Saturday, September 30, 2017

Hugh Hefner.

I love watching the arc of the response when a big culture maker like Hugh Hefner dies. First the lionization (he was a god!), then the backlash (he was a monster!), then there’s room for something more balanced while the two sides continue to fight it out.

Whatever you think of him, it’s hard to imagine someone more culturally influential than Hugh Hefner. Or more peculiarly American. You see his influence everywhere, for good and bad. What creates such a phenomenon, what is it about a person at a particular moment in history that makes that happen? These are the questions I become obsessed with.

I start with the idea that people (men mostly?) have a bottomless appetite for erotic images, erotic talk, erotic thoughts, but historically various social controls (church/traditional morality and taboos, marriage) pushed back against indulging that appetite. This is just true, right?

Then comes the so-called sexual revolution of the second half of the 20th century, which is inextricably linked to the kind of mass commercialization of sexuality Hefner pioneered. Is it even possible to think of the successes of the women’s movement (relaxing of sex roles, women as the agents of their own sex lives, normalization of birth control…) without the new frankness about sex that Playboy sold? Or gay rights, same question?

Hefner took something it was obvious men wanted and sold it, and changed the world. The world-changing aspect of it was not accidental. He didn't just sell pictures of naked ladies. Along with the sexual images, he sold the new world in which it was possible to consume those images without shame.

Is it an American phenomenon, that it takes commercializing something to ease old taboos? Does it really come down to, “If I can make money off it, it must be okay.”? Are Americans willing to leave anything unexamined if it comes with a Horatio Alger story?

Put bluntly: On one hand Hefner ushered in the ubiquity in media of images of women as ideal and willing sex objects (and all the attendant distortions for men and boys regarding expectations and consent). On the other hand, he played a big part in relaxing the shame associated with female and homosexual desire (which contributed to a massive social and legal shift for the better for women and gay people). Is it possible to extricate one from the other? 

Just some thoughts.