In the past 24 hours, much has been said and written about magazine. On Thursday, founder Hugh Hefner passed away peacefully at the age of 91. While it’s always sad when someone dies, I find it interesting that so many men and women herald Mr. Hefner as a legend. To me, he always appeared as a male profiteer of women’s bodies and a symbol of female subjugation; the “iconic” Playboy bunny suit costume a manifestation of scratchy, tightly-zipped oppression. And according to undercover reports by feminist trailblazer Gloria Steinem, wearing the original Playboy bunny suit wasn’t such a hoppy experience, after all.
In 1963, Steinem went undercover at a midtown Manhattan Playboy club to write an “exposé for intelligent people” in magazine. She called herself “Marie Catherine Ochs” and her essay “A Bunny’s Tale,” and just as her body was on display in the club, her wit and resolve are apparent in every word of the three-piece story.
In order to qualify for the waitressing position, the former Phi Beta Kappa sorority member was required to undergo a physical examination for sexually transmitted infections, as well as supply her dimensions. In short, long and slender legs were a prerequisite. Steinem’s fit figure enabled her to snag the role, which she would come to realize was an impossible balancing act.
“We don’t like our girls to have any background,” said the Bunny Mother, “We just want you to fit the bunny image.”
Beauty-obsessed readers might be surprised to learn a little-known makeup fact from Steinem’s story. In 1963, you couldn’t just hit up Duane Reade for some Ardell, you actually had to go to a 24-hour beauty supply store to get personally fitted for false lashes. That part really does sound glamorous.
Not so flattering, however, was how white Playmates referred to women of color as “chocolate bunnies,” who Steinem classified as “negro girls.” Truly cringeworthy, which in the end, is how Steinem characterized the entire experience. “I think Hefner himself wants to go down in history as a person of sophistication and glamour. But the last person I would want to go down in history as is Hugh Hefner,” she reportedly stated.
The exacting specifications of Mr. Hefner were largely reductive, prescriptive, and unrepresentative of the diverse pool of female pulchritude. Perhaps you grew up in era, and witnessed Holly, Bridget, and Kendra acquiesce to their boss’s bedtime, travel, and beauty and fashion regulations. The women were white, with long, white-platinum hair and surgically enhanced figures, matching the overarching aesthetic Hef pushed on the pages of .
With that said, Hef’s 26 year-old son Cooper Hefner took over the reigns at Playboy in July 2016 as Chief Creative Officer, and in that time, has expanded the struggling periodical’s definition of beauty. Most recently, a bald, small-chested Halsey graced the cover, loud and spunky in a sheer pink top. The younger Mr. Hefner, currently in a long-term relationship with British actress Scarlett Bryne (who portrayed Pansy Parkinson in ), even expressed regret for having Donald J. Trump as a cover star.
Notwithstanding his role in the sexual revolution, the legacy of Hugh Hefner is muddled at best. But with Cooper at the helm, the passing of the guard for Playboy might just mean a better experience for Playmates, and women everywhere who look up to who Steinem described as “the most envied girls in America.”
All I know is, I’m not going undercover to find out.
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