How Playboy cut ties with Hugh Hefner to create a post-MeToo brand
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Hugh Hefner launched Playboy Magazine 70 years ago this year. In the first issue there was a nude picture of Marilyn Monroe, which he had bought and published without her knowledge or permission.
Hefner went on to build the Playboy brand on the back of the countless women who appeared in its pages, whose beauty and performance of superior female sexuality have entertained readers for generations.
Approaching its 70th anniversary in December, Playboy has moved on a lot. With the magazine no longer being published, the Playboy Mansion sold to a developer and the last Playboy Club in London closing in 2021, what does the future hold for Playboy? The brand is changing to keep up with the post #MeToo world.
Hefner died a month before allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein surfaced in 2017, fueling the #MeToo movement (which saw survivors of sexual assault and harassment speak out against their abusers abuse).
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In recent years, many have re-evaluated Hefner’s legacy and relationships with women. The 2022 docuseries “The Secrets of Playboy” (aired on Channel 4 in the UK) details allegations of sexual misconduct against Hefner from several former lovers, including model Sondra Theodore and TV personality Holly Madison.
Hefner and Playboy’s relationship with women has been complicated. Playboy was an early supporter of abortion rights, helped fund the first rape package and was at times an early supporter of inclusivity (for example featuring a transgender model, Caroline “Tula” Cossey, in her June 1981 issue). But most of the women who appear in Playboy have fallen into a narrow standard of beauty – thin, white, able bodied and blonde.
Meanwhile Hefner’s personal relationships with his much younger friends reportedly followed patterns of control and emotional abuse. Ex-girlfriend Holly Madison said Hefner treated her “like a glorified pet” in her 2015 memoir, “Down the Rabbit Hole.”
Hefner’s death meant that he was free to report on the #MeToo movement. Playboy responded, however, by issuing a statement in which it reaffirmed its support for the women featured in “The Secrets of Playboy” and called Hefner’s actions “disgraceful”.
The statement said the brand was no longer affiliated with the Hefner family and would focus on aspects of the company’s legacy that align with its values of gender-affirmation and free expression.
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Today, Playboy is a very different company from the one Hefner launched nearly 70 years ago. About 80% of Playboy’s employees identify as women, according to the company, and its motto has changed from “Entertainment for Men” to “Pleasure for All.” Shares in the company are publicly traded and 40% of its board and management are women.
The company has also moved toward creator-driven content through its app, Playboy Centerfold. Like the subscription content service OnlyFans, Playboy Centerfold allows subscribers to view content and interact with its creators, whom they call “bunnies.”
On the app, creators – or bunnies – can represent their own bodies however they want, putting the power back in their hands. Playboy’s future may no longer be in serving the male gaze, but rather the very audience Hefner dismissed in his first letter to the editor:
“If you are a man between the ages of 18 and 80 then Playboy is meant for you… If you are someone’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and you picked us up by mistake, please can you forward us to the man in your life. life and return to your female domestic companion.”
Playboy’s mid-2000s reality series stars Holly Madison and Bridget Marquardt are also enjoying a resurgence among fans.
“The Girls Next Door” was launched in 2004. The show focused on the lives of Hefner’s three girlfriends, Madison, Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson. It became E’s best acting show and cultivated a new female audience for Playboy.
“The Girls Next Door” was a story of complex power in the face of patriarchal interference. Her three protagonists went from being known only as some of Hefner’s many blonde lovers, to celebrities in their own right.
They all finally broke up with Hefner, leaving the Stage and going on to lead successful careers.
Perhaps it was the show’s portrayal of Madison, Marquardt and Wilkinson as powerful, fun and complex people who found joy and activity through expressing their sexuality that drew so many female fans to the show. However, amid the girls’ fight for agency, Hefner retaliated.
The series shows that he had the final say in all the Playboy photos of the girls, as well as imposing strict curfews and allowances.
In Madison and Wilkinson’s memoirs, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” and “Sliding into Home,” they claim that production constantly undermined them. They refused to pay them for the first season, didn’t give them credit until season four and exposed their naked bodies in foreign broadcasts and DVD releases without permission.
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Fan interest in “The Girls Next Door” remains strong. In August 2022 Madison and Marquardt launched their podcast “Girls Next Level”, where they interview former playmates and interact with fans. They also summarize events from their own perspectives, unpacking their experience of working on the show.
Having reached 10 million downloads as of February 2023, the success of the podcast – 14 years after the last episode of “The Girls Next Door” – speaks to the cultural legacy of the Playboy brand. It also shows that, despite Hefner’s original editor’s note, Playboy refers to some women.
Playboy is now in a post-Hefner era, where the images of women found inside old Playboy issues can be an inspiration to others to enjoy their own sexuality. Regardless of the future of the company, the concept of Playboy has become public property – be it in the appearance of the Playboy bunny costume every Halloween, the popularity of cute Playboy logo tattoos or branded clothing and apparel.
In a post #MeToo era, Playboy women are speaking out and taking over. With the gates of the mansion closed, the bunnies are finally reclaiming the brand as their own.
Image above: Hugh Hefner with Playboy “bunnies” in London in 1966.