Hugh Hefner's Hollow Victory
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Playboy magazine, which some proclaim as a cultural watershed for a new liberation. As a young recipient of this cultural inheritance, Read Mercer Schuchardt, founder of cleave: The Counter Agency, begs to differ. The following article originally appeared in the Gen-x magazine re:generation quarterly, and is reprinted with permission.
One of the occupational hazards of Christian cultural analysis is the tendency to see Satan behind every sociological phenomenon with which you've personally struggled. One of the secret pleasures of this habit, however, is that occasionally you really do find him.
It's pretty hard to deny the complete cultural victory of pornography in America today. Hollywood releases 400 films each year, while the pornography industry releases 700 movies each month. The domain name business.com recently sold for a record-breaking $7.5 million—but in a recent court case, sex.com was valued at $65 million. Not surprising, since porn is, at a minimum, a $10 billion a year business. Porn stars are making their way off the screen into mainstream culture, showing up everywhere from Cannes to Maxim. Fifty years ago an American girl would have been ashamed to be seen in public with too little on. Now she's embarrassed to be seen with too much on—even if she's in church.
What we are witnessing is the work of a master, a virtuoso of the id who has wielded profound psychological insight. Thus he has altered culture with dangerous ease. Recently Hefner was asked if there was a difference between today's public response to Internet pornography and the response to those first issues of Playboy. His response:
"Well, I suppose you could find some parallels. But much of [the difference] has to do with technology. Everything, including sexual imagery, is out there now. And it's kind of like Pandora's box—you can't close it anymore." And a devilishly clever guy with a genius for marketing was the one who opened the box.
'Sex is Surefire'
According to the official biographies, Hugh Marston Hefner was the emotionally needy byproduct of Grace, a devout Methodist mother who never hugged him.
As Hefner puts it, "I was a very idealistic, very romantic kid in a very typically Midwestern Methodist repressed home. There was no show of affection of any kind, and I escaped to dreams and fantasies produced, by and large, by the music and the movies of the '30s."
No mention anywhere is made of Hefner's father. Ever. In 1948, when Alfred Kinsey released his now completely debunked mythology, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Hefner praised it in a college newspaper. Shortly after college, he began working as (nota bene) an advertising copywriter for Esquire magazine, the raciest thing you could get off the racks in those days.
But Hugh had bigger dreams, specifically a magazine with the working title of Stag Party. In a prospectus letter to investors, he wrote, "Sex is surefire."
Like the budding advertising genius he was, Hefner already had the essence of his secret formula: the equation sex equals money. The Playboy.com FAQ puts it this way:
Why did [the first issue of Playboy] sell so well?
Largely because of its centerfold—a nude shot of Marilyn Monroe that Hef purchased from a local calendar printer.
Would Playboy sell so well if it didn't have naked women in it?
Probably not. We'll never know.
They'll never know because they'll never stop showing naked women, and it sells very well—Playboy has about 4.5 million "readers." And yet this success couldn't be taken for granted when Hefner began. The photograph had been invented in 1839, and the word "pornographer" had entered the dictionary a mere 11 years later. Over the next 114 years, pornography was still very far from mainstream. The emerging soft porn carried the same stigma as the really dirty stuff, grainy black-and-white picture cards and stag reels made with old hookers and alcoholic johns. It was a vile business in an underground market. And because you had to show up to obtain it, participating in pornography meant publicly admitting that you were a pervert, even if only to a group of other perverts.