Hugh Hefner, creator of Playboy magazine and lifestyle brand, passed away Sept. 27 at the age of 91.
In his lifetime, Hefner was viewed by many as the symbol for male chauvinism, while other groups claimed he was an advocate for freedom of speech.
“The joke has always been ‘I only read it for the articles.’ But that’s not a joke,” Paul Gates, a professor of communication specializing in communication at App State, said. “Of course, he’ll be remembered for the centerfolds, but that’s not where Hefner’s real contribution in a media, in a legal sense, were.”
Gates noted Hefner’s readiness to give new authors, unpopular essayists and controversial figures a platform to be heard in the articles the magazine published.
During its early years Playboy published interviews with figures like Malcolm X and Fidel Castro allowing its mostly white, middle-class audience to hear ideas they would have never otherwise paid attention to.
“His steadfast commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which are not the same thing, he never wavered from that,” Gates said. “We have lost a voice in that area at a time when I think more voices with that approach are needed.”
Martha McCaughey, a professor of sociology and a past director of App’s Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies Program, said Hefner helped pioneer the sexual revolution of the mid-20th century.
“Hefner broke new ground in a number of ways consistent with the gradual emergence of what sociologists call ‘plastic sexuality,’ a sexuality not geared toward reproduction but one that centers on free expression and pleasure, a sexuality that is malleable rather than fixed in religious tradition or traditional gender expectations,” McCaughey said.
McCaughey countered, however, that Hefner and Playboy focused on a view of sexuality that still gave the male view of objectification, a view that is shared by other professors.
Cameron Lippard, an associate sociology professor at App, acknowledged the role Hefner had in pushing certain boundaries and his willingness to publish contentious article topics, but raised his own questions on whether Hefner’s deeds outweigh his demerits.
“I think [Hefner] said in interviews that ‘We came from this Victorian era, and we were very conservative and we had to have some sexual expression,’” Lippard said. “So, he may have opened that door, but did he close any other doors when it came to ‘We can only look at women like this.’ Or push the envelope in media representation.”
Lippard said that media, especially pornography, plays a role in shaping how society views sexuality. Playboy is part of a sexual view which is predominantly white and patriarchal where Lippard identifies socially healthy depictions of sex as showing any and all ideas of sexuality.
“Should it be dominate, submissive, about men’s pleasure, women’s pleasure. Does it include just hetero-normative views of sex versus homo-normative views of sex?” Lippard said.
Lippard said he doesn’t wonder if Hefner’s role is portrayed larger than it was.
“We always seem to give him the credit. It wasn’t the women or the writers that really got the credit,” Lippard said.
Although not a patron saint for gender equality, Hefner took risks, both fiscally and journalistically, which helped set a precedent for giving a public platform to marginalized voices that continues to be built upon today.
The importance of freedom of press is an idea that should not be overlooked in the current political climate that sows mistrust in mainstream news outlets.
Dylan Austin is a junior Electronic Media and Broadcasting major from Raleigh, North Carolina. you can follow him on Twitter at @DylanPAustin