Christie Hefner: Feminist nightmare?

The Playboy heiress fights for women's rights but not against male fantasy. How does this make her an enemy?

Published September 29, 2009 7:30AM (EDT)

It's a coming-of-age cliché: A boy finds his father's collection of Playboys and, in an act of indirect male-bonding, jerks off to the very same pictorials as his pops. A lesser-told story -- one that tends not to be so wistfully remembered -- is that of girls' discovery of the Paternal Stash. It's a sexual rite of passage that can be fraught with confusion, anger or outrage. It might even inspire a Freudian frisson in which daddy's innocent little angel gets off on the idea of being one of these worshiped sex symbols.

Think that's all very psychosexually complicated? Imagine being the daughter of the man responsible for fathering all of those images -- as is the case for 56-year-old Christie Hefner, who was profiled in Sunday's New York Times. But don't expect her to get much feminist sympathy.

It's hard to know exactly what it was like for Hefner growing up with an eternally pubescent father whom she only saw a few times a year at his famed mansion. What we do know, though, is that she grew up to become a self-declared feminist committed to innumerable liberal causes, including reproductive rights and workplace equality; she also reigned for 20 years as the CEO of Playboy Enterprises, pushing the company onto the Web and into hardcore porn. Some charge that her liberal feminist activism evidences her guilty conscience over spending so many years promoting an unrealistic female sexual ideal, while others have seen it as an empty ploy to overhaul the company's image. One thing is for sure: She still isn't a popular feminist figure. Ann Bartow at Feminist Law Professors bristled at the Times' "incredibly sycophantic" profile of Hefner and took issue with the mere two-sentence mention of "the hardcore porn that is now the mainstay of the Playboy corporation" -- presumably because it would be grounds for proving Hefner's anti-feminism. 

On a similar note, Ariel Levy wondered in her book "Female Chauvinist Pigs" how Hefner "reconciled the work she does for women's advancement with her job as head of a company that uses women as decorative inducements to masturbate." I think the more relevant question is how she reconciled her love for her pajama-clad dad with Playboy, the graphic representation of his sexual psyche. A similar question can be asked of the current "female chauvinist pig" generation the Levy wrote about: How do you reconcile the pervasive pornographic proof of male fantasy with your love for the men in your life? As soon as puberty hit, I was exploring the deep, dark depths of male sexuality thanks to a dial-up modem and mid-'90s AOL chatrooms. When you discover the power and ubiquity of porn, especially at a young age, you're likely to either ignore it or inure oneself to it -- maybe even to learn to like it.

Hefner made her father's empire emotionally and intellectually tenable by essentially taking charge of it. Some criticize her for failing to stage a feminist rebellion from within, instead pushing Playboy to edgier pornographic extremes. But she unflinchingly faced the reality of sexual desire -- in all its politically incorrect glory -- and found a way to live with it. Hefner hasn't fought male fantasies, but she has campaigned to improve women's realities.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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