The Cardinal Edge


This paper summarizes the perceptions of Playboy magazine during the height of its influence, from 1955 to 1975, through the lens of social justice advocates in the 1960s. Many historical scholars characterize Playboy magazine as strictly anti-feminist, while others would cast Hugh Hefner as liberating in his ideology and political views, seen through reviews of the magazine throughout the 1960s and comments from Hefner himself. But it is more likely Playboy’s legacy is much more complicated than either of these positions allow. Playboy occupied a conflicting role in the 1960s: liberating in its post-war sex standards for both men and women, objectifying and restrictive in its depiction of women and its discourse with the women’s liberation movement, and outspoken in its advocacy for free speech, though not always in equal measure for all members of society. This paper will discuss interviews published in Playboy, excerpts from other sections of the magazine, and discussions of Playboy in contemporaneous publications, to reveal Playboy held a contradictory role in the social movements of the 1960s, simultaneously furthering social justice in its philosophy and detracting from it in practice. A complex view of Playboy’s benefits as well as its harms in the twenty years following its inception allows readers to grapple with a question in modern times—when does intent cease to matter in light of harm caused. Despite its good intentions, Playboy came across to women in the 1960s as a magazine made possible through the work of women, made explicitly for the enjoyment of men like Hefner.