Hugh Hefner died on Wednesday, Sept. 27. His ethos, however, still captivates our culture — the cautiously radical Hefner won the hearts of liberals with his reckless disregard for tradition, religion and established authority. He was the perpetual adolescent — and his intellectualization of the erotic impulse spawned a culture bereft of maturity and modesty.
The messianic figure of America’s so-called “sexual revolution,” Hefner will be entombed in the crypt adjacent Marilyn Monroe. Monroe’s nude portrait once adorned Hefner’s “Playboy” magazine, and the libertine icon whom she never met will occupy her eternal side. It’s fitting, in a strange way; even in death, Hefner finds himself inches from one of the most beautiful women of the twentieth century.
Hefner’s life and philosophy was indeed an embrace of pubescence. America, to him, was a wasteland of puritanical fanaticism, with legions of potential converts to the lascivious life of carnal pleasure being denied their own personal Damascus by an oppressive coup of Victorian prudes. His world was all at once cinematic and biblical in its narrative totality, with a clear cast of straitlaced villains and Hefner himself the lone hero, crucified on the cultural Cavalry for the sake of the sexual liberation of the masses. Hefner’s resurrection was a sprawling grotto filled with naked women. His sacred scripture? The oblong pages of “Playboy,” filled with pornographic images of gorgeous women nestled between opinion pieces on culture, politics and philosophy. All a true believer needed to do was to embrace unabated pleasure and he could attain salvation from Hefner’s imagined damnation: a hellish slavery to cultural mores and sexual restraint.
Hefner’s life was as much about destruction as it was creation; he was certain that America’s cultural consensus was largely a moralistic sham. His preferred replacement was a world where sex was free, pleasure an end in itself and the body a canvas for gratifications real and imagined. Feminists once hated him. As fate would have it, his philosophy is now theirs.
His ideological and moral claims infiltrated feminism’s “third wave,” where chastity is a patriarchal imposition on the female’s newly attained capacity for sex without consequence. Marriage, children and family were monogamous vestiges of the world Hefner left behind. Groans from the now-troglodytic old guard of the Victorian America that Hefner helped upend indicated that indeed the kids were not alright; wayward sex, objectification and a growing existentialism were the unapologetic cultural replacements for the temperance that marked the previous moral consensus.
The America Hef leaves behind is awash in pornography, illegitimacy and irreligion, though the last of those predates Hefner’s grand experiment, if not exacerbated by its aggressive creep. A new generation of Victorians, under the banner of feminist fervor, despise catcalling, regretful sexual encounters and ill-adherence to their almost catechetical codes of legalistic consent, but refuse to view the Playboy philosophy that spawned its oft-reviled “rape culture” as anything but a force for good. Because these neo-Victorians could not default to the prudish religious objections of their parents, against whom they are in perpetual rebellion, they instead became history’s first cultural pearl clutchers who delight in the very basis of their scorn. Don’t objectify women, they cry, but don’t dare cast aspersions at the growing immodesty of female dress. The pages of their dogmatic academic journals claim that male and female are fungible and meaningless concepts created by scheming groups of patristic overlords, but women, as a category, are specifically oppressed. And so on. Hefner himself is the basis of this contradiction; he was a man whose quest for sexual licentiousness was fundamentally incompatible with the probing intellectualism found in between pages of scantily clad models in “Playboy.” He attempted to give coherence to the incoherence of adolescence, to intellectually bridge the intractable divide between lust and virtue. His failure to do so convincingly was less significant than the mere fact of his attempt.
And yet here we are, and here we are likely to remain: slavishly bound to the conceived virtue of boyish impulse to the eternal detriment of, among other things, the family and its associated values. Much like an entitlement program, repealing the cultural “progress” Hefner made would have to do the politically unthinkable and take something away: people’s capacity to have meaningless sex, to view others as objects, and to devolve closer to the primal nature from which we evolved. For better or worse, I wouldn’t count on it.