In the wake of Hugh Hefner’s death, I’m not interested in arguing about whether the Playboy founder was a sexual pioneer or a feminist. You know what’s not novel and transgressive? Rich white men in mansions enjoying access to women’s bodies and presenting their lifestyle as the height of culture.
But I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t something sort of appealing to me, a 21st-century woman, about the Hefner lifestyle. To make Hef relevant in 2017, all you need to do is flip the gender: a woman running her media empire in the comfort of her loose-fitting silk pajamas, sipping a tumbler of whiskey carried to her by much-younger men (called “ponies,” or whatever animal nickname most excites her) with strong jawlines and some barely-there hot pants? Now she just might be a pioneer.
Perhaps the gender-flipped Hefner fantasy is attractive because of how far women still have to go when it comes to being seen as sexual and powerful at the same time. A man can brag about his exploits in the bedroom and, at the same time, be respected as an entrepreneur and a political force. (This is true even when the exploits are nonconsensual: Ask anyone who voted for our pussy-grabbing president.) When women are widely accepted as powerful figures — be it in politics, media, or business — they tend also to be seen as sexless, if not frigid. And when they’re known for being sexual, they tend to be shamed as much as lauded for the power they derive from their sexuality. To consider a female Hefner is to ponder what it might look like to truly transcend this Catch-22.
Which is also why Hef’s culture-shaping status is so appealing to women. With all due respect to the late Helen Gurley Brown, who earned the “complicated, sexy media pioneer” title more than Hef ever did, there’s still precious little media that puts women in the role of the gazer, not the gazed-upon. Part of the female Hefner fantasy is being able to expand and reshape cultural perceptions about sex and gender.
On a more superficial level, Playboy was a brand about men luxuriating in their own sense of comfort and indulgence. Whether sexual or otherwise, women publicly performing their own pleasure (and making a successful business of it) is another draw to the Hefner fantasy. In an era when women are harassed every time they express an opinion online (to say nothing of their sexuality), a gated mansion with a cozy conversation pit has never been more appealing. Plus, everybody wants to die old after having a lifetime of orgasms, like Hef. But if you’ve ever seen the statistics on who’s getting off, you know this is a far greater feat for women. A lady Hefner would not only outlive her contemporaries, she’d out-come them.
Hefner is credited with defining “premium boys’ style,” as his New York Times obituary put it. And right now, we live in a boom time for what might be called “premium women’s style,” which describes everything from aspirational Instagram accounts to celebrity lifestyle interviews. But most of this doesn’t live up to Playboy-level mythology. When I get a glimpse of women luxuriating in their own kind of Hefner-worthy splendor, I can’t look away. It’s why I devoured the recent Vogue profile of Oprah talking about peaking at 50 and never marrying. It’s why I default to Google image-searches of Rihanna living her best life (I recommend “Rihanna on yacht” or “Rihanna with wine glass”) when I’m having a bad day. It’s why I squealed with delight when I saw this website selling women’s workwear with photo spreads of women in suits power-posing with men in the buff.
Maybe this is the feeling that straight men got from Playboy in the 20th century. Hefner’s take on modern manhood was exciting to them on a visceral level. At the same time, though, it was a confirmation of the power they already wielded in the world. His trick was making something totally conventional seem refined and dangerous, futuristic and retro at the same time.
With hindsight, it’s easy to see that juxtaposing cocktail recipes with intellectual interviews with centerfolds made Hefner a good editorial director and an effective capitalist, but not a revolutionary. Ultimately I don’t really pine for a version of Hefner who simply swaps big boobs for taut butts and big dicks (RIP, Playgirl), or even a version who remakes the mansion into a woman-centric lair. The real fantasy would be for a woman to acquire the power and cultural cachet that Hef amassed, but to use it in truly transgressive ways. Sure, Playboy helped fund the Equal Rights Amendment and Kinsey Institute. I like to imagine a female Hef pouring her philanthropic dollars into trans health care, new contraception options, abolishing the Hyde Amendment, and prison abolition. Whatever gets her off.
But until we have the female Hefner we deserve, it’s up to the rest of us to invest in some silk pajamas and find the power in our own sense of pleasure.