:: Article

Hefner: The Virginia Woolf of Pornotopia

By Richard Marshall.

Pornotopia: An Essay On Playboy’s Architecture & Biopolitics, Beatriz Preciado, Zone Books, 2014

Hugh Hefner invented modern male anti-domesticity wearing pajamas, slippers and holding a pipe. He talked about needing to escape green-lawn suburbia and having a city room of his own. He’s the Virginia Woolf of pornotopia. He’s the archetype of James Bond, John Steed, Simon Templar, of anti-hero Hefner’s like Bruce Wayne and Patrick Bateman. He was a pioneer figure in sexual liberation politics, a key part of the 60’s revolution. He enabled men to go shopping, cook their own meals, choose their own clothes, wallpaper and furniture, choose their own entertainment, to participate fully in the stylish, mechanised consumerism of modernist, capitalist hedonism. Although it began as white, male, middle class, young and straight it continues to evolve into something for non-white, women, working class, old and non-straight folk as well. His legacy is the private arty dwelling of urban box living, gadget-filled, book and magazine crammed, smart and classy, the office/boudoir pad that refuses any marriage and family hegemonies as it plays mood music to the bespoke lighting of chemically enhanced swingerdom. He rescued living from domesticity. We’re all in the ‘Big Brother’ House now, even if we hate it!

Playboy came out in 1953 in Chicago. It gave a way of living for urban bachelors. Utopian spaces included urban bachelor pads, the Playboy Mansion, the rotating bed, electronic boudoirs and the Playboy Clubs. He sexualized technologies and communication for the suave white straight middle class man coming out of the Second World War and transformed them into the consummate consumer and multimedia user that everyone is supposed to aspire to today. The pill was invented at this time, separating sexuality from reproduction. This made it easier for women to be bought and used in this masculine pornotopia that was rattling traditional relationships of power, gender, sexuality and space. Not all feminists were prepared to be bought, of course, but nevertheless Hefner was clearly part of the sex liberation movements shaking the western world in the post war years.

‘Playboy is for the contemporary critical thinker what the steam engine and the textile factory were for Karl Marx in the nineteenth century… a discursive laboratory to interrogate the production of hegemonic heterosexual masculinity within capitalism. The Bunny media empire is a model of economic and cultural production that allows us to understand the displacement, after the Second World War, from the disciplinary regime of production of sexuality towards… a pharmacopornographic regime characterized by the new introduction of new chemical, pharmacological, prosthetic, media, and electronic surveillance techniques for controlling gender and sexual reproduction,’ writes Beatriz Preciado in this fascinating book.

(USA. Nevada, Las Vegas. 1966. Hugh Hefner, Playboy founder, working on the floor in a hallway of his mansion.)

Playboy Architecture was about performing masculinity. In 1962 we are shown a picture of Hefner posing next to an architectural model like he was Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier. He held a pipe not a pen. The model was of the Playboy Club and Hotel to be built in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Hefner’s architectural innovation was central to what he achieved. It was Playboy that redesigned domestic spaces in the Cold War years for young men wanting to break from traditional sex regimes. And we’re still living in the aftermath of this.

Hefner said: ‘I wanted the house to be a dream-house. A place where one could work and have fun without the trouble and conflicts of the outside world. Inside, a single man had absolute control over his environment. I could change night into day screening a film at midnight and ordering a diner at noon, having appointments in the middle of the night and romantic encounters in the afternoon. It was a haven and sanctuary… While the rest of the world seemed to be out of control, everything inside the Playboy House was perfect. That was my plan. Being brought up in a very repressive and conformist manner, I created a universe of my own where I was free to live and love in a way that most people can only dream about.’

Playboy is therefore much more than the magazine. It’s the mansion and its parties, the grotto, the underground glass-walled games room, bunnies swimming naked in pools, the round bed of frolics, the bachelor pad, the private jet, the club of secret rooms, the garden zoo, the secret castle, the urban oasis of the media age, what Hefner would call the ‘Disneyland for adults.’ Modern, cutting edge architecture and design was a theme of many articles it published in its early days. It’s articles supporting Mies, Gropius, Philip Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Wallace K Harrison, the functional simple designs of Eames, Saarinen, Nelson, Bertoia and Knoll gave Playboy a killer urbane cool. Frumpy mainstream mags such as Ladies Home Journal and House Beautiful attacked the very same architects and designers for being anti-American. Hefner was the pop architect of ‘this multimedia erotic cabaret.’ The new masculinity needed a new subjectivity, a new sort of space, a series of new practices and uses for the domestic functioning. He created ‘ technohabits of the male body’ that still have purchase. Siegfried Giedion coined the term ‘Playboy architecture’ in 1962 and saw it as a decadent threat but we can read him as accurately identifying a new masculinity when he writes:

‘Contemporary architecture is regarded by some as a fashion and – as an American architect expressed it – many designers who had adopted the fashionable aspects of the “International Style” now found the fashion had worn thin and were engaged in a romantic orgy. This fashion, with its historical fragments picked at random, unfortunately infected many gifted architects. By the sixties, its results could be seen everywhere: in smallbreasted,gothic-styled colleges, in a lacework of glittering details inside and outside, in the toothpik stilts and assembly of isolated buildings of the largest cultural centre. A kind of playboy-architecture became en vogue: an architecture treated as playboys treat life, jumping from one sensation to another and quickly bored with everything.’

Defying toxic anti-obcenity laws then in practice, Playboy sold over 50,000 copies first time out. This shocked everyone, including Hefner. That first edition had Sherlock Holmes, a drawing of a junkie shooting up, an article on jazz, a tale of adultery from the Decameron, an article on the finances of divorce, and a photographic report on ‘ modern office design.’ But it was the colour picture of a nude Marilyn Monroe by Tom Kelley that was the key to its success. This was the moment Hefner invented modern pornography. Gay Talese says: ‘ Prior to Playboy, few men had ever seen a color photograph of a nude woman, and they were overwhelmed and embarrassed as they bought Playboy at the newsstand, folding the cover inwards as they walked away.’ It changed the landscape of Coldwar America. Soon it was shifting close on 300,000 copies a time. By the late sixties readership was more than 6 million.

Hefner was the first twenty-first century public masculine figure represented as essentially an ‘indoor man.’ A good hair cut, playing ping pong, feeding a pet, having different coloured pajamas, having a wardrobe, a pipe, books and parties at night were all part of this new white hetero middle class cool.

According to Salon.com:

Playboy brought men indoors. It made it ok for boys to stay inside and play. Where other men’s magazines – Argosy, Field and Stream, True – affirmed their readers’ places in duck blinds and trout streams, Hef’s took men inside to mix drinks, sit by the fire and play backgammon or nexk with a girlfriend. In what would later become and ironic collusion with feminists such as Betty Friedan, Playboy critiqued the staid institutions of marriage, domesticity and suburban family life. Suddenly bacherlorhood was a choice, one decorated with intelligent drinks, hi-fis and an urbane apartment that put white picket fences to shame. Sophistication had become a viable option for men: The Playboy universe encouraged appreciation of “the finer things” – literature, a good pipe, a cashmire pullover, a beautiful lady. America was seeing the advent of the urban single male who, lest his subversive departure dfrom domestic norms suggest homosexuality, was now enjoying new photos of nude women every month.’ Hefner said, ‘ Most of today’s “magazines for men” spend all their time out-of-doors thrashing thorny thickets or splashing about in fast flowing streams. We’ll be out there too occasionally, but we don’t mind telling you in advance – we plan on spending most of our time inside. We like our apartment.’

It was a radical movement. It required men to colonise domestic spaces that traditional nuclear family values insisted were the domain of women. It was a call to leave the nuclear family behind , to create spaces for the men who simply walked out and never returned to that previous domestic regime. (And in so doing gave a signal for women to do the same!) The bachelor pad was full of things that came in leather cases, an observatory where political and social surveillance could continue from within a safe space. The bachelor was encouraged to retain political and social interests and activities, and the fictional spy is the figure that captures best this dimension of the ideal. Replacing the previous ideal masculinity of warrior, soldier, a masculinity all physical and primal, the playboy bachelor was artificial, impenetrable, dual, seductive, chameleonic and sophisticated. James Bond made his entrance on the big screen at this crucial time as if he’d walked out from a Hefner pad.

The October 1956 issue editorializes: ‘ A man’s home is not only his castle, it is or should be, the outward reflection of his inner self – a comfortable, liveable, and yet exciting expression of the person he is and the life he leads. But the overwhelming percentage of homes is furnished by women. But what of the bachelor and his need for a place of his own?’ Of course Hefner kept gender spaces separated even so. The created Stag Spaces were close to ‘premodern distributed gendered space’ rather than being truly progressive and revolutionary. Hefner’s alliance to men-only stag porn screenings bequeathed the Playboy ethos with traditional for-men-only voyeurism. But he was a pioneer. No one’s perfect.He couldn’t get everything right. The bunny logo came about because Hefner discovered the name Stag was already the logo of an American field and fishing magazine so he asked for the cartoon of himself as a stag deer smooching at a bar to be changed slightly to a ‘cute, frisky and sexy’ bunny. In January 1954 the male figure became a woman-bunny. By the sixties the new playboy players were teenagers of white middle class pedigree. The target reader was ‘The teenager, who was not yet tied down by marriage, had purchasing power, and owned his own body for the first time (it had not yet been claimed by the state for new wars), was the ideal consumer of the new pornographic image and the magazine’s new discourse on the urban male: “Playboy has a professional polish and a formula targeted at male teenagers of all ages.” While working class or nonwhite teenagers without purchasing power were represented as potential criminals , white middle-class teenagers (of all ages) could aspire to achieve “playboy” status.’ Again, from today’s perspective this looks regressive, but it was a first step, and opened the gates to pornotopias for everyone.

Hefner skillfully invented the ideal that his Playmates were to represent. He wrote: ‘ The Playmate of the month was a political proclamation. Playboy wanted to realize an American dream, inspired in the pin-up illustrations and photographs of the thirties and forties: the idea was to transform the next door neighbour girl into a sex symbol. And this implied a number of changes in relation to the issue of feminine sexuality, meaning that even the nice girls enjoyed sex. It was a very important message, as important as all the feminist disputes… We supposed it’s natural to think of the pulchritudinous Playmates as existing in a world apart. Actually, Playmates are all around you: the new secretary at your office, the doe-eyed beauty who sat opposite you at lunch yesterday, the girl who sells you shirts and ties at your favourite store. We found Miss July in our own circulation department.’ Actually, the best version of the Playmate ideal was Barbie, a plastic doll produced by Mattel in 1958.Just before this bikinis were invented. Bikinis were named after the 1956 exploding of a 23-kiloton nuclear bomb over the small Pacific islands of the Bikini Atoll as part of Operation Crossroad. The image of Rita Hayworth was strapped to the first bomb dropped, the Gilda Bomb. She was literally the first sex bomb.

Walter Benjamin writes about the bourgeoise interior as ‘a box in the theatre of the world… The interior is not just the universe of the private individual; it is also his etui. Ever since the time of Louis Philippe, the bourgeoise has shown a tendency to compensate for the absence of any trace of private life in the big city. He tries to do this within the four walls of his apartment. It is as if he has made a point of honour not to allow the traces of his everyday objects and accessories to be lost. Indefatigably, he takes the impression of a host of objects; for his slippers and watches, his blankets and his umbrellas, he devises coverlets and cases … the apartment becomes a sort of cockpit. The traces of the inhabitant are molded into the interior. Here is the origin of the detective story, which inquires into these traces and follows these tracks.’ Changing men change their apartments. The Hefner playboy uses his space for sexual management.It’s pretty dire to be honest.

Editorials wrote: ‘Speaking of entertainment, one of the hanging Knoll cabinets beneath the windows holds a built in bar. This permits the canny bachelor to remain in the room while mixing a cool one for his intended quarry. No chance of missing the proper psychological moment – no chance of leaving her cozily curled up on the couch and returning to find her mind changed, purse in hand, and the young lady ready to go home, dammit.’ The playboy is the serial seducer, a ‘playboy rabbit … like a double agent or spy.’
‘The antifemale domesticity training given by Playboy, first to get rid of women after sex, second to eliminate their traces, and third to prevent women from taking back the kitchen…’ From these perspectives Hefner’s famous rotating bed is more like a military observatory or control room than a bed. In ‘Diamonds are Forever’ of 1971 Bond reveals he is a Playboy member and is shown hiding in the 1968 Arthur Elrod Residence, the ultimate bachelor pad designed by John Lautner.

The advent of a new politics in the guise of the Reagan/Thatcher hyper capitalist regimes brought a move away from modern architecture as denoting technological sophistication, futurism and human capital.These were replaced with sites of sexual perversion and felony. If Hefner’s dream was of the kitchenless kitchen, a space of the ‘young connoisseur of meat and wines’ fused with technologies to protect the bachelor for being taken as an oddball, post 80’s morphed into something more sinister and criminalised. Yet for Hefner his ideal remained: mechanical gadgets rotated and flip-flopped. Borsani couches could become horizontal. The round bed could turn 360 degrees. Kitchens became theatres, swimming pools had retractable roofs, sliding walls, two-way mirrors, glass walls, and naked interior spaces as pornographic as any girl.

The Playboy Mansion was bought by Hefner in 1959. From the outside it looks like a trad mansion. Indoors it’s a theatre, a tv studio, a neoliberal brothel, and a sex factory. It plays with dark interiors ‘… and its subspaces make for privacy, protection, concentration, and control. The intricate maze under the low ceiling never connects with outside light or outside space. This disorients the occupant in space and time. Space is limitless, because ethe artificial light obscures rather than defines the boundaries. Light is not used to define space. Walls and ceilings do not serve as reflective surfaces for light but are made absorbent and dark. Space is enclosed but limitless, because its edges are dark.’

Preciado says that; ‘The Playboy Mansion was an enormous , madcap office where the playboy could also live and enjoy himself, a virtual brothel in which a media group had set up its centre of operations, the set of a reality show in which a married man (Hefner married several times) lived in multimedia polygamy with more than thirty women (and men, through the magazine and the TV shows and films), a strict residence for young ladies who were potential Playmates to strip before the eyes of the whole of America, a hermetic bunker filmed by close-circuit TV, with the footage liable to be made public at any moment.’

Hefner invented a new way of sitting. He introduced a new kind of horizontal worker in contrast to the vertical. Hefner worked on the floor. ‘I used the carpet as a gigantic desk. When I met artists, designers, and writers we used to crawl while we looked at our work.’ Playboy had invented a ‘domo-professional’ space and a new style of cool worker in designer pajamas. He blurred the boundaries between pleasure and work. His Playboy bed had a tv, radio, remote control system for drapes and lights, ambient lighting, was the technification of a non-monogomous horizontal pornotopia. By 1965 it was the most famous bed in America. Playboy wrote about it:

‘One touch of the rotating bed’s buttons allows Hef to create four different rooms. When a bed is orientated toward the wall, he faces the Hi-Fi channel and video, in front of a television console made of Phillipine mahogany with a double screen that was maneuvered from the bed and a stereo Hi-FI Clairtone channel, with spherical speakers coated in aluminum … To the North , the bed facesthe conversation zone created by Knoll sofa and a coffee table… To the West, the bed faces a fixed headrest, with a private bar and a table to eat at any time. And to the South, the bed is orientated toward the romantic glow that the Italian marble chimney produces.’ Tom Woolf described it as ‘No daylight. Within his sealed capsule, Hefner loses all sense of time and season. He loves the night. By keeping his shades always drawn, he has effectively banished daylight from his life. He eats when he pleases – a kitchen staff is on duty 24 hours a day. But then he subsists largely on Pepsi-Colas, which are stocked in small refridgerators scattered throughout his quarters, including one in the headboard of his bed. Often he doesn’t know what day it is. A friend suggested giving his a set of seven pajamas with the day embroidered on each – in reverse writing sothat he would just have to lok in the mirror while shaving to see where he was in the week.’ He ate chocolate Butterfingers , candy apples and drink more than a dozen Pepsis a day. He stoked on Dexedrine.

The horizontal sedentary lifestyle embraced Hefner as a sort of prosthetic. ‘For doctors and patients, prosthetics were powerful anthropomorphic tools that refracted contemporary fantasies about ability and employment, heterosexual masculinity, and American citizenship.’ David Serlin notes a spooky similarity between Playboy and rehabilitation manuals of the postwar period. The prosthetic limb was linked to the Playboy bed. The Playboy bed was a technological contraceptive platform, a rotating prosthetic dildo, a spinning pill.

The first Playboy Club opened in 1960 in Chicago. It lies at the junction between legal trade and the sex industry, show-biz and tourism, retail space, secret society and pop media. It delivers ‘ a homogenous sexual territory, characterized by spatial standardization, the production of overcodified visual icons and the modeling of the female workers.’ By 1967 Time magazine wrote this about the clubs:

‘Spectator Sex. To some visitors, the trap door and glass wall are the real symbols of Hugh Hefner’s achievement. Bacchanalia with Pepsi. Orgies with popcorn. And 24 girls – count ‘em, 24 – living right overhead. Not to mention all those mechanical reassurances, like TV and hifi. It is all so familiar and domestic. Don Juan? Casanova? That was another country and, besides, the guys are dead. Hugh Hefner is alive, American, modern, trustworthy, clean, respectful, and the country’s leading impresario of spectator sex.’ From 1961 to 1965 Playboy went global. In 1975 Hefner moved into Playboy Mansion West in Los Angeles. The garden, animals and female nakedness were part of his fiction of nature. Michael Jackson learned from it. In 2012 he published his six volumed illustrated autobiography. He bought a tomb next to Marilyn Monroe in Westwood Memorial Park cemetery in Los Angeles and was into criogenesis.

Preciado sees Playboy as a ‘titanic allegoric operation.’ He died having succeeded in what he set out to do , ‘… namely, to construct a collective sexual imaginary capable of implementing, right in the middle of the Cold War, a new set of affects, bodily habits, and desires that prepared the shift from a disciplinary society, with its repressive norms and bodily regulations, toward a pharmacopornographic regime characterized by immaterial labour, postdomestic space, the psychotropic and chemical regulation of subjectivity, prosthetic extension of the sexual body, electronic sexual surveillance, and consumption of intimacy.’ It’s one hell of a legacy whether you like it or not.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 30th, 2017.