Note for readers new to ‘Re-reading the Second Wave’ : this blog is associated with a women’s studies course on second wave feminism, and it’s active during the half of the year when the course is running (roughly October to March). I explain why I started it here, and you can look at the course syllabus here. This is the first post of the 2017-18 session.
Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, died last week at the age of 91. Many obituaries repeated his own claim to have been a leader in the field of women’s rights. As he told Esquire magazine in 2002:
I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism. That’s a part of history very few people know.
The fact that Hefner could get away with saying this suggests that even fewer people know much about the history of second wave feminism. Fortunately, some of the women who took issue with Hefner in the 1960s and 70s–when he was building his empire and they were building a new political movement–are still around to set the record straight.
Writing in the New York Times, Susan Brownmiller recounts that in 1970 she and Sally Kempton were invited to appear on The Dick Cavett show to discuss the new Women’s Liberation Movement. When they got there they discovered that Hugh Hefner was also a guest. Asked what Women’s Liberation was about, Brownmiller replied: ‘Hugh Hefner is my enemy’. She went on to explain: ‘women aren’t bunnies, they aren’t rabbits, they’re human beings’. And then she addressed Hefner directly: ‘the day you come out here with a cottontail attached to your rear…’
The point feminists like Brownmiller were making, a novel one at the time, was that treating women as sexual objects did nothing to advance their rights or their freedom: on the contrary, it was demeaning and dehumanising. Hefner never saw their point. Whenever he was accused of objectifying women he would say that women were by nature sex-objects, and that in treating them as such he was affirming their sexuality. He seems to have believed that female sexual desire was entirely passive, and that what gave women pleasure was pleasing men.
This was exactly the problem the women of the second wave had with the sexual revolution of the 1960s, in which many of them had participated–enthusiastically to begin with, since there was nothing conservative or ‘anti-sex’ about their philosophy, but with increasing dissatisfaction as they learnt from experience that the revolution wasn’t actually about women’s desires, women’s freedom or women’s pleasure. It was all about men getting what they wanted from women. As Susan Brownmiller also notes in her New York Times piece, this was the real reason why Hefner supported abortion rights (a ‘progressive’ position for which many obituaries lauded him). The Playboy lifestyle was about sex without strings or commitment: if abortion was legal, women who became pregnant would have less power to demand that the father marry or support them.
Whatever he said to Esquire in 2002, in the 1970s Hefner knew very well that feminists considered him an enemy–and there is hard evidence that he felt the same about them. One of the most interesting personal testimonies published last week was Susan Braudy’s account of being commissioned to write a piece on the new Women’s Liberation Movement for Playboy in 1970, when she was an aspiring writer fresh out of college and not (yet) a feminist herself (though she would be by the end of the process). Initially Braudy was told to make her piece ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’, explaining the facts about feminism rather than taking a position for or against it. She was told that if she did this, she wouldn’t be censored. When she first submitted her text the editors were pleased with it. But (as many of the feminists she interviewed had predicted), Hugh Hefner, the boss, had other ideas. He handed Braudy a memo, part of which read:
The women’s movement is rejecting the overall roles that men and women play in our society—the notion that there should be any differences between the sexes whatever other than the physiological ones. It is an extremely anti-sexual unnatural thing they are reaching for. It is now up to us to do a really expert, personal demolition job. …Doing a rather neutral piece on the pros and cons of feminism strikes me as being rather pointless for Playboy. What I’m interested in is the highly irrational, emotional, kookie trend that feminism has taken. These chicks are our natural enemy.
Not, you might think, the words of someone who was ‘a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism’.
Braudy was asked to make drastic changes which she could not agree to, and in the end she withdrew her article. Instead Playboy commissioned an overtly anti-feminist piece by a man, which appeared under the title ‘Up against the wall, male chauvinist pig!’ But the drama wasn’t quite over. After the piece appeared, a secretary at Playboy, Shelly Schlicker, was caught in the office at night, xeroxing Hefner’s memo about Braudy’s original article so that she could leak it to the press. For this act of feminist solidarity Schlicker was fired, but the underground press picked up her story and eventually it did get into the mainstream. For Braudy the consequences were positive: she was hired to write for Newsweek, one of the mainstream publications which had carried the story and thought it reflected well on her integrity.
Another ambitious young woman journalist had taken on Hugh Hefner and his growing business empire seven years earlier in 1963 (when there was not yet such a thing as the Women’s Liberation Movement, though the second wave was getting ready to break–this was also the year in which Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique). Gloria Steinem, who would later found Ms magazine, went undercover at the Playboy Club in New York City, gaining employment as a Bunny under the fictitious name of Marie Ochs (she also had to lie about her age–it was 28, whereas the upper limit for new Bunnies was 24) so that she could document the women’s working conditions.
Steinem’s report, ‘I was a Playboy Bunny’, was published in two parts in Show magazine, and later republished in a collection of her writings, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. (It was also made into a TV movie starring Kirstie Alley, entitled A Bunny’s Tale.) I found re-reading it this week a fascinating experience, because although it documents the fact that Bunnies were routinely sexually harassed by customers (and makes clear that this was what they were there for), and also the outrageous fact that new employees were forced to undergo internal medical exams and STI testing (this policy did get changed after Steinem’s piece came out), it belongs to the era before feminists named sexual harassment as a distinct phenomenon, and the overall emphasis of the account falls less on the overtly sexualised aspects of the work than on the ways in which it resembled other forms of work done by women (Bunnies were essentially waitresses and cloakroom attendants in revealing and painful uniforms), and reproduced features of many workplaces where men as well as women are exploited (like punishing shift-work, insufficient breaks, crappy food, pay that was always less than the advertised rate, withheld tips, petty regulations you could be fined for infringing, and middle managers taking the flak for the bosses (in this case these intermediaries were women–‘Bunny Mothers’, the Aunt Lydias of Hefner’s regime)).
‘I was a Playboy Bunny’ is essentially a brilliant piece of muck-raking investigative journalism, of the sort male writers had done in other industries where exploitation was rife. But because Steinem’s access depended on being able to pose as a Bunny–which in turn required her to meet certain standards of youth and physical attractiveness–she got a rather different reception. She recalls that after the Show piece she lost several good assignments because someone who had dressed up in a corset, ears and a tail was not taken seriously–she was both trivialised and sexualised in much the same way as the women she was writing about. Throughout her career as a prominent spokeswoman for feminism she has often been confronted with publicity pictures from her short stint as a Bunny–despite his protestations to the contrary, Hugh Hefner did not forgive or forget. As recently as this year, she told the Guardian that she had regrets about doing the story.
Since the 1970s Hugh Hefner has come under critical scrutiny from other feminists for other reasons. There was the issue of Playboy’s use of underage models and its attempts to minimise the problem of child abuse editorially, as laid out in this piece by Samantha Berg in 2004; there was also the way Hefner treated the ‘playmates’ who lived with him in his mansion, recorded as entertainment for a reality TV show, but retold as a story of abuse by one of the woman concerned, Holly Madison, in her 2015 memoir Down the Rabbit Hole (in fact, while the tribute-writers were able to line up various women to praise Hefner after his death, quite a number have spoken out about the unpleasant realities of their experience with him). And since the first rush of what Brownmiller aptly dubs ‘fawning tributes’, there have been a number of more bracing assessments from feminists like Liz Posner at Alternet, the Guardian’s Suzanne Moore, Glosswitch in the New Statesman, and Claire Heuchan in Glamour.
I’m glad to see these contemporary feminists contradicting the mainstream obituarists’ received view of Hefner as, yes, a womaniser in his youth and a bit of an old lech in his later years, but basically a liberal guy who supported the right causes. But I have seen people on social media saying that theirs is the anachronistic judgment of a more puritanical feminist generation. It isn’t, and the pieces I’ve linked to by Susan Braudy, Susan Brownmiller and Gloria Steinem show it isn’t. The feminists of the second wave were onto Hugh Hefner, and critical of what he stood for, from the first. What we ought to remember isn’t his claim to have been ‘a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism’, it’s the statement he made 32 years earlier, in an internal memo rather than for public consumption, that ‘these chicks are our natural enemies’. He was right the first time.