Chris Rock once famously remarked that a father has one primary job with respect to his daughter: Keep her off the pole. If your daughter is dancing on a pole, you blew it as a parent.
It was a pithy observation, and in honor of Hugh Hefner’s recent death, I’d like to propose a corollary for mothers and sons. Ladies, don’t let your sons grow up to be Hefner. If your boy turns into a lecherous porn-loving Playboy, you screwed up.
In the wake of Hefner’s death, it’s been interesting watching admirers try to gin up a few not-completely-laughable phrases to present Hefner in a positive light. We are told that he was a social justice warrior and an entrepreneur, who graced the public square with his intellectual firepower. If true, these observations should only serve to deepen our disgust at what Hefner became. He stands as an ominous illustration of an important truth about the lives of men. Just like women, men have to make choices. They don’t get to have it all.
Men Can’t ‘Have It All,’ Either
Sometimes it really seems like they do. Successful women often envy their male counterparts, for readily understandable reasons. Men, as a rule, have an easier time combining professional success with a respectable and peaceful domestic life. That’s partly because women, by nature, tend to disproportionately carry heavy burdens in getting their offspring from conception to kindergarten. But there’s also another factor: Successful men are highly attractive to women, but the reverse is considerably less true. Women are generally delighted to marry men who are taller, smarter, richer, and more successful than themselves, but men are far less keen on “marrying up.”
In the zany world of American meritocracy, men who “win” the education-and-career game tend to have excellent marital prospects, but for women the trade-offs may be harder. On the other side of the spectrum, it’s plausibly the men who have it worse; a failure to secure a decent job may also make it hard to find a wife. But that’s probably not much comfort to professionally successful women who watch their male peers “leaning into” a virtuous cycle of increasing wealth, professional status, social status, and domestic bliss.
The “have it all” complaint is often hackneyed and oversimplified. But in a very general way, it does reveal something true about American life. Advantaged men as a group (those who are healthy, wealthy, intelligent, and/or disciplined) enjoy a somewhat more direct path to the all-win American dream. Resentful women should take note, though, that even that blessed creature, the Successful American Male, is constrained by nature as well as by circumstance. He must use his advantage well, or risk turning into a ridiculous and contemptible figure, like the late Hefner.
Squaring the Sleazy Circle
Hefner didn’t start his career as a simple lecher. It’s true that Playboy always sold sex appeal, unabashedly aiming for the male market. Ostensibly though, this magazine was several cuts above your run-of-the-mill sleaze-fix. By embracing liberal social causes and affecting erudite sophistication, Hefner tried to convert trash into respectable all-American entertainment. The wholesome girl next door can be your sex bunny. The pimp can be a charming gentleman of leisure. Successful manhood need not involve the stodgy, grimace-inducing discipline of a John Wayne or a Fitzwilliam Darcy. In this, our American paradise, Mr. Wickham can have his fun and still be the hero of the piece. Have your respectability, and eat it too.
True to his brand, Hefner claimed to the end that he loved his life and wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve never been a nonagenarian sex addict, so I won’t speculate about his sincerity, but I will note that the memes he marketed as suave and sophisticated are now the veritable definition of campy and gauche.
Upon his death, he achieved the rare feat of bringing together liberal feminists and social conservatives in condemnation of his loathsome exploits. Across nine decades, he relished nearly every conceivable advantage, and then passed from this life with all the manly gravitas of a pimply fifteen-year-old. This was not a life well lived.
The Hefnerian credo is a manifest failure. Aspiring playboys should take note. No matter how much lipstick you put on the bunny, it is not possible to indulge every appetite and still be a man of sophistication and substance. Dirty old men are dirty old men, even in million-dollar bathrobes.
Hugh Hefner Was a John With Money
Do women enjoy dancing on poles? It sounds miserable to me, but I have heard high-end prostitutes testify with apparent sincerity that it’s thrilling to be with men who are paying princely sums for the privilege. There are likewise pole dancers who claim that their profession makes them feel strong, sexy, and empowered. Why are you so judgmental, Chris Rock? Let girls dare to dream.
If that argument sounds dubious to you, set it next to the far-less-marginal view that Hefner was living a manly dream. For perhaps the first time in my life, I feel moved to quote with approval Jill Filipovic, who wrote:
Hefner did terrible things, and got rich off of them. But it’s still hard not to feel a little bit sorry for a man so clearly uncomfortable with himself that he built an empire on a commodified and empty casing of male sexual desire, a man who threw legendary parties to bond with other men over bikini-clad women, and who paid beautiful women to live in his house and have sex with him so he wouldn’t have to be alone.
Amen, sister. Hefner may have had a lot of sex, but it wasn’t the kind that demonstrated an ability to attract women. In a contest of machismo, the pole dancer could give him a run for his (plentiful) money.
Keeping Your Son Out of the Playboy Mansion
Why does Rock entrust fathers specifically with the task of keeping daughters “off the pole”? One reason, I imagine, is that father-love is especially crucial in preparing a girl for healthy romance. Before sexual attraction enters the picture, a young woman should already know what it feels like to be admired by a man who genuinely loves her. Once a girl has experienced that, she is far less likely to be delighted by the leering grins and catcalls of the gentleman’s club.
In a similar way, mothers have a unique role in shaping a son’s understanding of women. Fathers play a crucial role too, especially through their example, but mothers especially can teach boys to respect women, before it has even occurred to them to view them as objects of sexual desire. Consider how a man treats a lover who he views as the likely mother of his future children. Now consider how he treats a lover when he’s comparing her to the centerfold.
Hefner built himself a male-adolescent fantasy world, and tried to sell it as a legitimate version of the American Dream. David French eloquently argued in National Review that this medicine has been poison for countless American families. Boys raised on a steady diet of Playboy may find it difficult to be satisfied with the actual girl next door. Who but Hef can live 91 years in the tawdry comfort of Pleasure Island?
French is right, of course, but it may be even sadder to reflect that Hefner represents the pinnacle of that kind of aspiration. If a man really believes he can “have it all” in the Hefnerian sense, even his successes may ultimately add to the grotesque caricature of manhood that he becomes. For the sake of the women in their lives, but also as a matter of self-respect, let’s teach our sons to want better.