It would be wildly generous to bill Hugh Hefner as some kind of grandfather of feminism – I’m not sure his interest in women extended beyond getting his rocks off – but it’s equally outrageous to depict him as a gang-master abuser running a harem of sex-slaves. As it seems some feminists have. The women who worked for him were adults making choices and, brace yourself, some of them enjoyed themselves!
Still, watching the bile rise for Hef after his death, I've been shocked to see the insults aimed at the women who worked for him, and how quickly their experiences have been written off.
In his later years, padding around his decaying mansion in a slithery dressing gown and silk pajamas, Hefner cut a seedy figure: A horny old perv chasing nubile flesh. But to reduce him to just a dirty old man isn't simply ageist – it ignores his real role in the sexual revolution.
When Playboy launched it championed sexual liberation in the face of 1950s conservatism. It still does that job. Except now it’s challenging not family-values traditionalists but so-called liberal feminists who've taken up the role of berating women for baring their bodies.
In riposte, every time a Playboy Girl gets her kit off she makes the point that women showing off their sexuality isn’t compromising. Wanting to pose topless or choosing to position yourself as a sex object doesn’t make you a manipulated idiot. Some women want to celebrate their looks. Hence the endless list of wealthy, successful women who've keenly signed up for Playboy spreads: Amongst them Elle MacPherson, Pamela Anderson, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Sharon Stone and Kate Moss, who memorably posed for Playboy's 60th edition to celebrate her 40th birthday coming up.
The word empowering is so overused. But I've heard it from women who've worked as bunnies who got kicks out of doing their jobs. Who found it entertaining, inspiring and – yep – liberating. I know women who partied in their suspenders at the Playboy mansion who are mourning Hef's death – and with it some of the best nights they've had. Of course this won't be true of all women who worked for Hefner. But it is for some. Who are we to undermine them?
I’m no fan of how Hef lived, with his multiple girlfriends on rotation abiding by rules and curfews, intuiting his gross sexual shenanigans. But the women he dated, like those who chose to pose for his publication, are grown-ups who made a life-style choice. It's derisive of their decisions to call them stupid and patronizing to suggest they are manipulated. It also feels deeply uncomfortable to watch, in the name of kicking Hef, some people critique these women in the very terms they claim to find so abusive. To see Caitlin Moran on Twitter described the Playboy mansion as a ‘Lady Zoo’, and joke about the bunnies, ‘Can I feed them pellets?’ is horrendously insulting to these women. And especially cruel from someone who claims to champion woman. But perhaps only certain kinds of women?
The suggestion all Playboy bunnies were exploited reinforces the infantilisation of women by undermining their choices. It also buys into the sexist idea that for women sex is innately harmful or corrupting.
When Hef died women I know posted pictures of parties he'd held at the mansion and spoke about how much they'd miss the fun he created. Other women celebrated the way he'd launched their careers. Meanwhile the Playboy website remembered Hefner with a quote. He once said: ‘Life is too short to be living somebody else’s dream’. I like to think that’s how Playboy’s pin-ups feel too, in the face of the people insulting them.