Saturday 30 September 2017

The Death of a Pornographer

Earlier this summer there was a press flap over R Kelly, the almost forgotten superstar of 90s R&B. Capturing the newswires' attention were allegations he ran a cult, that several young women lived with him, were manipulated by him, and were effectively forced into having sex with him. Sensational news that got the celebrity gossip columns singing not out of concern for the women involved, but because of its salacious character. It was new, eccentric, and entirely icky - the depressing but well-trod story of yet another male celebrity exploiting the differential in wealth and power to use young women for sex. Yet there was an establishment figure who not only did the same, but paraded his sex cult on an internationally syndicated TV show. Eyebrows were rarely raised, let alone questions asked about the character of these relationships. He was instead sometimes celebrated as a trailblazer and, occasionally, a friend of women. I am, of course, talking about the recently deceased Hugh Hefner.

The official blurb and friendly obituaries stylised him as a sexual revolutionary. He stood against censorship and fancied himself a champion of freedom, and indeed he backed reproductive rights for women as well as gay rights. As Christina Cauterucci notes, Hefner funded abortion-related court cases before the landmark Roe v Wade ruling by the US Supreme Court. It also turns out he put money into women's refuges and rape crisis centres, supported civil rights and added his voice to a range of progressive and liberal causes. Yet simultaneously he was opposed to feminism and attacked it from the pages of Playboy. And there is the small matter of the pornography, which puts his progressive creds into question - to put it mildly.

As per many feminist comrades, porn isn't just a bit of harmless fun. It repeats and recycles gendered power relations through the depiction of sexual acts. Or as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin put it in their famed but unsuccessful anti-pornography civil rights ordinance, "we define pornography as the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words, that also includes women dehumanised as sexual objects ...". Porn is therefore an ideology, and like all ideologies it distorts the social world to the advantage of the powers that be. In this case the framing of women in pornographic terms reinforces patriarchal social relations, and therefore benefits men generally. It naturally suits the fraction of capital invested in the porn industry and the various markets that cluster around the exaggeration of gendered difference.

The MacKinnon/Dworkin ordinance goes on to describe the penetration, degradation and abuse of women's bodies which, to be fair, is far from characteristic of Playboy's output. Theirs are "tasteful" spreads of artfully photo shopped bodies entirely consistent with hegemonic feminine body types. Hefner's women were slim without a sliver of cellulite, skin unmarked by blemishes, and hairlessness that left no trace of the means by which this was accomplished. Playboy's women were to be ogled, but its sensibility and aesthetic privileged ornamental display over the explicit content one normally associates with porn. While there is a world of difference between this and the content to be found on PornHub and other tube sites owned by MindGeek, there is less a distance in business terms. The latter was formerly in control of Playboy's website and runs a number of TV stations with Playboy branding. Therefore the memorial decorating of their sites with graphical tributes to Hefner was in equal parts a tribute to the man who made them possible, and in remembrance of a previously close business relationship.

Nevertheless, despite the tame content Hefner has done substantially more to promote pornographic culture than his hardcore brethren. In addition to the magazine and its famed articles and interviews (which include not a few luminaries), the Playboy clubs, the bunny girls, and the merchandising ensured Playboy was something other than a skin magazine: it became a cultural juggernaut. The execrable The Girls Next Door/Girls of the Playboy Mansion wasn't the first product aimed at women, but carried through Playboy's ornamental theme. These were grown women reduced to children, who were required to appear non-threatening and sycophantic to papa Hef, and reinforce the message that women can get by if they submit to Western beauty myths, use their bodies to get ahead and prostrate themselves in front of men. Just like photos in the magazine, their personalities evacuated and transformed "the girls" into simulacra of human beings. As Holly Madison revealed in her excoriating memoir, this is because the young women who passed through the mansion were objects. Hefner wasn't very interested in the people these women were, just what they represented: trophies, lackeys, sex objects. We should not be surprised to find the pornographic imaginary he worked hard to inculcate in others was deeply embedded in his own relations with women.

How then to explain the progressive causes Hefner supported? A case of a guilty conscience and/or a touch of corporate responsibility? As a rule, I believe people should be taken at face value until there are reasons to believe otherwise. Hefner saw himself as a champion of sexual freedom against repression, and it's hardly shocking to observe that he had a material stake in the liberalisation of attitudes. Yet like all liberal takes, there is a blindness to wealth, power and privilege. While it is morally objectionable for rich old men to provide broke young women with bed and board in return for sex, as far as Hefner was concerned the women chose to be with him. This was economic compulsion and the lure of celebrity wrapped up in a toxic gendered mix. As Hefner was not a stupid man, it was not beyond his wit to realise this, it's just that he alternated between periods of not caring because he was living his stunted dreams, and lying to himself about the nature of his behaviour. Hefner is entirely typical of the parasitic class of capital owners vis a vis the myths they tell themselves. Following from this, because the women he patronised and degraded entered their arrangements "freely", he felt it his duty to support the freedom of more women to do the same without "repression" getting in the way - up to and including women as survivors of sexual violence and women wishing to end unwanted pregnancies. A less generous reading might position Hefner as a representative of liberal patriarchy, of wanting to extinguish traditional sexual mores centered on marriage and the family to make more women more sexually available to men. Male sexual supremacy was rewritten away from the right to the body of one's wife to the potential access to the bodies of all women, with the "women's causes" he handed cash to a means of maintaining/rationalising this state of affairs. I think there's merit to both arguments as they locate a consistency and not a paradox in his attitudes to women.

Hefner then was no revolutionary or sexual trailblazer. He contributed to the liberalisation of sexual attitudes, but did not challenge gender dynamics and identities, which is the hallmark of the true revolutionary. Indeed, through his magazine and other Playboy enterprises he promoted a reductive and stilted model of women's gender identity and one that is absolutely centered on a narrow range of female body types. The consequence of this was the inculcation of large numbers of men and women into the acceptance of this as normal and natural, when the logical consequences of his actions were to replace repressive with permissive patriarchal relationships. When we're talking about how Hefner will be remembered, it won't be as a celebrity or a "legend". No, to future generations he's going to be known simply as a pornographer.


Kriss said...

I don't think personally that putting out naked photos of 11 year old girls is art. Putting Eva Ionescu and Brooke Shields in the mag before they had even hit puberty - it is very, very difficult to blame that solely on the 70s being a different era.

Anonymous said...

" Or as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin put it"

I stopped reading at that point. I'm sure you don't care, but if you were going to construct a rational and reasonable argument against pornography you wouldn't rely on the outrageous hyperbole of that pair of cranks. Porn isn't an ideology, that's quite simply a ridiculous thing to say.

I can't help feeling that this was a tip of the fedora to a certain reader demographic, rather than an attempt to claim any kind of critical evidence base for your deconstruction in the above.

Phil said...

MacKinnon and Dworkin are/were serious feminist thinkers who've had a deep influence on the debates about pornography, whether you like it or not. And if they are cranks the onus is on you to demonstrate why they are cranky. Their observations about porn as an expression of gendered power is so obviously straight forward that they should be uncontroversial. We all know the media has a role in shaping our consciousness about the social world, yet somehow does that suddenly become invalid when we start addressing porn?

Anonymous said...

"And if they are cranks the onus is on you to demonstrate why they are cranky."

It's really not. The onus is on you to explain why their views are (a) worth taking seriously in this context and (b) how they support the non-sequitur that porn is an ideology. Because even if one accepts uncritically the writers you are quoting, and it is my view that this is unwise, their words still don't amount to sufficient support for the proposition in question.

You go on to say that "the media has a role in shaping our consciousness about the social world." That's obviously true, but a bit of a stretch from the point in hand. I'm struggling to think what its relevance could be. Generalisations about subject "B" do not prove precise points made in claim "A".

Ken said...

" He's going to be known simply as a pornographer". You do pass over civil rights, but it wasn't until I read the obituary of Dick Gregory that I realised that Gregory raised the money he needed to investigate the police assassination of three civil rights workers from Hefner. This eventually led to jail time for the conspirators, a first in the southern states, which some argue led to the Civil Rights Act. A not inconsiderable weight on the other side of the scales.

Anonymous said...

Phil: "[Dworkin and Mackinnon's] observations about porn as an expression of gendered power is so obviously straight forward that they should be uncontroversial."

Dworkin was right about the sexism in porn. On the other hand, in order to do that, she had to make gay male porn 'fit' into that same narrative, even where the porn was neither aimed at nor about women. In addition, her analysis led to the widely-held position that porn is sexist 'because porn' rather than because of sexism and women's lack of agency/control/opportunity to challenge the representations in it (which their proposed amendment would have made impossible for women to pursue).

Anonymous said...

"I think there's merit to both arguments as they locate a consistency and not a paradox in his attitudes to women"

See that's the problem with you Marxists isn't it? you want everything to be simple and unambiguous, whereas people are complex and frequently self-contradictory.

As to how Hefner will be remembered by future generations- he won't be. I'd forgotten him already.

I'm interested though that you suggest that Hefner supported women's reproductive rights because he wanted to break down the family and make all women sexually available to men like him, because that is what most evangelical Christians would say. I presume you're aware that many of the early feminists were funded by the likes of the Carnegie Institute?

Ben Philliskirk said...

"When we're talking about how Hefner will be remembered, it won't be as a celebrity or a "legend". No, to future generations he's going to be known simply as a pornographer."

Perhaps ideally, and Steve Jobs will be known simply as an exploiter. But you know as well as I do that Hefner is an appropriate 'hero' for modern capitalist ideology. He facilitated the ability of women to sell themselves as objects in the capitalist market, 'freeing' them from older attitudes that served to place them in moral and/or legal servitude. This all came about through his own desire to make money and enjoy a promiscuous lifestyle, so it also 'proves' that egotism within capitalism can lead to 'progressive' change.

And like capitalist ideology in general, there is a grain of truth in this. It could well be seen as progress of a sort that *some* women were able to free themselves to *some* extent from patronising and constraining stereotypes of their broader role, as well as actual legal impediments to their ability to sell themselves. The same can be said of wage labour in general. Where we need to be clear is that when criticising the limited and skewed nature of capitalist change we stick to opposing wage labour and commodification in general and don't return to enforcing moral restrictions that deny certain groups of people agency and freedom 'for their own good'.