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Thursday, October 5, 2017

How Hugh Hefner Informs Your Personal Social Media

After the passing of Hugh Hefner, there's been a lot of talk about his influence on modern society, ranging from "chauvinistic smut-peddler" to "empowerment of women and liberation of restrictive mores." There's a planned biopic, starring Jared Leto (an odd choice). I have not seen anyone address what I think is the essential story of Hef, so here's my take.

When "Playboy" magazine was started, there were already a lot of nudie magazines. What Hefner realized was that most people have little problem with nudity, if they think it's tasteful; the number of people who insist on putting a fig leaf on Michelangelo's "David," for example, are few. What Hefner was selling wasn't sex - there's little sex in Playboy; I doubt anyone could figure out the mechanics of sex from the magazine - but "sophistication." The 1960's were a time when French films would show in the U.S. and they'd have some nudity, but it was okay, because it was "European," it was "sophisticated." "Playboy" was based on the idea that anyone could put on the trappings of sophistication and remain "masculine." That was the selling point: this wasn't pornography, but art.

This ersatz sophistication was eventually his undoing. He started with a smoking jacket and pipe, then dropped the pipe when smoking became taboo, which left him "an old man in pajamas." The choice for sophistication went against the trends of society; "Playboy" always sided with jazz over rock&roll, because we all instinctively feel jazz to be more sophisticated. Hefner, a poorly-educated Chicago publisher selling "sophistication" to blue collar guys, relied on some odd choices, such as Norman Mailer over Tom Wolfe, because "masculine" trumped "sophisticated."

The legacy of Hefner, I think, is found in social media. In your (yes, your own personal) social media. First, let's consider the photographs. Though you may not post nude photos of yourself or others, you probably edit your photos to look their best, whether with Instagram filters, Adobe Lightroom or going all-out with Photoshop. The women in "Playboy" didn't exist, but were idealized images, just as what you see in every magazine and now throughout social media is altered.

Secondly, there's the image of fake sophistication and luxury. People post photos of themselves standing next to luxury cars they don't own, or at exclusive resorts they pass by, or with celebrities they just happen to meet; it's not "look who I am" or even "look what I have" but "look at what I have access to." People do not post their lives, but an idealized image of what they want people to think their lives might be.

Hefner pretended to live in a bubble of an endless party among beautiful young women. What are you pretending?

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