I am a feminist, and I want to acknowledge that I hear of all arguments about Hugh Hefner’s legacy being a negative one, largely because Playboy so furthered a culture in which the objectification of women became celebrated. I understand this critique. But it is also reductive.
Adam Gopnik, in the New Yorker, points out that what Hefner actually commoditized was “the male gaze.” This may seem like semantic quibbling, but it is not. It is an important distinction, and it had an important result that I haven’t seen addressed in many of the assessments of what Hefner meant to America.
In the 1950s, millions of gay men lived in the closet, ashamed of their attraction to other men. When Hugh Hefner challenged the culture of sexual repression in which virtually everybody was ashamed of their sex drive, the lifting of this shame had enormous positive collateral effects on “homosexuals” — the sterile term used at the time.
Men attracted to men objectify other men, not because they are gay, but because they are men. This is how male sexuality works. We immediately respond to visual stimuli. The emotions often follow, but are not required to fuel our rich fantasy life. As any gay man who has had sex in a bathhouse or a backroom can tell you, we can easily skip the flirting and forgo the pillow talk. This is true for most men — if it weren’t, prostitution would not be the world’s second oldest profession.
Yes, this involves objectification. Guilty as charged. But the word has taken on an ugly veneer, as if the object of desire is reduced to the status of thing. Not so fast. Gay men objectify other gay men, and let me tell you, those of us who have been objectified don’t mind it at all. In fact, we seek it out and enjoy it immensely. We don’t feel insulted — quite the opposite.
When Hugh Hefner proposed that men stop feeling bad about the primacy of lust in their thought process, he may have been talking to heterosexual men, but gay men heard the message as well. It enabled us to grasp that whom we were attracted to, gender-wise, counted less, experientially speaking, than the way we were attracted to them. Straight men staring at centerfolds of naked women manifested the same basic urge as gay men staring at the boys in physique magazines . Our attraction to other men didn’t make us any less men, in fact, how we were attracted to them confirmed how male we were.
What makes male-male sexual attraction less problematic is that there is no subtext of subjugation or rape. The objectification of women would be harmless if it never expressed itself beyond 15-year old boys jerking off three times a day, or the titillation of customers in the barbershop passing around a Playboy. We all know women are sexually and economically exploited, and it is unquestionable that this was the dark side of Hefner’s glorification of the erotic male gaze. That’s why the feminist critique resonates. It’s a very big dark side.
That said, the lifting of the veil of sexual shame for homosexual men was an essential predicate to the gay liberation that followed. And that also had an enormous effect on women — by creating natural allies to feminism, and in granting women permission to have whatever kind of attraction they had to others as well. Erica Jong’s “zipless fuck,” in her groundbreaking Fear of Flying, embodied the notion that women sometimes had the impulse to objectify as well, and asserted their right to do so without guilt. Ditto, lesbians (see Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle.)
Men eventually became sex symbols. Look at the difference between Gary Cooper, Rock Hudson, and Rod Taylor in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. The glorification of the male torso has now reached such a point that both Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli can fan themselves after a hunky dancer reveals his glistening pectorals during a cha-cha on Dancing With the Stars.
The equality of objectification of male and female has no doubt gone overboard. Now, both men and women who are plain or overweight or flawed —most all of us, basically — struggle with feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem because we compare ourselves to an unachievable ideal. But there is a flipside — and it is huge. I can marry my lover of 20 years because men having sex with men lost the “ick” factor that governed its perception for so many decades.
In his full-frontal attack on the sexual mores of 1950s America, Hugh Hefner loosened the jar that we all ended up opening. It is a mistake to view his legacy monochromatically