In the days following the death of Hugh Hefner on September 27, the legacy of the man who founded Playboy and turned his philandering lifestyle into a lucrative brand has been widely debated. Complain about the magazine’s exploitation of women and you’re not only a prude — you’re denying the agency of the women who freely posed for its pages. Celebrate its opposition to censorship and puritanism and you’re a misogyny apologist. If you’re a magazine junkie, it’s hard to hate on Playboy’s heady combination of counterculture cred and serious journalism; if you’re a magazine junkie and a woman, you may loathe that Playboy represents both the apex of mid-century American print media and the pulsing id of a toxic masculinity that sees women as possessions first and people second.
Hef created the “modern man.” But what of the modern woman? She’d have to be born not in harmony with but in opposition to this new man, her autonomy a direct affront to the Playboy vision of a pliant and interchangeable hottie on each arm.
In 2005, the E! reality show The Girls Next Door (always “girls,” never women, as Susan Brownmiller pointed out in a Sunday Times op-ed), attempted to set the record straight. The Playboy life is a dream for women, too, the show insisted, for what red-blooded American girl wouldn’t like to live in the frosted-pink amber of a teenage fantasy — a plush bedroom, not just a pool but a grotto, an assortment of tiny dogs? The female version of Hef’s life: spending your days in velour (this was 2005, after all) and your nights in spandex and satin.
Hefner, who died at 91, was a virgin when he married his first wife, college sweetheart Millie Williams, in 1949; decades later, he told an interviewer that when Millie confessed to a premarital affair, it was “the single most devastating experience of my life. My wife was more sexually experienced than I was. After that, I always felt in a sense that the other guy was in bed with us, too.” Think about that: Hefner’s most devastating experience was the realization that a woman got a taste of (sexual) freedom he had denied himself. (They divorced in 1959.)
By 2005, Playboy’s circulation was stalled at around 3 million, down from its peak of 7 million in the early 1970s. It was clear where the party was: The Girls Next Door arrived at the height of the mid-2000s reality-TV boom, when shows that promised an inside look at celebrity lives, like MTV’s The Osbournes and Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, had proven wildly successful.
The Girls Next Door makes explicit what Hef’s vision of modern American manhood implicitly represented, but what in old age he had finally and undeniably become: daddy. No longer would women humiliate Hefner with their preference for other men — the girls who took up residence in the Playboy Mansion were forbidden from bringing boys into its gilded cage, where they were expected to adhere to a strict nine o’clock curfew. Each girl received a weekly allowance. They weren’t allowed to work.
The early seasons focused on Hef’s three live-in girlfriends, Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson, all bubbly blondes with big boobs. Hefner himself only appears here and there; the producers, and surely Hef himself, knew what viewers were tuning in for: three hot blondes lounging around the house in cute outfits, a centerfold fantasy come to life.
The show’s animated opening credits sequence, a contemporary update to the fizzy openers of I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, codifies the girls by type: There’s Holly, the girlfriend-in-chief, as a pom-pom-wielding cheerleader; Bridget, who has a master’s degree in communications but yearns to be a Playmate, dressed as a sexy schoolgirl with heavy-framed glasses; and Kendra, the youngest of the trio and a jock, shown kicking a soccer ball.
Holly, in her mid-twenties when the show premiered, quickly emerges as a reluctant mother figure. In a one-on-one interview, she tells the cameras that if the scatterbrained Kendra — who came to live at the Playboy Mansion at the ripe age of eighteen — misses an appointment, Hefner will blame Holly. At the end of the premiere episode, after a night on the town, Kendra, in sweats and a tank top, knocks on Hef’s door (“Hi, honey!”) to ask if she can watch a movie on the big screen downstairs with her friend. In another episode, Kendra and a visiting playmate call the mansion’s kitchen as they drive back to the house to request peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and French fries.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Girls Next Door is how boring life in the Playboy Mansion seems. The L.A. estate, while huge, looks surprisingly old and cruddy, like nothing’s changed in decades — shades of Miss Havisham, if she’d had the wherewithal to reinvent herself as a randy cougar — which it probably hasn’t. Like any octogenarian, Hefner spends most of his time at home; when the gang goes to a fancy sushi restaurant, his staff brings Hefner’s lamb chops in plastic baggies for the chef to prepare, along with a detailed instruction sheet encased in a plastic sleeve. The girls spend hours in a salon preparing for a night out. “Hef has a very particular standard of beauty,” Holly explains. “Makes me wish I had a smaller nose.”
Despite the omnipresence of half-dressed women, the show is ironically, and yet fittingly, PG: The electric current running through a wild party is the promise of sex at the end of it, and unless Hef’s involved, his girls aren’t getting any. When they return from a night out, they put on flannel PJs and head to bed. “Good night, kiddies,” Hef tells Bridget and her friends, sprawled out on her bedroom floor, before he turns in for the night. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
At times, it seems like The Girls Next Door is actively encouraging viewers to see Hefner and his young lovers as a father and his bevy of beautiful daughters, like the wizened wildling Craster on Game of Thrones, who wed his daughters and killed his sons. Maybe that’s why we never see Hef and the girls having sex, although by all accounts, sex was part of the contract for live-in girlfriends. Until the show made stars of Holly, Bridget, and Kendra, Hefner’s girlfriends weren’t allowed to pose for the magazine; not my daughter! When Hef gathers the three women to break the news that they’re finally going to grace the cover of Playboy, Kendra frets, “Am I in trouble?”
None of this should come as a surprise; it’s been pointed out many times over the years how dehumanizing it is to force women to dress as slutty rabbits, but those bunny costumes are also weirdly infantilizing. Again, for the cheap seats in the back: Kendra was eighteen years old when she moved in. In one episode, they all get dolled up to go to…the annual Playboy Jazz Festival, an outdoor concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Ugh. Dad! So lame.
A decade after the show premiered, Holly Madison published a tell-all book called Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny. She revealed that she’d struggled with depression while living in the Playboy Mansion and declared herself a born-again feminist. She told Buzzfeed, “I felt like I had something to say about being in the midst of that whole thing that was going on where Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson and Kendra were so celebrated — and I was a part of it too — for being dumb on TV. Part of the reason I wanted to write the book was to show the other side of it.”
By the time The Girls Next Door aired, Hef’s revolutionary causes — birth control, sex before marriage, abortion access — were widely accepted. The Playboy vision that E! presented wasn’t radical but cuddly-safe: a Pepto-pink slumber party that never ends. It’s a logical end game, considering that Hefner’s great accomplishment was to make female nudity just safe enough for the mainstream. Today, we live in a world that was forged during that mid-century period of loosening obscenity laws and social mores. Near-naked women wink at us from billboards and TV ads, selling everything from sneakers to cheeseburgers. Hef’s dream come true. Access to abortion and birth control may be on the wane, but Viagra is forever.