Angel in the Centerfold
Hugh Hefner, Harvey Weinstein and the real-life damage of male fantasy
In the brief gap between the death of Hugh Hefner and the exposure of Harvey Weinstein, I had a short-lived argument online about the significance of Hugh Hefner. My opponent was on the side of praise, seeing Hef as the founder of the sexual revolution, pointing out that he had supported several women in their business endeavors, and paved the way for our attitudes about sex in general to be more open and intellectual, breaking free of puritanical constraints.
My initial argument was the same argument many others have made: Hefner simply found a way to profit off his own sex addiction, encouraged the objectification of women, and his support of abortion rights was purely self-serving. My opponent didn’t want to continue the argument, and frankly neither did I. We dropped it.
But of course I kept thinking about it.
I kept thinking about it because shortly after this argument, the media was abuzz with the news that Hefner had bought and would be interred in the crematorium spot right next to Marilyn Monroe, and how typical that move was for a sexually predatory creep: Hef assuming Monroe would even want him rotting away beside her for all eternity. It struck me as a continuation of twisted sexual fantasy, that Hefner had enough money to sort-of kind-of conjure into reality.
A lot of men and women I know grew up with Playboy — either in the background, or as consumers of the magazine. And if it wasn’t Playboy, it was Hustler or Maxim or the thinly veiled Esquire or GQ. But it all goes back to Playboy.
Before Playboy Magazine, porn was the territory of the pathetic and the perverted. There were the occasional attempts at empowerment, or what was promoted as empowerment, but they usually backfired. Looking at pictures of naked women, or naked people having sex, or both, involved cheap paper, poor quality photos or film, and often bodies that were past the age of youthful buoyancy and bounce.
But Playboy Magazine was different. Printed on glossy paper, publishing articles and stories that were actually proofread, grammatically correct, and written by some of the most important literary figures of the 20th century — Nabokov, Cheever, Vidal, Hemingway, Mailer — the magazine’s most innovative aspect was to feature attractive, lithe young women.
Everything about the Playboy Magazine was set up to insist that all the women featured in the magazine were there willingly. Bright and shining eyes, sparkling smiles, they looked happy and healthy and sexually free, unlike so many of the women found in the more severe porn magazines and films, who often looked pretty un-thrilled to be on set, implying through the expressions on their faces that they were doing it purely for money.
Not the Playboy Centerfolds, though, and not the Playboy Bunnies. Hefner turned it into an honor to be a Playboy Bunny, and always presented the centerfolds with a brief interview, listing their likes and thrills and hobbies. He gave them a voice, but the keyword in that sentence is he gave them a voice; that is to say, these were still not the authentic voices of the women featured.
But they all looked so happy.
I think the biggest damage that Hefner did to American society was to not only actively encourage men to fantasize about women, but to convince men that women want to play a part in their fantasy.
The effect this has had on the male psyche is, I think, in many ways even more insidious and more dangerous.
When I was in my 20s and was living in New York, I lived with a guy I thought I was going to marry. Sometimes my boyfriend and I would window shop around 5th Avenue, stopping in front of chic store windows and glamorous boutiques to marvel over luxury goods we knew we would never need. I noticed, though, that every time we stood in front of, say, an antiques store and I mentioned I liked a chair or a lamp, he would get tense, and start to stress out. I finally asked him one day, “why do you get so quiet and weird whenever I say I like something in a window?” He replied, “Because you have such expensive taste, and I don’t know if I’ll ever have enough money to buy those things for you.”
This struck me as insane.
Insane because he could not tell the difference between idle fantasy and actual longing, between window shopping and shopping shopping. And insane because when I mentioned this to other female friends, they confirmed that their partners reacted in the same way.
When my boyfriend and I watched TV or films together, sometimes he would say out loud that he found a certain actress beautiful or enchanting or mysterious or just cool. I assumed he was appreciating an aesthetic, and the way the actress interpreted the role she was playing. But I found that, when I mentioned that an actor was good-looking, his response was always a very casual but very sincere, “yeah but you know he’s gay, right?”
Again: insane. He was so consistent with this comeback, if you can call it that, it became clear that he was threatened by my attraction to a tiny little person on a TV screen who I would most likely never, ever meet. My attraction to any actor wasn’t real. I knew that. But for some reason, he couldn’t determine the difference; for him, it was a real life threat.
Our relationship wasn’t really meant to be, but while we were still together, I had the great luck to help write a screenplay that was being fast-tracked into production, and was flown out to Hollywood to do a quick re-write during what’s known as “Awards Season” (Los Angeles has four seasons: summer, fire, rain and Awards). The director I had been working with and I were to be taken to some Oscar parties, and as I was packing I joked to my boyfriend that maybe I would meet George Clooney — this was back when Clooney’s star and sex symbol status was on the rise — to which my boyfriend once again said, in all seriousness, “you know he’s gay, right?” And even though I retorted with “all the better — I need more gay friends!” my boyfriend stomped out of the room. I found him later, pouting on the couch.
We broke up not long after that.
The projection of male fantasy on to real-life women is even more confusing when women are unaware that a fantasy is being projected onto them at all.
I experienced this most profoundly when I moved to Paris. Paris is a city of dreams, and sure enough, shortly after I settled in, I was suddenly contacted by men I had neither seen nor heard from for over 10 years, more often 20. Men who were feeling their age and mortality, or who were stalled in their marriage, who remembered how much fun we had 20 years ago, and for whom I was even more exotic and wistful now, as a woman living in the romantic City of Lights, ooh la la.
Over the six years I lived in Paris, there was constant stream of pestering and attention seeking and proclamations (“I’ve always loved you!”) none of which made sense to me. Call me old fashioned (or just realistic), but I firmly believe that if you actually love someone you let them know, and maybe even send them a card once in awhile, rather than hunt them down after 20 years of silence. But these men were relentless in their fantasies, and their insistence I participate, regardless of how many times I said no.
My real life in Paris was filled with new friends and language hurdles and sometimes loneliness and loss, but my Facebook feed and email inbox was filled with requests to exchange racy emails, to Skype, to actual (uninvited) visits from people from the past, some of whom I had slept with, some of whom simply had crushes on me way back when — always followed by literal temper tantrums when I said I wasn’t interested, pointed out that none of this was based in reality, and it merely wasted my time, and their attention was uninvited and unwanted. More often than not, I was forced to disconnect from these men entirely because they just couldn’t let go of their soft-focus, soft-porn dreams.
[When I moved to Berlin, it all. suddenly. stopped. Berlin is not a romantic city, and unless you’re a dedicated club rat, not the stuff of fantasy and dreams.]
Women experience versions of this when we go on dates, and our date lays out his plans for the future: marriage, house, kids if we’re younger; retirement to some country retreat if we’re a bit older. All too often, we discover we are just elements of our dates’ fantasy, something to be plugged into someone else’s world, rather than a dynamic human being that is worth getting to know, and seeing how things evolve organically.
Even today, and consistently for over a decade, when I tell a man I teach self defense and practice a martial art, I can literally see the wheels start to spin: “you must be a dangerous woman,” they always say, as their brains race through a series of sexy female spy movies. The last person who said this to me was someone I was actually interested in seeing again, and I knew if I allowed that fantasy to continue, we would never get anywhere because he would talk himself into fantasies I could never fulfill — because I’m a real woman, with faults and fears and insecurities, dreams of my own, achievements, triumphs and autonomy.
Boys are given creative tools when they are toddlers, from building blocks to legos to figurines and spacecraft they have to assemble themselves, which they often do in any fashion that suits them, their creativity encouraged and supported, as though they have a right to it. They do, of course. We all do.
But girls are given pragmatic tools: baby dolls, kitchen sets, dollhouses to be furnished, to hone our practical skills for childcare, cooking and interior decor. Our creativity is not supported or encouraged to flourish — for us, unbridled creativity is presented as a luxury.
I have known an awful lot of creative men — painters, musicians, writers — who claim they need their time to create and therefore can’t get a job, based on some fantasy about how artists are supposed to live. Astoundingly, they often manage to find women to actually support them.
But I have known a sum total of one creative woman who claims she needs her time to create and therefore can’t get a job, and found a man to support her instead, at least in the studio — she remained the sole breadwinner. Most female creatives I know work part- or full-time jobs, take care of their homes and their kids if they have them, squeezing their creativity into the few hours they have to themselves. One artist I know confessed that she only sleeps 3 hours a night, so that she has time to make art and send her portfolio out and apply for grants when possible and attend art openings for networking and contacts, and still get her kids to school in the morning and fed and into bed at night, and teach part-time at her local college so she can pay the rent. There is no room for fantasy or even fantasizing in this kind of life.
When my older brother was about 30, he spent a good deal of time whingeing on about never having a girlfriend — although he had had girlfriends, he just never thought of them that way because they didn’t look like Claudia Schiffer, who he seriously thought was the woman for him. His own fantasy of what he was entitled to blinded him to the very wonderful women who he was already spending time with, and whose time he wasted and, to some of whom, he caused some very real pain, all because he was more dedicated to his fantasy than to the reality staring him in the face. To my brother’s credit, he eventually learned his lesson, met and married a fantastic woman and is now a latter-day feminist ally. But not every man goes through this evolution.
Someone on Twitter wrote recently, about the women who have come forward about Weinstein, “They wanted to be movie stars! They knew the price!” Moving past the sheer fucked-upness of that statement and looking behind it, the logic there is also something Hefner helped create in the Hollywood mentality, and it’s part of the fantasy too. It’s absolutely true that the people in power in Hollywood have abused both men and women, and there is an unspoken understanding that sex will be demanded and expected in return for help with your career.
The even deeper problem of this is that it has bled into all aspects of the entertainment industry, and internalized as the norm by women as well. Madonna was open about her ambition and what she did to realize it, attempting to reclaim the power of choice over it by practically flaunting it. Instead she was, as usual, vilified. But even on a personal level, I was once told by a woman, “you have to sleep with these people” in order to close deals and advance projects… said to me, in fact, by a woman who was not only encouraging this dynamic, but trying to wield her own power to get me to sleep with her as well.
I never slept with anyone to get ahead in my career. On the other hand, I never sold a single screenplay. I was willing to accept the idea that I might not be good enough as a screenwriter. That was hard to take, but that slice of humble pie was a lot easier to swallow than some sleazy film producer’s cum.
That doesn’t make me better than the men and women who have done so, and it doesn‘t make me proud. I simply saw, too many times, how often those promises of sex in exchange for a career boost were, in fact, empty in the end. Too many men and women I knew in Hollywood had slept with the right people but still never got anywhere, frustrated and filled with self-loathing for putting themselves through it, for paying that price, and never reaping any rewards.
Men project their fantasies onto women, and get mad when women don’t play the role assigned to them; unable to vocalize for themselves what they’re doing, their frustration grows to the point of rage, and women get punished — we get punished by not getting jobs, by not being listened to or believed, by getting sexually harassed, groped, raped. In more extreme cases, men like Harvey Weinstein simply thrust their own fantasies onto real-life women directly, forcing them into positions of subjugation and fear and sexual abuse.
This has the effect of detaching men from cognitively recognizing women as fully realized, fully autonomous human beings. It also has the effect of blurring the line between fantasy and reality for men, as carried to the extreme with so many 4Chan users and Trump supporters… and Trump himself.
The price of success in Hollywood or any other industry is not sex, because the people in power wield that power erratically, subject only to their own whims, as all fantasy is. Because no matter what pin-up or Playboy Bunny or political power game is at the centerfold of anyone’s fantasy, the real star of any fantasy is the person who creates it and, unless you’re the one who created it, it’s never you. And why should you, or anyone for that matter, suffer for the entertainment or pleasure of others?
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