I recently came across a documentary titled, Hugh Hefner: Playboy Activist and Rebel, the documentary explores the humble beginnings of Playboy Magazine and sheds light on a socially admirable side of creator, Hugh Hefner. To the majority, most would think of Hefner as a perverted-misogynist; while these assertions may be true, this documentary proves that Hugh has undeniably been a social activist for equal rights, and yes, even for women. I wanted to explore Playboy and Hefner’s history further beyond the bounds of this documentary, and this is why I have decided to write about this topic. No matter the opinions one holds of Hefner and his publication, I feel it is necessary for people to know of the danger he put his name and his business in, in such a different social climate than what we live in today.
It is quite hard to imagine a world nowadays a society where there is so much close mindedness that entire cultures and races are shut out from the mainstream media. In the late 1950s and 60s, African Americans were very limited relating to rights they had as opposed to how they are today, and the view they had in society was very degrading. African Americans were still struggling with racism and the “separate, but equal” campaigns that forcefully divided blacks and whites in everyday life and in reality there was really nothing at all equal about it. Now, imagine the very first television show that was open about showing a mixed racial group, titled Playboy’s Penthouse and later developed into Playboy After Dark. This late night talk show was a major outlet for prominent members of the black society to come and get their voices heard by the nation at large. Made possible by Hugh Hefner, creator of Playboy Enterprises, he and this show made some of the biggest impacts on society to help change the view of African Americans. They did this by directly advocating civil rights on the show as well as bringing many talented African Americans on the show directly and hanging out with them as equals. Some might ask, did this television show that was created by Hefner and his magazine really have such a profound impact on equal rights and even American Society? Did the company face many discriminatory obstacles for putting this on national television? This will all be explored in the following.
After working for Esquire Magazine, he felt he wanted to go another direction with a magazine so he started his own. Even though being started in Chicago, soon after the company’s inception much of the business was carried out in Los Angeles, CA mainly because of Hugh’s extreme infatuation with Hollywood and cinema. He set out to create the most innovative gentleman’s magazine that had ever been created. He also felt a good way to advertise the magazine was to create a television show. So in 1959, Playboy’s Penthouse was born, and later in 1969 the show was restarted as Playboy After Dark. What these shows were intended to do was treat the viewer like they were attending a party of Hefner’s in a top floor Penthouse in an apartment building. Hefner attributes the style at which the show was created to its success, but on a deeper and more meaningful level the shows did quite more. Hugh repeatedly had African American comedians, musicians, and musical groups come on the show and perform their talents at the party. After they finished, they would all drink and converse over various topics, most very political. This marked the first time for a few of the guests, their first time ever performing on national television and they were not allowed to before simply because of their race. As a consequence of this, the show lost much of its syndication in the southern states for its feature of mixed races and such racy topics. Eventually, Playboy’s Penthouse went off the air in 1963 and there was a six-year drought until its reintroduction. Only this time it came back under the title Playboy After Dark, a revamped and newer version that was built off of the predecessor that again was very politically dominated. The show continued with Hefner as its host and led by example with its advocating of civil rights as left off in Playboy’s Penthouse, but at this time in the late sixties women’s rights had become a substantial issue in the media as well. At the centerfold was the issue of abortions, and the show had politicians as well as some notable psychologists who would come on and debate the issue of abortions. Hefner and the television show were always very open about their side as they were very pro women’s rights and had a pro-choice stance.
Scholarship around the media concerning racism and feminism has mainly spoken about how far society has come since these times in the 1950s. Often highlighting key aspects of our culture that have grown to be more accepting of equal rights. Justin D. Gifford, a college professor, and author of “Harvard in Hell”: Holloway House Publishing Company, Players Magazine, and the Invention of Black Mass-Market Erotica. This focuses on how a publishing company started printing a magazine called Players Magazine. What Professor Gifford’s argument is, is that the creators of Player’s created a new avant-garde type of literary market for the African-American market. As he puts it, “They capitalized on uprisings in Watts and created a culture industry based on large-scale black readership.” Overall, Gifford feels that what the magazine did was appeal to a large demographic of individuals who were largely ignored by the mainstream media. One individual has very interesting ideologies of the concept of television and how it contributes to our everyday life. Paul C. Adams, professor at the University of Texas-Austin, specializes in Geography and Communication. His article, Television as Gathering Place, he argues that television plays a central role in a society and helps define the societies view of “us” and “them”. He feels that television is unique to books, radio, or even magazines because it is place-like. The point he strives to make throughout is that television is strongly related to long-term historical changes within a society. J. Blaine Hudson, in Affirmative Action and American Racism in Historical Perspective, explores mostly black history and the implementation of Affirmative Action and the subsequent repercussions of it. Hudson argues that Affirmative Action is a measure created to desegregate American institutions but it actually diverts from its whole purpose and now only looks like a token measure to benefit minorities. As a consequence, Hudson feels that an entire new form of segregation has been created. He goes onto argue the reasons why racism was even started in the first place and creates a timeline of events for his examples.
My analysis of Hugh Hefner and the Playboy television shows demonstrate that he indeed helped to bring many changes concerning equal rights to the mass population and I will argue that all people are born with a genetic pre-disposition to want to help one another. My argument in turn will only help to strengthen and give another way of thought to the scholars’ argument’s that are featured. Hugh Hefner is an optimal example of this with the way he conducted his magazine and creating television shows based around helping so many different people that represented their race or sex as a whole. I feel that Hefner saw how these people were treated in everyday life and felt it was his responsibility to help people in need. The same can be said with the argument brought forth by Professor J. Blaine Hudson, with the enactment of Affirmative Action into American society. The overall intent of this measure was to provide a level playing field for those who were less fortunate to still have the ability to attend college and receive a higher education. It was our government’s responsibility to help them out and it is a basic human necessity to help someone in need and so that is what they did. This same idea can be added to Justin D. Gifford’s argument about the start of the African American targeted magazine Player’s. One of the main objectives of starting this magazine was based around African American empowerment and bringing attention to the their ever struggling population.
Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel, is a documentary directed by Academy Award winning filmmaker Brigitte Berman. In this film, Berman explores the impact that Playboy made on society and gives Hefner credit for his contributions to many things including sexuality becoming a prominent part of mainstream media, the female feminist movement, as well as directly crediting Hefner for helping African Americans push for equality in the United States. The film also gives an in-depth exploration of the Playboy television show Playboy’s Penthouse as it progresses through the years. Starting with its inception in October of 1959, the documentary shows the intro to the show with a subjective camera going up an elevator and reaching the top floor before being met by a cheerful Hugh Hefner who explains the festivities of the evening. The intent of this seems to be that it gives the viewer the real feeling of actually being there developing a stronger connection. The show quickly developed controversy because it was the first nationally televised show that features both African American and Caucasian people in an equal state. These African American cast members included Josh White, The Gateway Singers, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sammy Davis Jr.. This was a huge opportunity for all of these artists because most of which had never been able to perform on television before simply because of the color of their skin. Dick Gregory, a comedian and civil rights activist provides his opinion of the show, “ Where would you see all those great jazz folks he brought on or hear them other than their music, ya know and so he (Hugh Hefner) brought them alive so people could see a human side of them.” This quote is especially useful because that’s exactly what this show did for them, it showed that they were human beings who deserved as much attention and appreciation as anybody. Even still, many people did not buy into this idea in south so the show never was able to air in the southern states. After only two seasons, the show left the air in 1963 so Hefner could pursue new endeavors with the magazine.
However, at the very beginning of 1969, six years after it went off the air the show came back revamped and with the new title Playboy After Dark. The return of the show was even more politically aimed than it was six years previously. Guests on the show included Marvin Gaye, The Checkmates, Jim Brown, and may others. The show was still a major advocate for civil rights. For instance, guest football player Jim Brown came on and gave a memorizing speech where he stated, “We need to concentrate on supplying the same basic needs that African American people need in this country, expertise and financing, until we do this happens we will always occupy a secondary role in the economy.” The focal point of the show was to get these people on and they would talk about what they felt should change in society, and this time more than ever women’s rights was a prominent issue. Women getting illegal abortions was a growing issue as well as contraceptives and another vital argument that Hefner and the show were trying to make is that is was the women’s right to choose if they wanted to partake in this or not. They felt it there should be no law banning them from this if they felt that it was right for them. American writer and political commentator, Gore Vidal, made an appearance on the show advocating the use of contraceptives because his argument was that because society as a whole was dealing with over-population and unwanted child births and this was a necessary cause to help better our society. After all of this advocating and protesting of women’s rights brought forth by the television show Playboy After Dark. One might feel a sense of irony in the fact the famous court case that abolished the law against abortions (Roe v. Wade) took place only a couple of years later in 1973.
To get perhaps, the best understanding of why it was so important that the events that took place in Playboy’s Penthouse that later became know as Playboy After Dark. The arguments referenced above provide great relations between the Playboy television show what makes it important for the real world. In Television as Gathering Place, by Paul C. Adams, is for the most part a geographer and he explores how television relates to geography as a whole and almost becomes a real living place in our lives because so many of our lives revolve around it. Adams even states in his article that 98%, or almost of the population of the United States currently own television sets. Also, that the main focal point of studies on televisions in the last thirty to forty years are based on their psychological effects on viewers. “Current media theory stems from two main traditions. The tradition dominant in North America from 1950s through the mid-1980s looks mainly at supposed psychological and social effects of television on society. In this case, where television is viewed as a technology or mode of communication.” What studies have show is that television has grown to be a symbol of context and a center of meaning for a society. By creating this show, Hefner was able to make his show that very context that Adams was speaking of by advocating of civil and women’s rights when no one else did. The events that occurred with the Playboy television shows provide a great example for Professor Adams’s argument because one can see what he’s told in his article and see a real life example of it.
Now, the entire point of Hefner trying to reach such an incredible audience was solely to help those in need and allow them to have their voices heard. In this case, it was the African American population in our country and later it came to be based on the betterment of women’s rights as well. What Professor J. Blaine Hudson argues in his article relates just the same to this idea. Professor Hudson knows the hardship that the African American people faced in the 1950’s and 60’s and that can be considered why he and Hugh Hefner both went to such great lengths to advocate for their equality. Hugh Hefner makes the statement, “Humans are not born with prejudices, they are taught them from an early age.”(Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel). Professor J. Blaine builds off of Hefner’s ideas because traces the acts of racism in American back to the time when colonists who were derived from the British Isles, i.e., England, Scotland, and Ireland. “They were largely Protestant in their religious leanings and identified strongly with a myth of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority.” (262). Hefner makes it clear when speaking of his racial acceptance that his upbringing had much to do with this. He was never brought up in a home that taught prejudices and racism and that directly correlates with his acceptance of all cultures. It can be assumed that Professor Hudson would subscribe to this idea as well along with Hefner.
Perhaps the most important and biggest impact that that Hefner and the television show made was inspiring others to go and help people out themselves. Players Magazine, was a magazine created in the 1960s and was directly influenced by the events of Playboy Magazine. Professor Justin D. Gifford, in “Harvard in Hell”: Holloway House Publishing Company, Players Magazine, and the Invention of Black Mass-Market Erotica, gives an in-depth background on the beginning of the magazine and what their goal was to do with it and what was to be accomplished. The dominant part of the article is Professor Gifford conducting interviews with two of the past editors, Wanda Coleman and Emory Butch Holmes II. Gifford argues that the company that published Players did not have the company’s best interest and repeatedly tried to take advantage of the writers and editors. By stating, “Even though Holloway House created a space for American voices to be heard, they did so by exploiting writers and artists already at the margins of society.” (113). What this shows is that even in the late 1960s African Americans were still having trouble to take a stand, but the message Hugh Hefner and Playboy were sending still gave them the motivation to try and reach empowerment and equality. These two work together because they show how important the message of this television show was to the helping of an entire race. Players Magazine received commercial success throughout the 1970s and was able to reach many people across the country.
Everyone, no matter what background we have came from, has been exposed to some type of racism or has seen it first hand. By learning about the creation of Playboy Magazine in the 1950’s and the television show that ensued. We get a chance to look at somebody who fought for equal rights in the thick of this social plight. We get to see how the want for people to help one another is really there and it is something that all of us for the most part are born with. Hugh Hefner has it and is a perfect example of somebody who deeply ingrained in their DNA simply wants to help people. He is truly a visionary who has made his stamp on history in a big way and helped many from his deeds. Equal Rights is something that makes a positive impact on everyone’s life and everyone should all do our part to learn about it and lead by Hugh’s example.