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The Frankfurt School and Hugh Hefner


To say that a figure of the past is “good” or “bad” is not just oversimplification, it’s an intellectual cliche that lingers on boredom.  Undeniably, Hugh Hefner will go down in history as an incredibly controversial figure.  For many people, he deserves praise for his role in the sexual revolution.  For others, he was simply an abusive creep.  Much can be said about Hugh Hefner’s degradation of women that is awfully true in more respects than most people would like to admit.

However, if the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School taught us anything, it’s that society and culture have been so mutilated by the routines and pressures of late capitalism, that the shortcomings of imperfect individuals within the culture industry are more importantly reflections of widespread social sicknesses, such as the ideology of male supremacy.

Theodor Adorno, the most widely known intellectual of the Frankfurt School, argued that the femininity of women is a product of masculine society.  In Minima Moralia, he wrote:

The feminine character, and the ideal of femininity on which it is modeled, are products of masculine society. The image of undistorted nature arises only in distortion, as its opposite.  Where it claims to be humane, masculine society imperiously breeds in woman its own corrective, and shows itself through this limitation implacably the master.

Hefner’s reproduction of women in photos, moving pictures, and live performances distorted their nature.  As the master, he conformed the image of women to his vision of human nature.  When confronted with the objectification of women in a 2010 Vanity Fair interview, Hefner was open about his view of human nature: “But they are objects!”  Earlier in a VH1 documentary, he remarked that “the notion that women are sexual objects is what makes the world go round.”  It’s hard to think of a clearer statement of one’s worldview.

Hugh Hefner openly shared his groundbreaking vision for Playboy that went ‘against the grain’ of the mainstream.  As a self-made crusader of the sexual revolution, he railed against the austere and repressive influences of Puritan society on American sexuality: “I saw the craziness of our puritan attitudes toward sex, and there was a significant new generation who felt the same way.”  It’s true that Hefner supported civil rights, abortion rights, and gay rights throughout the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, but one must not equate a handful of liberal values as a truly radical vision.

Frankfurt School philosopher and sociologist Herbert Marcuse’s concept of repressive desublimation demonstrated that Hugh Hefner’s imagination was quite limited in its aims to transform the status quo.  First coined in his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man as a Freudian-Marxist critique of the sexual revolution, repressive desublimation posits that industrial capitalism commodified the much of 20th century art, removing many of the revolutionary and transcendental impulses that it once had.  Where art once offered a controlled stream of pleasure that came with patient analysis and appreciation, modern art offers immediate gratification in a way that removes the life from its liberating potential.  More than anything, Marcuse helps us understand that Hefner’s deluded self-image as a progressive crusader was predicated upon his ambition to create and sell an edgy image of Playboy magazine to a demographic of men who saw that the taboo on sex was fading.  As Barabara Ehnreich wrote most clearly: “The magazine’s real message was not eroticism but escape from the bondage of breadwinning. Sex — or Hefner’s Pepsi-clean version of it — was there to legitimize what was truly subversive about Playboy. In every issue, in every month, there was a Playmate to prove that a playboy didn’t have to be a husband to be a man.”

Lastly, Hefner experienced a sense of shock when he was confronted with the reality that male-engendered femininity is sustained by symbolic, psychological, and physical violence.  On the Dick Cavett show in 1970, feminist Susan Brownmiller unexpectedly berated Hefner for his concealment of women’s oppression:

Hugh Hefner is my enemy.  Hugh Hefner has built an empire based on oppressing women.  The role that you have selected for women is degrading to women because you choose to see women as sex objects, which deny their humanity and their femininity.

Most striking, is Hefner’s comment in hindsight that he “didn’t have the language for responding to that kind of thing.”  One can only guess what he was thinking, but what is clear is that there was nothing that he could respond with that would be publicly acceptable.  He would have to reinvent Playboy’s message in a way that conformed to the progressive values of the 1960s.  Social movements were defining the terrain of an acceptable language, that Playboy be forced to navigate.  Adorno writes: “the femininity which appeals to instinct, is always exactly what every woman has to force herself by violence – masculine violence – to be: a she-man.”  Truthfully, symbolic violence is required to recreate ideas about instinct and human nature that reinforce male supremacy.

Soon after his encounter with Brownmiller, Hefner counterattacked in an internal memo: “These chicks are our natural enemy. What I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart. They are unalterably opposed to the romantic boy-girl society that Playboy promotes.”

Looking back, Hugh Hefner was a pioneering product of male superiority and the culture industry of late capitalism.  Pioneering, in that he reinvented male domination under the veil of human nature.  Of his first marriage that failed, Hefner wrote: “It doomed us from the start. But I think it gave me permission to live the life I’ve lived.”  Perhaps there is a hint of vengeful misogyny here, but it shows that what really drove Hefner was his ideology that was routinized by habit, custom, and failure.

As Adorno wrote: “Whatever is in the context of bourgeois delusion called nature, is merely the scar of social mutilation. If the psychoanalytical theory is correct that women experience their physical constitution as a consequence of castration, their neurosis gives them an inkling of the truth.”

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