Hefner championed black cause

Iconoclasm

For better and for worse, I am fascinated, of course, by iconoclasts: the men and women who changed the course of world history by defying conventions. Iconoclasm is originally a religious concept which has its roots in the Greek language and pertained to the heresy of one who defaced religious imagery. The more modern concept of the word carries a less-reviled meaning. The mavericks of innovation and invention and most forms of human progress were iconoclasts.

State of the Art with Admire Kudita

From Steve Jobs, Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, the Wright Brothers to Galileo Galilei (who first mooted the idea that the planets revolve around the sun and was excommunicated by the Catholic Church for his troubles). He would have been murdered for his anti-establishment science had it not been for the powerful Medicis. Galileo was removed from excommunication only about 500 years after his death! But such is the life of the iconoclast. They have to pay the price of ostracisation and bedevilment.

Life and death

Last week, at age 91, Hugh Hefner passed away. If you do not know why I must discuss him or who he was, wait a while. The man’s influence was seismic on popular culture in the United States, as well as across the globe. Hefner changed the way people looked at the subject of sexuality via his Playboy magazine. At one point in the 1970s, the magazine’s circulation reached over five million units before falling to its current 400 000 units monthly. The magazine featured pictures of nude models, who the company called bunnies and for a long time, women who wanted to be famous coveted the opportunity to feature in Playboy as bunnies. The word bunny was a play on the rabbit’s perceived sexual prowess! And, of course, Playboy was a magazine about sex and what Hefner called the celebration of the female form. The pictures were juxtaposed against very intellectual and topical essays and interviews.

Pushing black civil rights

Hefner has been hailed by US black leaders such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson for his work in giving voice to black leaders of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The likes of Martin Luther King were interviewed by famed black author of the novel Roots, Alex Haley. Malcolm X and James Brown visited Playboy premises and were televised singing Say it Loud, I am Black and I am Proud before a largely racially-charged white America. It is a credit to Hefner that he was not afraid of supporting such causes, especially in the face of opposition from a conservative society which took a while to allow blacks to drink from the same water fountain as whites, for example.

Scandal

Obviously, for the prudish, Hefner’s life work is the work of evil. I cannot imagine the angels of light ululating for him to be frank. But for many of my generation and others before, the Playboy magazine alongside South Africa’s copycat Scope, provided us a foray into a world of fantasy. We grew up in a time when parents could not talk about the subject of sex. It was unAfrican to discuss the subject with a parent. Still, the subject is momentous and the Aids pandemic is clear evidence.

We have to discuss the subject with our children and give guidance. Hefner may have exceeded the bounds of propriety as he attempted to change the world. His brand is one ultimately that espoused the pleasure principle. The feminists threw brickbats at him for objectifying women, of course. But teenage boys across the world chuckled. Hefner was an iconoclast who glorified hedonism and his magnitude can be thought of in terms of sowing the seeds of both licentiousness and openness about a taboo subject across the world.

Monetising smut

“We are a worldwide leader in the development and distribution of multimedia entertainment for adult audiences. The Playboy brand is one of the most widely recognised and popular brands in the world . . .”

Thus reads the company’s statement on their notorious business. According to Juniper Research, over 136 billion adult (porn) videos were watched in 2015. By 2020 it will be 193 billion! I want to believe that it is part of Hefner’s legacy that porn has proliferated. The Playboy brand and bunny logo is making money for the company through licensing these, especially since the magazine is no longer carrying nudity. With declining sales and a changed world, the company has had to shift gear. Forty percent of the company’s business comes from China, where it has done business for over 20 years. Revenues of US$5 billion have been generated in the last decade. Items such as jewellery, liquor and fragrances bring in the cash, according to Market Watch. The company generates US$100 million from a deal with global fragrance titan Coty annually. Online visitors to the company’s online site are four million monthly. In May this year, the company signed a 10-year licensing arrangement with Handong to manufacture apparel carrying the company’s famous logo. Funnily, China does not allow the company’s adult content to sully its nationals. The Playboy brand is considered aspirational!

Parting shot

What they said of Hef: “Playboy bunny is firmly in the pantheon of commercial icons alongside Apple’s apple, Coke’s red and white swoosh, MacDonalds’ Golden Arches and Disney’s mouse ears,” wrote one supporter.

“A relic of the rampant mysogny of Old Hollywood. Created a culture whereby nobody could criticise him without being accused of ‘jealousy’ or ‘crazy feminism’. Perhaps the sex-entitled fratbro culture we have today. One must wonder whether idolising such a lifestyle is healthy for men or women alike,” Sarah Johnson.

“Whether one sees Playboy as evidence of the worst or the best of our times, one cannot dispute its influence on America society, if not on other nations . . .” wrote another observer.