Last Wednesday marked the not terribly untimely death of Hugh Hefner, pioneer of the sexual revolution, civil rights activist, advocate for gay marriage, and alleged supporter of the women’s movement. I say “alleged,” because it’s hard to parse that when you consider that Hefner built his fortune on the backs of nude women, mistreated his romantic partners, and palled around with some of Hollywood’s most notable rapists, including Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski.
To be fair, Hefner didn’t just make millions from publishing pictures of naked ladies, he managed to sell the appreciation of said naked ladies as an elegant pursuit, like polo or fine scotch. His gimmick was that these weren’t any old skags in the altogether, but the finest young, innocent, young, fresh faced, young, girl next door types who were also very young. Playboy Playmates were wholesome, all American, sexy without being sexual. A man could almost whack off to them with pride, because they all looked just so delighted to be there.
Nevertheless, by the end of the 70s, Playboy‘s brand of winking faux innocence was starting to flag, both in competition with Penthouse and Hustler, which did away with any pretense of “elegance,” and facing the rise of feminism. Hef and his brand needed to reach a new audience, and that audience was primetime television viewers, who by 1979 were already well stocked in all the gratuitous T&A they needed, thanks to Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company. Nevertheless, ABC aired Playboy’s Roller Disco and Pajama Party, which, despite Hefner’s claims that he respected women and wanted them to be on equal footing with men, comes off as a sharp rebuke to that. This is a celebration of the barely clothed female form, and Hefner’s ability to throw a great party, slightly smutty wish fulfillment for schlubby male viewers.