I’ve been thinking about Hugh Hefner, the Playboy empire, and their impact on our society since his death in September.
For many of us, Playboy made its way into our curious hands, because either our parents — or our friends’ parents — hid copies of the magazine under bathroom sinks or within the privacy of their bedrooms.
For some, it was the unfolding of masturbatory fantasies for both girls and boys coming of age. Some may also argue that it imprinted upon us our inability to see real bodies.
A few friends pass Hugh Hefner off as someone who has been bad for women and our culture as it relates to understanding sexuality. However, to say that Hefner was just a chauvinist pig or a mercenary businessman who built his empire off the backs of women is over-simplistic — and it overlooks an opportunity for us to really explore the complexity of our human lives.
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So what were these complex qualities? Here are a few.
We know that Marilyn Monroe had to purchase a copy of Playboy to see her own image and that she did not really gain the full profit from it though it was, in fact, her image that launched the empire.
We know that Playboy, the brand, contributed to our conversations and culture of sexuality, whether or not it was for good, for worse, or for anything in between.
We know that the women at the Playboy Mansion were not really allowed to have visitors.
But here’s what we also know.
We know that Hefner tapped his oldest daughter to run the empire as the CEO in 1988, and she did so until 2008.
We know that the pages of Playboy were a stop on the expressway of many writers who went on to celebrate literary fame, writers who ranged from Joyce Carol Oates to Gabriel García Márquez.
We know that Hefner also gave exposure in both his Playboy clubs and in Playboy magazine to many artists of color.
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This moment of Hugh Hefner’s death raises a theme that I often talk about in my conversations: How do we meaningfully explore our own humanity or the lives of some among, or before, us? How can we do so by having open conversations about the actions, flaws, or beliefs of an individual separate from the person’s meaningful or good contributions to society?
Shall we stop reading Sylvia Plath because her journals are littered with references that drip with anti-Semitism?
Do we stop appreciating Alice in Wonderland because Lewis Carroll had a connection with a child — his muse for this great childhood story — that might be too close for comfort by today’s standards?
Shall we burn One Thousand and One Nights (known as the Arabian Nights) because it contains several racist passages (possibly inserted during various translations of the centuries-old collection of Middle Eastern folk tales)?
Shall we stop hanging the art of Pablo Picasso in our museums because he famously said, “There are only two types of women: goddesses and doormats”?
And don’t get me started on German composer Richard Wagner and many other Nazi sympathizers who contributed to a lot of what we enjoy as a part of our culture.
And what if we held the contributors to certain moral standards — let’s say, for example, drug use or adultery? That opens up another can of worms about whom or what we would enjoy of art, culture, and the like.
That’s because — let’s face it — many drank, drugged, philandered, and did all sorts of things while producing the creative work enjoyed by their contemporaries and future generations, including ourselves or our children.
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So what’s my point?
It is not about celebrating Hugh Hefner but more about taking opportunities to explore human complexity. Ultimately, we are but mere imperfect beings. And while some among and before us have truly created great things in the world or improved the lives of many in immeasurable ways, these contributions are often entangled with the complexities and imperfections of being human.
Can we discuss and explore these entanglements as opposed to doing a write off?
And if any one of us were to leave behind some contribution that would be enjoyed many years into the future, would we be completely absolved of our own flaws or imperfections?