Hugh Hefner died last week. For the uninitiated, Hefner is most famous for starting the smutty adult magazine, Playboy. Because the magazine also featured some writing by now-famous authors, Playboy and its readers could claim that the magazine was more than just racy photos of women, a kind of elevated smut that gave men yet another way to indulge in the systematic oppression of women that patriarchy engenders, only call it a “rebellion against prudery” or “empowerment”. Lots of jokes about Hefner have abounded in the internet, primarily ones wondering what will happen to him in the afterlife, since he lived in heaven on earth—heaven being living in a mansion with a harem of young women at his command, wearing pajamas all day. If that’s heaven for many men, it doesn’t say much about life goals.

One major part of feminism is choice. The power to choose what you want, without recrimination or guilt or terrible consequences. Whatever you choose, whether it be a career, marriage, singledom, children or no children, you should have the freedom to choose, out of free will and from a place of power. Choice is rooted in power, and that power is the single thing that separates objectification from empowerment. Why do many feminists consider Qandeel Baloch a symbol of empowerment? Because she decided how to present herself—she controlled the narrative around her life and body. The gaze directed upon women is usually the same, but she subverted it, and took herself from victim to victor in the process. The average Playboy bunny—stuffed into a bunny suit, bleached blonde to please “Daddy”, paid a weekly allowance, not allowed to leave the Playboy mansion without permission—hardly sounds like emancipation.

Empowerment has been hijacked by the patriarchal agenda and in its name the same oppression of women continues, but in sheep’s clothing. Consent is a nuanced, complex thing, and the intricacies of power are constantly shifting sands. Add to the fray our cultural baggage, and one finds oneself in a situation that requires careful thought. We live in a culture where “no means yes”, because women aren’t allowed to verbalise desire—good women never, ever do. And thus are born millions of poems and songs about eyes saying one thing, voice saying another; of reading between the lines; of innuendo that replaces communication, a web so tangled that all nos are now universally taken to mean yes, because it’s the easiest option for men. The prank caller who keeps calling you, in spite of you telling him it’s a wrong number, is doing it because to his mind, a woman’s ‘no’ has no meaning. There is no such thing as consent, there is only a man’s desire and a woman’s duty to fulfil it.

Madhumita Pandey, an Indian academic, interviewed one hundred convicted rapists during research for her doctoral thesis on criminology. Most of the convicts didn’t understand female consent. It’s chilling, when you consider it. South Asian men—and that includes us—are being raised with no concept of women’s agency. Where does that leave female power, then? The objectification of women—their reduction to objects or victims—happens with exhausting regularity, because many times consent is often not really consent at all. If a woman is poor, with little to no resources, marginalised and poorly educated, what choices does she have? And if a woman like that chooses sex work, for example, was that really agency or a choice made from desperation? You can say nobody forced her, but you can also say her circumstances did indeed push her to that place. All the Playboy girls came from modest backgrounds and wanted to be famous. It’s the story of a majority of aspiring actresses, and it’s no coincidence that a lot of casting decisions are made from a casting couch instead of an audition. Is there choice there? Yes. Is there agency, or power? No.

This is the reason why it is so problematic to venerate a slimeball like Hugh Hefner. It is disingenuous to celebrate the life of a man who did nothing but perpetuate objectification in the guise of empowerment. Can’t one celebrate women and give them agency without asking them to take off their clothes? Why is it that somehow, magically, all the content of Playboy has always been to satisfy the male gaze? How is that liberating for any woman? Hefner’s magazine has been run by his daughter for years—for some that is proof of how egalitarian Hefner’s legacy was. To my mind, it reeks of how easy it is for women to be co-opted by the system, told that their choice actually denotes agency when it clearly does not. How convenient that Hugh Hefner’s brand of “empowerment” is one that looks exactly like the zenith of masculine fantasy.