A Cautionary Tale of the Forgivable White Male Genius – or, What the Theatre Community Can Learn from Hugh Hefner

Maegan Clearwood

Let’s examine the biography of a man who lived and breathed entertainment –  a man who, by so many standards for so many years, was branded a genius. This man redefined how and what kinds of stories his community told, and was the brilliant mind behind that was credited with discovering and nurturing the careers of numerous critically lauded artists. He created an empire of not only art, but of people: he curated a personal community of followers who were brainwashed or threatened into degradation and violence for the sake of their craft. More than one woman went public about the terrifying environment that his company enforced via media exposes, nightmarish practices that went ignored for decades because of the sheer amount of power this man wielded over his artistic community.

I’m not talking about Hugh Hefner of Playboy. I’m talking about Darrell W. Cox of Profiles Theatre.

The latter made headlines last year for perpetrating years of sexual abuse in Chicago; the former made headlines last month for his legacy of cultivating literary geniuses and a new era of sexual empowerment. Both men created abusive entertainment empires built on the abuse and degradation of women, and both men's transgressions were, many times over, ignored. Both are prime examples of the Infallible Male Genius, the brilliant artist or entrepreneur whose career contributions render all abuses moot -- minor blips unworthy of our attention compared to their resume of critical accomplishments.

But the theatre community is better than Hollywood, right? We listened to the women who put forward their harrowing stories last year; we organized meetings and safe spaces to make our artistic community more inclusive; we rallied around our women, vowed to protect and listen to them. We improved. Chicago, for instance, spearheaded Not in Our House, an advocacy organization that, among other things, shed light on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the theatre community and issued a Code of Conduct for institutions to implement. This model was recently followed by the DC theatre community, which has been collecting anonymous feedback about its artistic environment following a summer conversation hosted by Actors Arena and theatreWashington. There was also a recent article about abuse and accountability in the Baltimore arts scene, “a collage of experiences and ideas from survivors, supporters, activists, and others about what resolution could look like in a world held up by inherently misogynist and racist social structures, and how art and its surrounding communities both ease and complicate trauma.”

The conversation has begun -- but with the recent death and subsequent adulations of Hugh Hefner’s legacy, I hesitate to see these movements in the American theatre community as signs that our work is done. The mainstream progressive interpretation of Hefner’s biography is a signal that we need to continue actively making room for women’s voices to be heard amidst a culture of toxic masculinity. Perhaps more significantly, however, I recognize the responses to Hefner’s death as an eerie symbol of reflective passivity; this is an example of the forgivable white male legacy, of the blinders we put on as soon as controversy surrounding a man’s violent actions cools down.

The media has largely ignored the problematic chapters in Hefner’s sullied biography. In 1963, Gloria Steinem penned an expose enumerating the chilling lifestyle of the Playboy Bunny, providing examples of blatant objectification and exploitation, dishonest hiring practices, and brutal work conditions. Only a couple of years ago, model Chloe Goins claimed that Bill Cosby drugged and raped her at the Playboy Mansion, with Hefner pegged as a conspirator in the lawsuit. Ex-girlfriend and Playgirl Holly Madison made accusations of coerced sex, competition among her fellow employees, and a sequestering from the outside world. And if you haven’t educated yourself on Playboy’s connection with the 1980 murder of Dorothy Stratten, it’s a harrowing and important glimpse into the toxic world Hefner created.

But in the wake of his death, Hefner has been lauded for “breaking boundaries" for writers, “advocating free speech, civil rights and sexual freedom," and being “a great man, entrepreneur and innovator.” Because, like so many men whose accomplishments presumably overshadow their seedy pasts (the public barely blinked an eye when the charismatic Johnny Depp was accused of domestic abuse just last year), Hefner was good at his job -- and that’s what we’d rather remember.

The theatre community has made strides in our own backyard to combat the likes of Hefner or Cox poisoning our environments again, as evidenced by the above Not in Our House efforts. Writing a code of conduct and starting a conversation is integral to the process of combating toxic presences in our artistic environments -- but battling toxic legacies is more elusive of a challenge. It is far too easy to ignore (and for history to subsequently forget) the violence that an artist cultivated in his lifetime, particularly if his history was one of critical and popular success.

I don’t advocate for posthumously dragging problematic aritsts’ names through the dirt. The aphorism “All your faves are problematic” is a painfully appropriate one: every legendary artist’s life is bound to include an ugly truth or two, and deleting the Beatles’ discography from your iTunes library because of John Lennon’s history of domestic violence is easier said than done.

I do advocate for remembering their full histories, no matter how much they may complicate our relationship with their work. By ignoring their transgressions, we ignore the women whose voices were silenced in their wake. Chicago has, in all likelihood, effectively ruined any future glorified legacy of Cox’s, no matter how many awards or critical hits are on his resume.

But the response to Hefner’s death is not uncommon. If we as a community are to continue making strides toward inclusiveness and empathy, every obituary of his should serve as a chilling cautionary tale of what could happen if we lose momentum in our efforts to advocate, act, and listen.