Based on the insane media frenzy after Hefner’s death, you would think some great man had died, rather than a vile pimp who got rich and famous by sexually exploiting women. When I woke up on Thursday morning, the day after Hefner died, I had emails from journalists all over the world asking for interviews. Given the way that Hefner normalized porn, I was expecting the kind of sexist questions that make you want to grab the nearest Andrea Dworkin book for a reality check that you are not going mad. Indeed, I was bombarded with questions like: Wasn’t Hefner a friend of feminists? Didn’t he start the sexual revolution that benefited women? Wasn’t he a champion of free speech? You get the idea.
After about my fifth interview, I noticed a pattern emerging: journalists would list well-known women who paid tribute to Hefner (such as Jenny McCarthy, Cindy Crawford, Nancy Sinatra, Kim Kardashian), and then ask if this wasn’t an example of the failure of the feminist movement to make a strong case against pornography.
The answer, of course, is a resounding “no.”
Second wave radical feminists provided a groundbreaking analysis of how porn reproduced — and amplified — an ideology that legitimized violence against women. Their work uncovered how women in porn were sexually exploited, and how all women were hurt by being reduced to the class of “fuck objects.”
But this question did get me thinking. What became clear in this response was not that the adoration of Hefner was a sign of the failure of feminism, but rather a clear indicator of the patriarchy successfully co-opting the revolutionary potential of feminism. Second wave feminism scared the hell out of patriarchy, because it not only unmasked the politics behind the system, but it also offered a coherent, strategic, and organized program of resistance. Radical feminists wouldn’t play nice, and nothing is more scary than women who will do whatever it takes to change the conditions of their oppression.
During the 1970s and 80s, radical feminism was increasingly finding its way into the academy, the institution that had the potential to do serious damage to the patriarchy because it prepared the next generation’s thought leaders. Many young women cut their political teeth in women’s studies classes where Sisterhood is Powerful, The Second Sex, Sexual Politics, Woman Hating, and This Bridge Called my Back were required reading. No faux feminism here.
Radical feminism was increasingly becoming so entrenched in women’s studies that it couldn’t be ignored or annihilated — so it had to be co-opted. Over two decades, women’s studies departments were renamed “gender studies” departments, structural analysis gave way to identity politics, sexual slavery became “sex work,” porn became an example of “personal choice,” and little by little, the gains radical feminism had made were eroded to the point that feminism was defined in terms of individual empowerment rather than collective liberation.
By way of an example, compare how Barbara Smith defines feminism in This Bridge called my Back, published in 1981, before any of us had heard the words “third wave,” to Jennifer Baumgardner’s definition in 2000 on Alternet. Smith defined feminism as “the political theory and practice to free all women: women of colour, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women.” Baumgardner, on the other hand, defined feminism as “something individual to each feminist.”
Sounding a lot like Margaret Thatcher, who claimed in 1987 that “There is no such thing as society — only individual men and women,” Baumgardner and the third wave bled dry the collective power of feminism, while the academy and the dominant cultural and political narrative was embracing neoliberal ideology as a way to justify rampant inequality. In neoliberal ideology, there are no collective class interests, just lots of individuals making rational decisions to maximize their own personal empowerment.
Feminism got caught in this net and was rebranded as a lifestyle choice to empower individual women, rather than as a revolutionary movement to overthrow patriarchy. By letting a few (mostly white) women into the club, patriarchy put a deniability clause in the second wave feminist argument that women are oppressed as a class. But systems of oppression are flexible enough to absorb some members of subordinated groups; indeed, they draw strength from the illusion of neutrality provided by these exceptions. Thus, a Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook or a Nancy Pelosi in government do not change the structural reality of patriarchy.
It is no accident that, as we celebrate individuals rather than movements for radical change, pimp Hefner the quintessential neoliberal is hailed as the leader of the sexual revolution. He often said that Playboy celebrated the beauty of women and allowed them to be sexual, but what he really did was hijack the radical feminist ideology that argued for sexual liberation by monetizing women’s bodies and calling it a revolution.
That anyone would think for a second that Hefner was a friend of feminists is evidence that, rather than transforming the misogyny of the 1950s, the decade when Playboy started to gain mass appeal, he harnessed and cemented the very ideology he claims to have changed.