Hugh Hefner passed away at 91 years of age on Sept. 27. Hefner was a well-known public figure as the founder of the popular men’s entertainment magazine, Playboy, in 1953.
In his lifetime, Hefner launched a multimillion-dollar brand and became a household name. Many individuals were deeply saddened to hear the news of Hefner’s passing. It seems, however, that this outpouring of respect isn’t quite deserved. Given the hidden and horrifying truths of Hefner’s career of exploiting these women, he hardly warrants any praise.
In response to his death, obituaries and tributes crowded social media, including those from various women who worked as his playmates. Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy Bunny, tweeted her condolences.
McCarthy wrote, “Thank you for being a revolutionary and changing so many people’s lives, especially mine. I hope I made you proud,” CNN reported. McCarthy was on the cover of Playboy magazine in 1993 and was named Playmate of the Year in 1993.
In addition, according to CNN, actress Donna D’Errico, who posed for Playboy magazine in 1995, tweeted “Hugh Hefner put me in Playboy & ignited my career. You will forever live on as an icon of epic proportions.”
These tweets were not isolated. Many other positive messages were extended toward Hefner after his passing. Hefner’s legacy, however, is not one that should be remembered fondly on the basis that his legacy has been centered on the objectification of women.
Hefner’s bunnies, or playmates, often lived in the Playboy mansion and worked as cocktail waitresses in Hefner’s clubs. These women were paid to cater to men and work in skimpy outfits and fluffy tails with bunny ears. This uniform being forced upon women is scornful because it dehumanizes them, suggesting they are objects to be gawked at instead of individuals to be respected.
Some women argue that Hefner’s business ventures allowed them to liberate their sexuality and celebrate their femininity. In addition, many argue that the Playboy magazine shared elements with the women’s rights movements, changing the way society portrayed sex. Although Hefner may have started an open conversation about sex with society, he did this by equating sex with attractiveness and an unrealistic expectation of women’s bodies.
One of Hefner’s most renowned critics was feminist icon and journalist Gloria Steinem, who went undercover as a Playboy bunny in 1963. She portrayed the job as demeaning, writing that the outfit bunnies that Hefner’s employees were forced to wear was “’so tight the zipper caught my skin’” and that “all of the bunnies stuffed their bras to enhance their cleavage” as reported by Fortune.
The psychological effects of posing as one of Hefner’s bunnies were detrimental, Steinem explained. Eating disorders and bullying were rampant due to the toxic environment Hefner cultivated.
She also reported that the women had to stay within five pounds of the weight when they were first employed or else they would be fired. Additionally, bunnies were subjected to a gynecological exam and a pap smear—a requirement before they were hired, according to Steinem. These abusive conditions that the bunnies endured are reflective of Hefner’s negative intentions.
Hefner cannot be celebrated as a feminist with evidence that he valued his bunnies for how their bodies looked. By recognizing his actions as abusive and not empowering, we can stop this culture of objectification and glorifying the men who do it. Hefner’s Playboy environment can be a lesson for all toxic scenarios including abusive relationships, domestic abuse and workplace sexism.
Hefner is everything feminists stand against. Since Hefner sexually exploited and objectified women while calling it empowerment, he is undeserving of the adornment he continues to receive.