How Playboy cut ties with Hugh Hefner to create a post-MeToo brand

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Hugh Hefner launched Playboy magazine 70 years ago this year. The first issue included a nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe, which he had purchased and published without her knowledge or consent.

Hefner went on to build the Playboy brand on the backs of countless women featured in its pages, whose beauty and performance of heightened female sexuality entertained readers for generations.

Approaching its 70th anniversary in December, Playboy has changed radically. With the magazine out of print, the Playboy Mansion sold to a developer and the last remaining Playboy Club in London closing in 2021, what does the future hold for Playboy? The brand is changing to keep up with the post-#MeToo world.

Hefner died a month before allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein surfaced in 2017, fueling the #MeToo movement (which has seen survivors of sexual assault and harassment speak out against their abusers).

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In recent years, many have reevaluated themselves Hefner’s legacy and relationships with women. The 2022 documentary series The Secrets of Playboy (which aired on Channel 4 in the UK) detailed allegations of sexual misconduct against Hefner from several former girlfriends, including model Sondra Theodore and TV personality Holly Madison.

Hugh Hefner and Pamela Anderson during Playboy's 50th Anniversary Celebration at the New York Armory in New York City.

Hefner and Playboy’s relationship with women was complicated. Playboy was a early supporter of the right to abortion, helped fund it first rape kit and was sometimes a early supporter of inclusion (for example, with transgender model Caroline “Tula” Cossey in its June 1981 issue). But most of the women featured in Playboy fit a narrow standard of beauty—thin, white, able-bodied, and blonde.

Meanwhile, Hefner’s personal relationship with his much younger girlfriends models followed of emotional control and abuse. Ex-girlfriend Holly Madison described Hefner as treating her “like a glorified pet” in her 2015 memoir Down the Rabbit Hole.

Hefner’s passing meant he settled the bill with the #MeToo movement. Playboy, however, responded by releasing a statement in which she affirmed her support for the women featured in “The Secrets of Playboy” and called Hefner’s actions “disgraceful.”

The statement said the brand is no longer affiliated with the Hefner family and will focus on aspects of the company’s heritage that align with the values ​​of sex positivity and free expression.

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Today, Playboy is a very different company than the one Hefner launched nearly 70 years ago. According to the company, about 80 percent of Playboy’s staff identify as women, and its motto has changed from “Entertainment for Men” to “Pleasure for All.” The company’s shares are publicly traded and 40% of its board and management are women.

The company has also moved toward more creator-driven content through its app, Playboy Centerfold. Similar to subscription content service OnlyFans, Playboy Centerfold allows subscribers to view content from and interact with its creators, whom it calls “bunnies.”

Play boy

In the app, creators – or bunnies – can portray their own bodies however they want, putting the power back in their hands. Perhaps Playboy’s future is no longer in serving the male gaze, but the very audience Hefner rejected in first letter from the editor:

“If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is for you… If you’re someone’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and you’ve taken us by mistake, please give us the man in you. life and return to your home companion for ladies.”

Playboy reality series stars from the mid-2000s, Holly Madison and Bridget Marquardt, are also enjoying a resurgence among fans.

“The Girls Next Door” was released in 2004. The show focused on the lives of Hefner’s three girlfriends, Madison, Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson. It became E’s top show and cultivated a new female audience for Playboy.

“The Girls Next Door” was a complicated story of empowerment despite patriarchal interference. Its three female protagonists went from being known only as some of Hefner’s many blonde girlfriends to celebrities in their own right.

Eventually, each parted ways with Hefner, leaving the Mansion and going on to lead successful careers.

The show’s portrayal of Madison, Marquardt, and Wilkinson as empowered, fun-loving, and complex individuals who found joy and action in expressing their sexuality was likely what drew so many female fans to the show. However, amid the girls’ fight for agency, Hefner fought back.

Bridget Marquardt and Hugh Hefner with Holly Madison and Kendra Wilkinson in 2008.

The series reveals that he kept the final say in every Playboy shoot of the girls, as well as imposed strict restrictions and allowances on expenses.

In Madison and Wilkinson’s memoirs, Down the Rabbit Hole and Sliding into Home, they claim that the production constantly undermined them. They refused to pay them for the first season, didn’t credit them until season four, and aired their uncensored nude bodies on foreign broadcasts and DVD releases without consent.

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Fan interest in “The Girls Next Door” remains strong. In August 2022, Madison and Marquardt launched their “Girls Next Level” podcast, where they interview former teammates and interact with fans. They also recap episodes from their own points of view, revealing their experiences working on the show.

Having reached 10 million downloads in February 2023, the podcast’s success — 14 years after the last episode of “The Girls Next Door” — speaks to the cultural legacy of the Playboy brand. It also shows that despite Hefner’s original editor’s note, Playboy resonates with some women.

Playboy is now in a post-Hefner era where the images of women found in old Playboy issues can serve as inspiration for others to enjoy their own sexuality. Whatever the future holds for the company, the concept of Playboy has become public property—whether in the appearance of Playboy bunny costumes every Halloween, the popularity of Playboy logo tattoos, or branded underwear and clothing.

In a post-#MeToo era, the women of Playboy are speaking out and taking control. With the manor gates closed, the bunnies finally claim the brand as their own.

Top image: Hugh Hefner with the Playboy Bunnies in London in 1966.

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