Friday, June 27, 2003

Here's another profile for you. I don't intend this to be anti-porn, I'm actually in favor of pornography on libertarian grounds (and the fact that the feminists hate it), but rather a commentary on a fascinating, and I think rather sad, icon of American life.

The Road to Xanadu
Hugh Hefner and the Empire of Illusion

Pornography remains among the most popular and least acknowledged entertainments in American life. At the center of it, its most well-known, popular, and mainstream figure is Hugh Hefner, the 70-odd year old publisher of Playboy Magazine and founder of Playboy Enterprises, a man who has come to symbolize the hedonistic ambitions of the sexual revolution. Hefner’s place in the public mind as the personification of respectable pornography, of tasteful licentiousness, has been reached both by calculation and historical factors. Historically, he remains the central figure of the initial forays into a new, looser sexual morality that came into being in the late 1950’s. His magazine, from its origins, sought to walk the line between prurience and sophistication. It displayed copious pages of pinup style nudes, but also contained obviously highbrow prose by writers like Norman Mailer and Alex Haley, articles on mixing martinis and listening to jazz music, a whole blueprint for the new lifestyle which affluence and liberalism were combining to create: a culture of personal satisfaction and fulfillment. One in which desire became an axiomatic value. Hefner, from the beginning, has sought a nobler purpose for his endeavor, often citing his own inner battle with a “puritan” upbringing, spinning his career as a solitary battle against hypocrisies public and personal. These pretensions of social consequence have met with derision from unexpected quarters. Larry Flynt, publisher of the far raunchier Hustler Magazine, has asserted that Hefner’s problem lies in his inability “to admit he’s a pornographer”, i.e. that within Hefner’s claims of combating hypocrisy lies a deeper hypocrisy, that Hefner is, in fact, doing anything other than making money by selling pictures of naked women.

There is no question that Hefner does his best to live to his word. His entire lifestyle, public at least, is a practice of his hedonistic preachings. Now in his 70s, he boasts a trio of 20 something girlfriends he squares around to Los Angeles clubs where he is likely the oldest patron by some 45 years, hosts lavish parties at the now famous – or infamous, depending on who you ask – Playboy mansion featuring rock stars and actors, all young and on the make, and never loses an opportunity to comment at length on the recreational virtues of Viagra. Hefner, like all good converts, does not merely live his life, he prostlytizes it.

All of this begins to appear quite strange if one considers the actual facts of Hefner’s life. Playboy Enterprises, as it has for over two decades, loses money. The mansions, parties, lifetime Viagra supplies, and all the other accoutrements of Hefner’s public lifestyle, come out of his own pocket, not the profits of his magazine empire. Even more telling is the reason why. For all of Hefner’s pretensions of shocking the puritan establishment, Playboy itself has become establishment, the tired icon of an idea that has long lost its relevancy. Ironically enough, Playboy is dying because it is too tame for the world it inhabits. Pornography is no longer a matter of bared breasts and some raunchy jokes. It is a multi-billion dollar business, the lion’s share of which is dedicated to material more explicit than Playboy would ever dream of printing. The internet, which has finally conquered the great obstacle to pornography consumption – the fear of people knowing that one is consuming pornography – is now the industry’s cash machine, and there is no way for Playboy’s relatively innocuous product to compete in a world where every manner of debauchery – however unappetizing or illegal – is available for no humiliation and at little cost.

This is all immensely ironic, for the breakdown in public mores, that ethic of universal hedonism that Hefner preached to all who would listen, is now turning his empire into an edifice of sand. The normalization of pornography has rendered what was once shocking and licentious into something trite and perhaps slightly dull. Hefner’s public persona has turned into something a little embarrassing, like a man who has stayed to late at a party to which he wasn’t invited. But most striking, and perhaps most tragic, of all is his own uncomprehending enthusiasm, as if he actually believes that Playboy is influencing the national culture, as if he actually believes all these young Turks consider him their peer and equal, as if he actually believes those three busty twentysomethings are with him for his startling good looks and fascinating mind and not to assist him in spending his millions of dollars. His must be an isolated life. He is an old man in a young man’s world, a millionaire whose business has been failing for decades, a haggard old clown who has, somehow, convinced himself that he is still a revolutionary.

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