Hugh Hefner dies at 91 and women in Saudi Arabia get royal permission to drive a car. These two markers separated by continents and cultures, one in the West and the other in the East, dramatically reflect the changing ways men and women relate to each other.
Hugh Hefner was largely responsible for a sexual revolution that hurt and helped both men and women in the never-ending war between the sexes. It's true that neither side will win this war because there's too much fraternizing with the enemy. It's more like the continuous push and pull of ying and yang.
The founder of the Playboy "philosophy" packaged sexuality just as women in the West discarded girdles and pantyhose, stand-ins for chastity belts, and moved toward liberation by the pill, freed for careers and from dependence on the men in their lives. Men abetted the changes, buying expensive toys advertised in Playboy that they imagined would be more glamorous and lead to more sophisticated seductions. Women in turn freed men from binding commitments.
In Saudi Arabia, isolated from Western civilization on the darker edges of Sharia, Mohammed bin Salman, a crown prince soon to be king, seems to understand that the times, they must be a'changin,' though not as swiftly as in America when Bob Dylan sang his famous lyrics late in the previous century. Instead, looking to the global economy linked by the internet that depends on women in the workplace, the prince has laid out ambitious plans for economic reform that includes women.
The ruling royal family in Saudi Arabia is the last stronghold of male chauvinism, with the Quran as a constitution, but as oil prices fall and women become crucial to the economy, the time to let the ladies drive is clearly at hand.
Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who was jailed in 2011 after she posted a video on YouTube showing her driving a car, fled to Australia. She says now that "economic stagnation" is what will change things on the Saudi road. Better women drivers than no cars for anyone. "They cannot afford keeping the women in the back seat," she tells CNN. Such a prohibition is expensive, wasteful and doesn't play well elsewhere in the world.
But what will happen to the loosening of sexual attitudes in the land where mixing of the sexes in public places is still taboo, where women's bodies must be covered with robes and scarves when they venture out of the harem, is not yet clear. The government's economic reforms, backed by the Saudi business class, draw the ire of powerful and vexatious clerics on whom the royals depend for their power. The imams warn of the coming of "loose morals." But the king implied in his decree, not allowing women to drive will discourage foreign investment. Cadillac Arabia already released an advertisement of a woman behind the wheel with only her lined eyes exposed: "Show them what it means to drive the world forward."
In earlier America, when the car liberated the libidos of the young, one moralist called automobiles "brothels on wheels." Men and women were suddenly freed for dalliance in the cramped confines of a car, even in the back seat of a Volkswagen. Hugh Hefner recognized that a revolution was at hand.
For all of the psychological and economic exploitation of women behind the Playboy philosophy — the objectification of women as more body than soul — for better or worse the revolution elevated the tone and style of courtship. Camille Paglia was right when she told the Hollywood Reporter that compared to the rabid ideology of radical feminists who want only to make an enemy of men, the Playboy philosophy promised mutual disarmament.
The philosopher envisioned satisfaction for both sexes through conversation over good writing, which he published by the likes of Norman Mailer, Roald Dahl and Jack Kerouac, with fine food and wine abetting flirtation. It didn't always happen that way, but that was the goal.
Long before its author's death, the decadent Playboy philosophy descended ever deeper into vulgarity. By the time the millennials arrived, the quantity of clumsy hookups was more important than the quality of a mutual relationship. On the campus, romance became easier to find in an English literature anthology than on an actual date.
Rather than take control of their sexual lives, college women, confronting the coarsening of coupling, now cry harassment and rape, pleading with administrators for supervision and surveillance of their social lives. The sexual revolution delivered with mixed messages and multiple wounds.
Now that Saudi women can drive, will they drive down the highway paved with temptation toward promiscuity and vulnerability, as Saudi clerical critics say they will, or will they slip into gear to take control of their lives? That will depend on who has control of the GPS.