This week is a notable one for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Not only is his 10-episode Amazon docuseries American Playboy available for streaming today, but he'll also be turning 91 on April 9th.
Born in Chicago during the Jazz Age, Hefner became a self-made millionaire, starting out as an editor at Esquire before establishing Playboy Enterprises in 1953. And that's where American Playboy begins — right at the beginning of the controversial magazine's inception and through 60 years of Hefner's sexually charged life and career. With access to his vast private collection of video footage (we're talking over 17,000 hours worth), more than 2,600 scrapbooks, and re-enactments of key events in his life, American Playboy is very much a biased self-construction of how Hefner wants you to view his legacy.
Love him or hate him, Hefner was a trailblazer who took the phrase "sex sells" to the bank. With his pictorials of nude women, proponents argue that he allowed a rigid, puritanical America to explore sexuality without fear and empowered women to celebrate themselves as sexual beings. Hefner was an instinctive proponent of free speech and civil rights. As a staunch progressive, he used his fame and wealth to break barriers, allowing whites and blacks to co-mingle at his Playboy Clubs (a social taboo in the 1950s and 60s). Hefner also fought for gay rights and interracial marriage and built substantive editorial content in his magazines, which featured interviews with cultural icons like Malcolm X, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, and Ayn Rand, among many others, in great intellectual detail.
But there's another entirely different, less ingratiating view of Hefner that you won't see explored in American Playboy. The most obvious: Critics see his Playboy Enterprise and his notorious Playboy Mansion (with all of its legendary debaucherous parties) as sexist, teaching men to look at women solely as photoshopped sexual objects. In recent years, former Playmates have also come out against Hefner, claiming he can be a demeaning, controlling, critical and manipulative figure.
Regardless of which view you take, there's no doubt that Hefner is one of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th century. You can bet American Playboy will reaffirm that truth.