Recently, Playboy founder and pop culture icon Hugh Hefner died, something I thought would never happen. Hefner seemed like a permanent fixture of modern pop culture, filling a timeless position: that of the elite, sexually powerful man, monetizing the sexualization of women for the idolization of other men who wished their objectification of women would result in mansions too.
Many opinions have been written on Hefner’s passing, on his “feminist” status, abuse allegations and legacy. I became aware of a popular response, illustrated by journalist Ann Friedman’s Tweet: “Wake me up when an iconic female media mogul who lived her entire life in silk pajamas dies in her mansion surrounded by boy toys.” Friedman later expanded her tweet into an article explaining that Hefner is a problematic figure because he is a cultural manifestation of the sexual power certain men are allowed.
In the article, she states: “To make Hef relevant in 2017, all you need to do is flip the gender: a woman running her media empire in the comfort of her loose-fitting silk pajamas, sipping a tumbler of whiskey carried to her by much-younger men (called “ponies,” or whatever animal nickname most excites her) with strong jawlines and some barely-there hot pants? Now she just might be a pioneer.”
The problem for Friedman is not with the structural forces that lead to a Hugh Hefner, but instead that there are no women occupying a similar cultural role. This myopic view leads to her ineffective solution: flipping the genders of the primary actors along a simplified binary. This isn’t a new discursive phenomenon, and it isn’t a viable solution. Friedman’s focus is solely on who has access to power, not the specificities of that power, a flaw that leads to the belief that merely inducting select women into positions traditionally ruled by men will somehow balance the scales.
Focusing on identity in critical analyses is undeniably important, but it is important because identities are embedded in power structures that give meaning to them, structure them and position them relationionally. Hugh Hefner and his endless conveyor belt of blonde Playboy bunnies wouldn’t be persisting cultural icons if masculinity weren’t validated using the bodies of women. This is just one example of these structural forces.
By suggesting a female Hugh Hefner as a solution, Friedman accepts these forces and necessarily relegates her female Hugh Hefner to the realm of fantasy. By introducing the word fantasy into her argument, Friedman abstracts further from the problem. Knowing full well that fantasy is culturally understood as a gluttonous, frivolous activity, as the paradigm of escapism, Friedman backs herself into a corner. The original problem — Hugh Hefner’s ability to monetize and mainstream the sexualization of women — is forgotten. Instead, the problem becomes the lack of a female Hugh Hefner, and the solution is further abstracted: Friedman suggests we turn to replicating this fantasy figure individually in our own lives, that “until we have the female Hefner we deserve, it’s up to the rest of us to invest in some silk pajamas and find the power in our own sense of pleasure.” Fantasy is the white flag of defeat in our female Hugh Hefner’s manicured hand.
Fantasy is framed by Friedman as a distraction, not a means to understand a situation. With this view of fantasy, there is no need, then, to fantasize outside the boundaries of the male/female binary. If identity is so fixed that merely switching the genders of powerful people in the world can deconstruct power imbalances, then how do we understand how we’ve gotten to where we are?
Friedman suggests that we turn to fantasies that are constrained by structures we don’t understand instead of utilizing fantasy as an active, productive process: to explore past social boundaries, past mere subversion into questions of liberation, of what if and then how? Friedman suggests we turn to fantasy as a separate alternate reality instead of seeing it for what it is: a means to understanding this reality.
What if the fantasy were not a female Hugh Hefner, but rather no Hugh Hefners at all? What if, instead of relying on fantasies for escapism, we poked at them, prodded them, made them work for us, worked for them? Fantasizing about a world in which the position Hugh Hefner holds was never constructed allows us to see the arbitrary social nature of the position in the first place. There is nothing essential about an old man, forever frozen in time, controlling a constantly replenishing group of women for social capital. There is nothing about it so essential to the social world that we cannot fantasize past it to construct something better for ourselves.
Contact Medina Husakovic at medinah ‘at’ stanford.edu.