28 Sep 2017 19:15 IST

Why India needs a Hugh Hefner

The playboy used his product, reach and influence, to make a change in society

This might sound unbelievable but not long ago, the US was a conservative society. We might like to believe that all Americans can do is think and talk about sex but, back then, before the 1950s, any talk of sex was taboo.

Then came a man — frustrated by his puritan upbringing, burdened by an unhappy marriage and desperate to succeed — who revolutionised how sex was perceived. While feminists hated him, he declared: “I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism.” He may have been right, as it was his efforts that also helped legalise abortion at a time when women did not have that option.

That man was Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, who died earlier today at the age of 91.

For the many things he accomplished in his career, today’s India needs a Hugh Hefner. Let me explain.

Breaking the back of puritans

Hefner was born to orthodox parents. Sex was taboo and alcohol was not allowed. His parents were not alone, such was the American society then. Censorship was common and anyone found printing revealing pictures could be arrested. As an obit in Esquire points out, TV shows weren’t even allowed to use the word ‘pregnant’.

We have something like this in India today. Prohibition is spreading. There is a huge interest in what one eats. And till a couple of months ago, our Censor Board was headed by a person who asked for the word ‘intercourse’ to be removed from a movie.

But even as we are too shy to talk about sex, there is no dearth of sleaze.

By publishing Playboy in 1953, Hefner brought sex out of the closet. An act that was suppressed under a Church-imposed moral standard became mainstream. Playboy’s reach and impact was unprecedented. By the 1990s, the magazine had seven million readers.

Sure there were problems, serious ones. Playboy objectified women. Many young men remained unmarried, trying to emulate Hefner’s lifestyle, marked by orgies with women in bunny outfits, parties, cigars and liquor. Most Hefner fans would end up disappointed and broken.

In later years, there were allegations that Hefner let his friends have a free run with the women at his mansion. At least one of the women levelled rape charges against actor Bill Cosby, a close friend of the playboy.

We don’t want anything to do with this part of him.

Giving space

When it was said that people read Playboy for the prose, not the pictures, it was not entirely in jest.

Hefner used the magazine’s pages to give space and voice to original thoughts and beliefs. American novelist John Updike, a well-regarded literary critic, wrote for Playboy. The magazine also carried an interview of Malcolm X, the African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist, who was later assassinated.

Hefner constituted awards rewarding freedom of expression. He is also said to have bought back the franchisees of his Playboy Clubs when he found that the owners were not letting in black customers.

Now, in India, how many publications/sites/channels do you know of that haven’t already been bracketed as right-wing or left-wing? Are any of these publications known to give room to all kinds of voices; and are not alleged to be driven by an ‘agenda’? There are few that fit the bill.

Sadly, we don’t have Vinod Mehta any more. The late journalist’s career even mirrored Hefner’s for some time, when the former was editing Debonair.

Social impact

When Hefner was starting out, birth control was banned in many American states. Having none of it, Hefner campaigned, and funded cases that later, in 1973, led to the Supreme Court affirming a woman’s right to choose abortion.

In India, we have no dearth of celebrities, billionaires and stars who have immense influence among their legions of fans. But how many of them have actually taken up an issue (please, don’t even mention the PR-driven campaigns) and taken it to a desirable end? Did anyone utter a word when a young girl (not yet a teen) was denied abortion and was forced to give birth?

We need a Hefner who could use his product, reach and influence, to make a change.