treated as sex objects is so naive, so uncultured. It shows a total incomprehension of the history of art, which flows into the great Hollywood movies and sex symbols of the 20th century. The whole history of art is about objectification. That's what an art work is: it's an artifact, an object. Because of our advanced brains, it is the nature of human beings to make sex objects — objects of worship. Turning a person into a beautiful thing does not automatically dehumanize her.
All you have to do is look at the long history of the gay male world, beginning in classical Athens. No gay man has ever said when gazing at a beautiful young man with a perfect body, “I am making him passive beneath my gaze.” That would be stupid beyond belief. Every gay man knows that youth and beauty are supreme principles that deserve our admiration and veneration. When we worship beauty, we are worshipping life itself.
Camille Paglia's seventh book, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, was published earlier this year by Pantheon Books.