Hugh Hefner: oppressor or liberator?

Oppressor or liberator? Feminist in a silk robe, or pipe-smoking exploiter? Opinions were flying a day after Hugh Hefner’s death over just what he did – and didn’t do – for women.

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On one side, there were those who saw Hefner’s dressing women in bunny costumes with cottontails on their rears, or displaying them nude in his magazine with a staple in their navels, as simple subjugation of females, no matter how slick and smooth the packaging.

On the other were those who felt the Playboy founder was actually at the forefront of the sexual revolution, bringing sexuality into the mainstream and advancing the cause of feminism with his stand on social issues, especially abortion rights.

“I think it’s disgusting,” said feminist author Susan Brownmiller, of the praise she’d been seeing on social media since Hefner’s death on Wednesday at age 91.

“Even some of my Facebook friends are hewing to the notion that, gee whiz, he supported abortion, he supported civil rights … Yes he was for abortion, (because) if you convince your girlfriend to get an abortion because she got pregnant, you don’t have to think about marrying her! I mean, that was his point.”

Most offensive to Brownmiller was what she called Hefner’s equating the word “feminist” with “anti-sex.”

“It wasn’t that we were opposed to a liberation of sexual morality,” she said, “but the idea that he would make women into little bunnies, rabbits, with those ears … That was the horror of it.”

For Kathy Spillar, executive editor of Ms Magazine, the accolades were a result of something deeper: a decades-long public relations strategy of Playboy to sanitise what she called an empire devoted to the subjugation of women.

“From the beginning, they tried to sell it as women’s liberation,” said Spillar, who also directs the Feminist Majority Foundation. “And so they made huge outreach efforts over the years to women’s rights groups.” But there was nothing liberating about it, Spillar said: “Those photographs of women certainly aren’t empowering of those women. They’re there for the pleasure of men.”

“He was right about one thing,” Spillar added. “Sex sells. But it sells to men. And to put women in those horrible costumes that Gloria Steinem wrote about! Talk about sexual harassment, talk a hostile work environment.” She was referring to the famous magazine expose that a young Steinem went undercover to write, training as a Playboy bunny in a New York club – bunny suit and all.

Hefner himself, obviously, saw it very differently. “The truth of the matter is the bunnies were the pre-feminist feminists,” Hefner told the Associated Press in 2011. “They were the beginning, really, of independent women. The bunnies were earning more money than, in many cases, their fathers and their husbands. That was a revolution.”

To Kathryn Leigh Scott, a former bunny at the New York club, much of what Hefner said then rings true. Scott trained at the club in January 1963, at age 19, she says, with six other bunnies, one of them Steinem. She said she had fun, and made good money. She later wrote a book, The Bunny Years, to counter the view that Steinem portrayed in her article.

“I did not feel exploited,” Scott says now. “As a matter of fact, I felt that I was exploiting Playboy – because I was earning very good money in a very safe environment, certainly safer than that many of my friends were working in at the time.”

Following Hefner’s death, many celebrities tweeted affectionate messages. “Thank you for being a revolutionary and changing so many people’s lives, especially mine,” wrote television personality and former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy. “We’ve lost a true explorer, a man who had a keen sense of the future,” wrote writer-producer Norman Lear. “We learned a lot from you Mr. Hefner.”

As for Steinem, who briefly wore that bunny suit in the early ’60s, she preferred not to comment so close to Hefner’s death.

“Obit time,” she wrote in an email, “is not the time for truth-telling. People will now be free to tell it, but later.”