Chauvinist or Civil Rights Activist? Hugh Hefner’s Complicated Legacy

I didn’t start having reason to discuss Hugh Hefner until the moment I learned of his death.

When news of his passing became public, I could see some variation of “Ding dong, the pimp is dead” all over my newsfeed. Like any good anti-porn feminist, I was ready to partake in the Hefner-hating festivities. After all, this guy normalized pornography and gave rise to the ridiculous brand of Playboy feminism that we see in the mainstream. As a result, radical feminists (not the fun kind) must combat the lie that women who drop their panties are symbols of empowerment while being accused of misogyny for challenging choice politics. Hefner really did a number on us.

….but what did I really know about the guy?

As much as I wanted to join my anti-porn feminist sisters in spiteful glee, I had to admit that I knew nothing about Hefner, apart from his ownership of Playboy and his reality show. Before now, I was never really curious about either of them. Truthfully, I’m still not that curious. Since pissing on a man’s memory because the cool kids are doing it is not my style, I decided to do a little rudimentary research into Hefner’s history. It seems that the life and legacy of this legendary publisher wasn’t as black and white as his critics and fans would have us believe.

To be clear, the indictments against Hefner are pretty easy to understand. He brought pornography to the mainstream with Playboy Magazine. He was also an unrepentant and abusive misogynist who paid the “girlfriends” he kept in his mansion allowances while imposing strict rules on their conduct—a role that sounds more like that of a pimp than a boyfriend. According to former “girlfriend”, Holly Madison, Hefner introduced himself to her by offering her drugs which he allegedly described as “thigh openers”. There’s also the issue of child pornography, where Playboy would often use sexually inappropriate images of little girls in its pages. In Playboy’s “Sugar and Spice” issue, a 10-year-old Brooke Shields was oiled up and published naked with makeup on her face because….well…there really aren’t any satisfactory explanations for using little girls in a pornographic magazine. In this context, “Ding, dong, the pimp is dead” made total sense. However, it was still an incomplete picture.

While his porn legacy will forever see Hugh Hefner branded by liberation feminists as a misogynist pig, child-porn champion, and quintessential dirty, old man, he was lauded as a champion of the Civil Rights Movement long before it was popular for white publications to virtue signal against allegations of racial bias. Though there’s certainly ample room to challenge the notion that having Darlene Stern on the cover of playboy was truly a mark of progress (after all, sexual objectification hasn’t really worked out so well for white women), Hefner was undoubtedly supportive of causes that served the interests of black people.

It was Hugh Hefner that put up the $25,000 for a reward which was used by activist and comedian, Dick Gregory, for information regarding three slain civil rights workers during the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Gregory was credited with pressuring the FBI into investigating the murders and finding the bodies. Hefner also made sure that racial analysis was included in Playboy. Hefner is also credited with launching the career of Alex Haley, who later went on to write “Roots” and the “Autobiography of Malcolm X”. Hefner’s commitment to civil rights wasn’t simply relegated to the pages of Playboy. He also featured artists like Tina Turner and Sammy Davis, Jr. on his television show at a time where television executives wouldn’t have dared risk the anger of their white audiences by putting black faces on their television screens.

A complicated history to be sure, Hefner is neither an angel or a devil. Instead, I prefer to think of him as a complex man who accomplished both amazing and indefensible things. For that reason, I won’t be joining my radical feminist sisters in the “ding, dong” chants. Still, I’m not blind to the fact that Hugh Hefner built an empire out of misogyny. In Hefner’s case, it’s not like sexism is just a small stain on an otherwise blemish-free track record. Sexism was the nucleus of Playboy and Hefner was at the center of it all. The men who worship the Hefner lifestyle (now, the Hefner memory) need to stop pretending that his good deeds take the tarnish off of his flawed legacy.

It would also be helpful if Hefner’s fanboys would stop pretending that his contributions to civil rights make him some kind of great, white savior. He helped a bit. The black people he helped directly are doubtlessly grateful for his contributions, but it does get a little bit tiring when leftists act like statues must be erected in honor of every not-so-racist white man who manages to get a few things right. If the “ding, dong” chants are cruel, then ignoring Hefner’s misogyny and playing up his civil rights activism is just plain disgusting. I won’t be participating in your aimless hero-worship.


At the other end of it, it would be really nice if women in the feminist community could stop speaking as though anyone who doesn’t passionately hate Hefner are guilty of some kind of anti-feminist high treason. Sometimes, there does appear to be a mob mentality when it comes to the acceptable range of feelings and thoughts women are supposed to have on men with complicated histories. It seems as though a woman’s commitment to feminism can be subject to suspicion is she doesn’t take her cues to join the group in rage vomiting from disgust. This becomes an especially egregious issue for black women who generally don’t appreciate being told by anti-racism activists and anti-porn feminists to pick a side. I don’t know when folks came to feel so entitled to black women’s unquestioned political loyalty, but it should go without saying that none of you are entitled to anything.

As for myself, I don’t have to hate him for being a misogynist anymore than I have to love him for being an ally in black people’s struggle against white supremacy. He was far from a saint, to say the least. He just wasn’t a 100% dirtbag. Maybe 80-90% dirtbag or something. Afterall, he did publish pictures of naked children in his pornographic magazine. That dramatically increases a person’s dirtbag percentage in my book. I’ll leave it to you to decide what percentage you want to assign to him. I only ask that you afford me the same consideration.

So, if it’s alright with you all, I’m going to go back to not caring about him in his death, much in the same way I didn’t care too much about him in his life. I certainly hope his loved ones are able to find comfort in their grief. I also hope that his foes and fans alike are able to find some semblance of balance in their appraisals of his life. I would want that for any one of us.

Ya’ll can carry on with your two minutes of hate if you want to.