In last week’s Pan Am post, I failed to note that it wasn’t the only show seeking to ride the wave of Mad Men‘s 60s success. This fall will also see the start-up of The Playboy Club, which revolves around the patrons and bunnies at Chicago’s original Playboy Club. According to the show’s trailer, there will of course be plenty of murder, mayhem and broken hearts — which does make it slightly more intriguing than Pan Am‘s promise of humiliating weekly weigh-ins and the feminist freedom of being a sky waitress.
One thing that is notable about both of these shows is that, unlike Mad Men, they are pretty female-centric. Sure, Mad Men has Betty, Joan, Sally and Peggy, but almost all of the female characters are being showcased within a “man’s world.” While the Playboy Club and Pan Am certainly are about the ways in which these women had to alter themselves in order to please their male customers, many of the show’s scenes take place away from that, where the women talk amongst themselves in a kind of smaller “female sphere” within the larger male zones. That doesn’t make either of these shows un-sexist, necessarily, but it does give us — and the writers — a chance to break the habit of having female characters mostly responding to or talking about men.
With that said, Gloria Steinem, who has not seen The Playboy Club, saw fit to declare it sexist, saying:
“I hope people boycott it. It’s just not telling the truth about the era. I just know that over the years, women have called me and told me horror stories of what …
… they experienced at the Playboy Club and at the Playboy Mansion.
And that the show “normalizes a passive dominant idea of gender. So it normalizes prostitution and male dominance.”
Despite not having seen the show, Steinem may be responding to this comment by one of the show’s Executive Producers:
“Step inside the seductive world of the Bunny, the epitome of beauty and service, and rub shoulders with the decade’s biggest mobsters, politicos and entertainers.”
But the trailer alone shows that this is an over-simplification of the plot. One patron attempts to rape the lead bunny, played by the openly-gay Amber Heard. Another African-American bunny cites that the always-on-the-edge Hugh Hefner disregards race at the club, and plans to become the first black centerfold. A handsome male patron, played by “that” Eddie Cibrian is dressed-down by the Mother Hen bunny partway through the introduction of the show as desperately needing everyone’s approval, love and admiration by coming to the club. It’s clear that, despite the Exec’s comments, this will not simply be a revolving wheel of sex, T and A. And it does seem unfair to judge a show entirely based on its premise. A notion that Amber Heard seemed to agree with when she shot back at Steinem’s comments, saying:
You don’t watch a show for a word. You watch it for the characters, and that’s what this show has. Our generation, it takes us by surprise when the Steinems of the world criticize us, I think because we are part of a generation of women who don’t have to choose between combat boots and an apron. We can do it in heels.
There is always the risk with these retro shows that rather than highlight everything that was wrong about the era, they make the sexism and racism seem like a ball of laughs. But just from the comments and discussions that have been had about Mad Men over the past few years that it’s been on the air, it seems as though most people can look through the glamour to see the problems lurking underneath.
Whether that will be true for either of these shows, I don’t know — but I think perhaps people ought to give them a chance before fire-branding them as “sexist.”
What’s your take? Does The Playboy Club look sexist? Is Gloria Steinem right? Is Amber Heard right? Will you be watching?