March 1990 Playboy cover featuring Donald Trump. Image via Adweek
Interviewed today by British talk show host Jon Gaunt, conservative media commentator Caroline Farrow was first asked whether Hugh Hefner, who died this week, wasn’t a “cultural icon” – whose signature magazine launched the careers of “many great writers” and “great politicians”, and ran interviews with figures like Mohammed Ali. In other words, it wasn’t “all about naked women.”
“Come off it,” replied Mrs Farrow. “Of course it was about the women!” She continued:
CF: They recruited decent journalists so they could say that it wasn’t just about topless women and women objectifying themselves, but there were plenty of publications out there with great reputations already providing good writers. There wouldn’t have been a market for Playboy had he not put naked women or semi-naked women in there. Why did people buy Playboy? It was precisely for the centrefold and no other reason.
JG: OK, and of course to back that up, once more graphic magazines came on the market, Playboy sales dipped, because people could get [porn] from different places and in more extreme forms. But what about the point [others have made] that it was just a bit of titillation, just a bit of fun, part of the sexual revolution, but that doesn’t make him a sleezy old git.
CF: Well it does, I’m afraid. There he was, at 70, 80, 90 and he had seven girlfriends concurrently on the trot, living with him in his mansion. One of them, Holly Madison, wrote a book two years ago called Down the Rabbit Hole in which she talks about her life as one of Hefner’s bunnies living in his mansion, and she said it almost drove her to suicide. She became incredibly depressed; she said nobody was really into what they were doing. … Copious amounts of drugs were passed around.
You talk about the sexual revolution, but I don’t think we can be morally neutral about this . You have to look at the fruits of the sexual revolution: we have young girls constantly concerned about what they look like; young girls and boys who have mental health problems like anxiety; girls who are doing all this sexting – taking pictures of themselves and sending them to people, putting them on the internet. There’s this constant pressure on young girls to objectify themselves and this is partly due to this culture that Hefner pioneered.
Here’s something else I read. Hefner put vast amounts of money into legalising abortion in America. He sponsored the Roe v. Wade case through the lowers courts, the case which opened up the door to legalising abortion throughout the country. And of course, a man like him has a huge investment in a woman being able to get an abortion very easily, no questions asked.
Another thing: he tried to replace the idea of the heterosexual male as a man who was faithful, in a stable relationship, married with children, with a sort of louche playboy image that men should aspire to. Yet very few people have the amount of money that he did, and can live that lifestyle. And money couldn’t save him from death.
JG: Well, he did get to 91…
CF: Yes but towards the end of his life he became a risible, sad and lonely figure. Were those blond models really with him for the quality of his mind, his conversation, his athleticism or his looks? No, they were with him for his money. And that’s rather sad. He probably didn’t have any long-standing companion or close confidante – someone he’d been with for 50 or 60 years – holding his hand at the end. No, he just had a bunch of opportunistic women who had sexually objectified themselves.
JG: You sound as though you feel sorry for him.
CF: Well I do feel sorry for him, and I do hope that he rests in peace. I feel sorry for anybody with a mind like that; I think it can’t be a very nice place to reside in. And I don’t think the relationship he had with women could be fulfilling.
The other issue I have with him, though, is that in the 2000s he commodified soft porn, repackaged it, made it acceptable and respectable and then sold it back to women as if it was a sign of their liberation. He said once something like, “you have to persuade women that it’s in their interests to lose their virginity to you.”
Then there was all the stuff with the Playboy bunny logo on it that was being marketed to pre-teen and teen kids, but if you ask most parents what would they say?.
In a debate I was in once about legalising prostitution we had two sex workers – as we now have to call them – who said that they got into the job because they could not find other work that would pay enough and give them the same terms and conditions – but they said, “Oh, we wouldn’t want our daughters to do this.”
And it’s the same with the Playboy bunny: most parents would not want their children to do this.
JG: I appreciate that. However, when one looks at Playboy now compared with the porn I can get on my computer and you in your pocket and your children’s pockets – i.e. the smartphone – it kind of pales into insignificance, doesn’t it?
CF: It absolutely does, but it doesn’t make either of them acceptable. I’m going to go all Catholic on your now, but the former pope, John Paul II, [provides] a really wonderful quote which I thinks speaks to everybody about pornography. He said that the problem with it is, not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little – that is, it doesn’t show us anything about that person, their personality, their soul, it just reduces them to a one-dimensional object.
Of course Hugh Hefner can’t be held responsible for the rise of the internet and for the hard-core stuff that you get now, but he did make pornography kind of respectable, acceptable, and ushered in the sexual revolution, which has produced very bad fruit and has not been a good thing for society.
Have you seen the Playboy cover with Trump on the front? Those people who are almost trying to defend Hugh Hefner as someone who empowered women can’t then complain about Trump and his locker room antics. He has encouraged that kind of mentality.
Original podcast here. (Caroline Farrow interview runs from 33:00 to 43:00). The above transcript is slightly edited.
Caroline Farrow is a columnist for The Conservative Woman and The Catholic Universe.