Two and a half weeks! Can you believe it? I can’t remember the last time it took me this long to read a book that I was consistently reading and enjoying and staying interested in. It was long! at almost 500 pages. But it was worth my time. Thanks for being patient with me; now we’ll go back to reading shorter books faster!
Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, by Steven Watts, was worth all of my two and a half weeks. I learned a lot about Hefner, and the magazine, and the institution (or empire!) that is Playboy Entertainment, Incorporated. I also learned a lot about our nation’s history and cultural changes. I ended up feeling that Watts did treat Hefner sympathetically; he seems to respect Hefner’s place in our history, as a leader of a number of changes we’ve undergone. The conclusion of the books seems to me to be that Hefner was a good guy at heart, who bumbled into some mistakes, but wanted the best for his family, his company, and his country; he had some serious flaws (self-centeredness for sure, and a tendency towards a double standard betwixt the genders) but also learned and grew as a person.
I feel pretty well convinced that he is not a sexist. He put women on equal standing consistently, and before the country did. But of course his relationship with feminism and women’s rights has always been complicated. There are different ways to interpret the beautiful nudes he favors. Are women empowered by being able to show themselves as fully sexual beings, and make their own livings and their own lives? Or does he objectify them? (The argument presented by some “equity feminists” in this book, which I think Watts is sympathetic to, is that men view women as sexual objects, as women view men as sexual objects; the key is not to think that anyone is ONLY a sexual object. It’s a part of all of our identities. It’s an interesting argument.)
I can’t say that Watts gave an entirely fair and objective portrait, but I think that he did criticize Hefner, and share the critics’ arguments. I finished with more or less the same impression of the man that I started with: he’s done a lot of good, some questionable, but largely good, and he’s awfully interesting, complicated, contradictory, and controversial. (and bizarre, and fantastical…) But now I have a much better understanding of my opinion. I think I agree with Watts in the end.
At any rate I found it a fascinating read, and it’s much bigger than the tale of a playboy. It is, in part, also the story of the sexual revolution, consumerism, post-war American culture, the religious right movement of the Reagan decade, gender politics, big business, censorship and free speech, AND a playboy. Hefner’s larger than himself; he really sort of IS the magazine and the company, and saw himself that way from the moment he conceptualized it.
After finishing this book I picked up the January issue of Playboy magazine to finish reading a few articles. The one on the Mexican drug cartels and widespread violence we’re hearing about in the news was pretty disturbing; it’s hard to know, amidst all the news hype, how scared to be, but the Husband and I have been wanting to vacation down south again, and I think we’re going elsewhere, just to be safe. The fiction this month was a short crime story by Walter Mosley, which was a treat. (I see that Playboy is continuing to find quality fiction, something that Watts taught me has been a priority since the beginning.) And finally, I read “The Demise of the Hollywood Tough Guy”, about old movies and the roles we don’t see any more. I think it’s a good magazine, even though the naked women are not my cup of tea. There, I’m on record.
Off to begin something new! Perhaps you’ll get a Teaser Tuesday post this afternoon.