Hugh Hefner, the son of “conservative, Midwestern, Methodist” parents who grew up to create the soft-core Playboy empire, is no longer with us.
One might expect reaction to Hefner’s death to consist in bittersweet ambivalent goodbyes on both left and right, ambivalent for different reasons. The political right in the United States identifies with self-made billionaire entrepreneurs and with wildly successful investors. Hefner was both of those. On the other hand, he was also a contributor to political causes they despise, and an adversary of the sort of sexual repression the right often sees as the very glue of civilization.
The political left, on the other meta-hand, is often suspicious of large accumulations of wealth on the working premise that there must be exploitation in them, and in the case of the Playboy fortune, they see their suspicions validated. Sexual exploitation is, on one very common leftward view, the essence of the vast bulk of pornography directed to the “male gaze,” hard or soft core. Yet of course, there are the above-mentioned contributions. Hefner’s giving, liberals will agree, was often to the correct causes.
Right Wing View
If those were one’s expectations, they were all abundantly fulfilled by the reaction.
Susan Wright, in RedState, says that Hefner was an enemy of both faith and family, and that any purported conservative who “memorializes” Hefner in the wake of his death is a hypocrite.
Joel Pollak may have been one of the other less consistent conservatives Wright had in mind there. Pollak, in Breitbart, said, “There is much for conservatives to celebrate” in Hefner’s life. Pollak thinks Hefner “personified the famous promise at the heart of the Declaration of Independence,” especially the part about the pursuit of happiness.
The Sun’s obit was more explicit about playing the entrepreneurial card on Hefner’s behalf. It stressed the modest start-up loan with which he founded Playboy in 1953, and the greatness of the oak that grew from the little acorn.
Some conservatives simply think it sad that Hefner’s death gets so much attention. Mark J. Wahlen tweets, “The sad reality of our society is that the passing of a man like Elder Hales” – a newly departed Mormon leader – “will be less mourned and publicized than a man like Hugh Hefner.”
Left Wing View
The left, too, has played its response to Hefner’s passing according to its usual playbook, the ambivalence chapter. One reporter gives Playboy’s decision to publish its first black woman centerfold, in March 1965, some credit for shaping the “much larger conversation about race brewing all around” at the time. Yes, that seems a bit much.
The philosophy blog The Conversation recalls Playboy’s effort, in its heyday, to arrange an interview with famed liberationist philosopher Herbert Marcuse.
Marcuse, who believed (as The Conversation paraphrases) that “deep patterns of class, gender, and racial inequality” were kept in place by “the repression of sexual desire and of emotional and creative expression,” appears to have been both tempted and repulsed by the offer. He terminated discussions, though, in a joking way, saying that he would agree to an interview only if he could also be the centerfold that month.
A Writer’s Tale
The science fiction novelist Ursula K. LeGuin posted on her Facebook page an excerpt from an essay she wrote on Hefner in 2012 for New York magazine. The essay was a rather fond reminiscence of an early stage in her career, when Playboy published a story of hers, but didn’t want to use her actual feminine name on the byline. She, her agent and the magazine, agreed on “U.K. Le Guin.”
Later, the magazine got back to her and asked for a brief writer’s bio. She wondered how she could do that, consistent with the gender neutrality of her agreed-to byline.
She wrote, “It is commonly suspected that the writings of U.K. LeGuin are not actually written by U.K. LeGuin but by another person of the same name.” “Game to the last,” she writes, “Playboy printed that.”