By Anna Liss-Roy
On October 6, representatives from 5C student government distributed a “Letter of Solidarity” to all students regarding sexual assault on campus. It asserted, “We, the Event Heads of Associated Students of Claremont McKenna College, Scripps Associated Students, Pitzer College Student Senate, Associated Students of Pomona College, and Associated Students of Harvey Mudd College, are in solidarity with communities affected by domestic violence and sexual assault.” The letter emphasized a collective aim toward creating “inclusive social events” and urged student DJs and performers to avoid supporting artists associated with any type of abuse.
The email was well written, concise, powerful, and had the timing worked out better, it may have even carried some weight. But, almost comically, the email was sent out around the same time that invitations to “Stag Party”, a DOS-approved party at CMC, were being circulated. The Stag Party event was thrown in honor of Hugh Hefner, best known for his role as founder and editor-in-chief of Playboy magazine, who died on September 27. The description for the Stag Party event referred to Hefner as “our everyday hero and grandpa goals,” and asked its invitees to “join us in mourning his legacy this Spicy Saturday Night by dressing up as Hugh in one of your less tasteful robes, or as a spicy bunny ready to pounce (rawr). Or a nun if you believe boys and girls should leave room for Jesus.”
The “Letter of Solidarity” appeared in our inboxes nearly two weeks after Hefner’s passing, during which time social media was flooded with posts paying tribute to a man fondly characterized as a legend, an inspiration, an icon—good ol’ Hef. Aspects of his image seem to cater to every group: he’s openly bisexual, he donated to feminist causes, and if you couldn’t care less about social justice, he was a goddamn sex warrior!
Hefner’s legacy is difficult to separate from that of Playboy’s. Indeed, the magazine itself pioneered unexplored terrain; its strategy of filling pages with articles and photographs of scantily clad women allowed its majority-male readership a sneaky means of satisfying their sexual desires. It also normalized female promiscuity, portraying male sexual appetites as dominant and inherently deserving of satiation.
But a small investigation into Hefner’s attitudes and treatment of women casts a nefarious shadow over his sexually liberated, pro-woman proclamations. Numerous accounts over the years have revealed Hefner used the enterprise to wield power and influence over women, resulting in decades of exploitation.
Several women, including famous ex-girlfriend and Playboy Mansion resident Holly Madison, have come forward with disturbing accounts. Madison and others detailed instances of assault, manipulative behavior, pitting women against each other, pressuring women to use drugs, and restricting their rights within the Playboy Mansion. Hefner was also accused of prohibiting the women he dated from talking about their experiences. No charges were ever filed against him.
This disturbing information is not hard to find, and Hefner’s history of controversy and alleged assault is well known. So why was CMC allowed to hold a party remotely pertaining to Hefner and his Playboy empire? And, more importantly—why did anyone show up?
Over the past few weeks I’ve observed the posts memorializing “Hef” on social media, but felt fairly confident that despite his “progressive” image, Hefner’s maltreatment of women and perpetuation of harmful, antiquated gender roles would be condemned at Claremont. After all, on liberal arts campuses like the 5Cs, there tends to be a heavy emphasis on buzzwords like feminism, equality, free speech, inclusion, support. But on a campus so determined to celebrate and support gender equality, it seems that too much of our energy is expended loudly condemning blatantly sexist and homophobic offenses, and not enough of our focus is dedicated toward detecting more normalized, underrated forms of sexism—something as innocent as a party theme.
Many of my friends here identify as supporters of gender equality, and that’s largely representative of the consortium as a whole. But these same friends took great joy in adorning their bodies with bathrobes, suit jackets, cigars, slides—all the props associated with the legacy of a man who profited off of the subjugation and exploitation of women.
It’s fun to celebrate promiscuity, and maybe events like Stag Party are all just a big joke. But if sexual assault and exploitation is a joke, then support for survivors must also be a joke. If a manifestation of sexual assault and sexism can be considered funny, when does the humor start becoming someone’s reality? Who decides what’s a joke and what’s harmful? It seems that the organizers of Stag Party are as cushioned from the violent and stigmatized reality of sexual assault and hierarchical gender roles as Hefner himself was.
Even if the party was intended to mock an overly sexual grandpa, even if it was all a laugh, introducing a theme that involves some people wearing lingerie and others dressing up as a known sexual predator isn’t exactly harmless. This theme legitimizes Hefner’s legacy and perpetuates the harmful gender-based power dynamics that he used to trick women into thinking they were being sexually liberated, when in reality their nudity was used to perpetuate the idea that female bodies and sexuality exists solely for male pleasure.
If this party had had a different name, like Lingerie Party, I would have faced no moral dilemma and would have happily attended. But at a Playboy-themed party, the choice to show off your body is no longer empowering because it is framed under the context of Hefner’s narrative that female nudity exists for solely for consumption.
But how do you bring this up? It’s not an easy conversation in general, let alone on a Saturday night. I struggled to start a productive discussion with my survivor-supporting, self-proclaimed feminist friends who dressed up as Hefner, partially because of my own anger, but also because of their refusal to expend energy analyzing the violence and power dynamics that their costumes were normalizing. They were feminists, after all. How could their costumes really be problematic?
Just as Hefner used his progressive political stances and philanthropy to dismiss any conversation about his treatment or portrayals of women, many people, particularly students at liberal arts schools, and particularly men, tend to use the term “feminist” to shield themselves from being held accountable for their problematic actions.
I wish that Playboy-themed parties wouldn’t be approved on campus, but the problem transcends institutional responsibility. I ask to everyone who showed up on Saturday: what message are you sending to survivors on campus? How can you claim to support them if you think sexual assault and sexism are sexy? If you don’t see Saturday’s theme as threatening, might it be because you are lucky enough to have various intersections of privilege that mean you may never be the one to face the consequences?
The path to justice and equality begins with accountability. In order to truly condemn Hefner and his dark legacy, we can’t just form stricter regulations on which parties get approved. We must fight against the normalization of gender-based power dynamics. We must reject fond depictions of a man whose harmful impact has been sold to us in the shiny package of sexual liberation. But we must also hold each other and ourselves accountable for our own problematic actions and stop using personal identifications to evade responsibility. You’re a feminist, so what? How does that influence the way you perceive your environment, the way you analyze literature, the way you treat others, the way you listen? We must become attentive to the ways in which systems of domination are embedded in hookup culture, in party culture, and even in the classroom. We must dedicate ourselves to educating each other and to becoming more receptive to honest feedback, even if it’s delivered angrily. Until we hold ourselves accountable as a community, every party may as well be Hefner-themed. And after Saturday, I won’t be able to look at a silk robe for quite a while.
Image Credit to LiveJournal