American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story Made Me See Playboy In A Different Light

Photo: Courtesy of Playboy.
Playboy's first cover, featuring Marilyn Monroe, 1953.
The idea that Playboy magazine is a celebration of women’s bodies and sexuality, as opposed to a degradation of them, was always asinine to me. How could a publication so brazenly catering to the (hetero) male gaze, with its naked centerfolds of sexy women (representing a very narrow view of female desirability), honestly try to bill itself as liberating, not objectifying? I never bought it (literally and figuratively). But Amazon’s new docu-series American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a 10-episode deep dive into the man and the magazine's history, has helped me come to terms with that idea. Because Playboy was a force for liberation — about 60 years ago.
For many millennial women, our only association with Playboy is the image of a white-haired, silk-robed Hugh Hefner trouncing around the Playboy Mansion with Barbie-like babes one-third of his age on each arm. (Empowering stuff.) In the age of plentiful internet porn, sex on prime time, and naked selfies, Playboy’s initial draw (beautiful photos of nude and semi-nude women) isn’t unique or shocking. It's hardly relevant. When Playboy reintroduced nudity this February after a two-year experiment without it, people questioned if the floundering brand had a place in today's culture. Now, the American Playboy series makes incredibly obvious the reality that America has completely outgrown it.
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Playboy's identity makes sense only in the context of the ultra-conservative '50s in which it was born, and the sexual revolution of the '60s that it played a small role in ushering in. American Playboy succeeds at re-contextualizing the magazine in its golden years, at the height of its impact, with an impressive stock of archive materials — including interviews, photos, and documents, coupled with unnecessary but fun dramatic reenactments (that make me think this story would make for an excellent Mad Men-esque prestige series).
American Playboy depicts the early days of the magazine as a scrappy, progressive startup with a noble and liberal cause challenging the status quo. The year was 1953: the high point of the post-WWII; the Norman Rockwell age of Lucy and Desi sleeping in separate beds. Sex was a cultural taboo. The discrepancy between what Americans did in the bedroom and what was acceptable to talk about in public had been recently exposed by the Kinsey Reports. Twenty something Hefner — here, painted as a people's hero and free speech champion — was frustrated with the hypocritical and shameful treatment of sex in the buttoned-up '50s. His goal was to provide a men’s magazine for guys like him, who were interested more in jazz, Picasso and cocktail-crafting than hunting and sports — and, of course, naked women.
Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images.
Hefner in 1955.
The idea was to incorporate sex as one normal and healthy part of a publication that proudly appealed to a red-blooded male audience. His hard-to-argue logic: how could you put together a men’s magazine and not include the primary thing men are interested in? Playboy wasn’t the first magazine to publish nude photographs of women, but it was the first one to present them with an editorial message — sex is natural and healthy, and men's desires are nothing to hide — inside a package full of highbrow intellectual content.
Indeed, “I read it for the articles” was not a ridiculous claim back then: Playboy published interviews with the likes of Miles Davis and contained fiction by Ray Bradbury. It would go on to position itself as a platform for the civil rights movement, publishing in-depth interviews with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Later, the magazine took stances on the Vietnam War and investigated the resulting drug culture. Playboy also allied itself with women’s rights early on — the progressive gender politics of supporting birth control abortion rights conveniently fit right in with the Playboy man. (Though the progressiveness of their gender politics would waver considerably over the years.)
The point of which is: the inclusion of women's naked bodies alongside all of these cultural and political discussions became part of the wave of the destigmatization of women expressing their sexuality — and, to be sure, men enjoying that expression. And while it might be laughable to some today to count the normalization of openly celebrating attractiveness of the female form as a stroke of progressiveness, American Playboy illuminates how, once upon a time, it actually was. Playboy didn't spark the sexual revolution, but it fanned the flames.
Now, don't worry — I haven't quite been seduced into thinking Playboy is a beacon of women's liberation. But American Playboy is an insightful watch that makes a strong case for Playboy's role in our evolving views on sex and sexuality: it's healthy, it's normal, and everybody does it. In the first few minutes of the premiere, the actor playing Hefner says, “This is my story — or at least how I remember it.” And as long as you remember whose side of the story you're getting, I highly recommend you settle in to watch it. Because Playboy is best appreciated as a relic of the past: an era when publishing nude photos of women was actually a revolutionary act.
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