Saturday, January 19, 2008


“I’m not a doctor; I play one on television.” –Robert Young (Marcus Welby)

I sometimes find myself feeling a little sorry for Hugh Hefner. Not much, of course. He’s rich, famous, successful, powerful, and he has a situation that enables, hell, it positively encourages him to have sex with many young, attractive women. He’s old, of course, but we’re all going to be old if we’re lucky, and he’s lived a long and interesting life. So he surely doesn’t need any of my sympathy.

Still, there it is. He’s in a polygamous situation, with multiple women attending to his various needs and desires, and yet he chooses to surround himself with what are virtually clones, all blonde, all with similar body types (augmented if necessary), with similar backgrounds, education, etc. As a confirmed xenophile, my inner adolescent wants to say, “What’s the point?” Or possibly, “Where’s the red-headed Asian ballet dancer?”

It’s probably the case that Hef’s girls do individuate if you get to know them well, and a good many of his past girlfriends have demonstrated brains, talent, and personality to burn (I’m thinking of you, Shannon Tweed). Moreover, it’s a really, really, bad idea to base one’s opinion of anyone on what is seen on television, especially reality television, which is the part of the entertainment universe that “The Girls Next Door” inhabits.

I read an exchange a while back on how Paris Hilton had become the poster girl for those against the estate tax. One commenter basically stipulated that their assessment of Hilton was based on “The Simple Life,” believing that to be an accurate portrayal of Hilton. Frankly, I think that’s only one step away from cornering Hugh Laurie at a party and asking Gregory House to diagnose the pain in your side. The important word in “Reality Television” isn’t “Reality.”

Paris Hilton: “I’m not a dumb blonde; I just play one on television.”

In any case, Hugh Hefner has been a bete noir to many feminists at least since Gloria Steinem’s famous article about being an undercover Bunny. It’s hard to get an analytical, rational handle on the reasons for this (and analyzing emotional arguments is dangerous). I mean, Hefner has been busted at least a couple of times in his life, but never, to the best of my knowledge, for being an agent of the patriarchy. As nearly as I can tell, Playboy itself has always been pro-choice, in every possible meaning of the term, and has supported progressive politics throughout its history, including progressive issues that favor women.

Then there is the matter of equal job opportunities for women. Christie Hefner has been a major success story in the demanding world of magazine publishing, yet I’ve seen scant credit given to her for all of that. The fact that she’s Hugh’s daughter may have made it easier to get the job, but it didn’t make the job easier to do, except possibly in negating stories about her fucking her way to the top.

There may be a little bit of a halo effect in my admiration for Christie Hefner. I paid some attention to her when she was just getting her feet wet in the Playboy empire, specifically as a features writer for the adjunct magazine Oui. There she was, the boss’s daughter, so she could write her own ticket, or so I figured. And her first project was an interview with Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was a good interview.

In any case, Hugh Hefner does seem to have a privileged private/public life, and he does appear to have some old-fashioned, double-standard views in his relationships with women. Yes, and Playboy publishes pictures of naked women that are sometimes used by adolescent boys (of all ages) to assist in masturbation. It also glorifies youth, a certain circumscribed ideal of beauty, and sex. Like practically every other element of modern popular culture.

But I imagine that the existence of Playboy does make some women feel bad, in some not-quite-expressible way, and the magazine does serve as a symbol of, well, something or other. Adolescent male fantasies? The objectification of women? The primacy of superficial appearance? A lot of projected anger, in other words.

Joanna Russ in her two critical books, Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts and What Are We Fighting For? noted some of the authoritarian threads that wove through the feminist movement in the 70s and 80s. The Women’s Movement was one of the fracture planes of the “New Left” (there were so many), and progressive politics in the U.S. basically foundered on the sclerotic nature of the Old Left, and the fractious behavior of the New Left. A good many of the authoritarians in both camps jumped ship and formed the nucleus of what are now called “Neo-cons.” “Authoritarian” is a personality type before it is a political philosophy.

I had a friend in college who said that whenever he found himself agreeing with a John W. Campbell editorial, he knew it was time for some soul searching, because that meant that there was still some establishment pig left in him. Leaving aside the rhetoric of “establishment pig,” and the specifics of who he was using as his negation template, the principle remains. When you find yourself agreeing with James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, it might be time to engage in some self-analysis. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a photo of a naked woman is just a photo of a naked woman.

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