If Only Sexism Could Be Cancelled

New shows try to capitalize on Mad Men’s popularity—and avoid what prompted the women’s movement.

Susan J. Douglas

Stewardesses line up for a weigh-in on ABC's Pan Am. (Photo from ABC.com)

Do the women of America really want to go back to 1963? Or the men, for that matter? Riding on, and imbibing, the contrails of Mad Men, two new TV shows, Pan Am and The Playboy Club, seem to think so. That we can even have a show based on, and nostalgic for, Playboy Clubs speaks volumes about how acceptable it is these days to traffic in, and even celebrate, sexist depictions of women in the media.

Pan Am and The Playboy Club promote the seductive but preposterous notion that women's power comes from their sexuality.

Both shows are set in the early 1960s and, as a devoted fan of Mad Men, I can say, I know Mad Men, and you are NO Mad Men.” For Matthew Weiner, the deeply admired creator of the show, one main purpose was to expose all of the inequities and frailties of white male patriarchy circa 1963: the sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. While it is true that the show evinces a fondness for the period, Weiner has always deftly walked a tightrope between nostalgia and condemnation of the prejudices and oafish (or worse) male behavior that dominated the era. Indeed, the most interesting characters on the show are the women, poised just on the brink of a women’s movement that they are consciously or unconsciously helping to forge.

Pan Am and The Playboy Club–both dreadful, by the way, even without the sexism – seem to long for the days when women could be freely and openly objectified. Yet at the same time, those responsible for the shows do know that it is 2011, so they inject completely ahistorical elements to make it more palatable to depict women in bunny outfits or getting their asses slapped in stewardess uniforms. Playboy Clubs, it turns out, were actually liberating, providing a haven for strong-willed women who wanted to make something of themselves. In a voice-over from none other than Hugh Hefner himself, we are told that bunnies were some of the only females in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be.” Gee, that’s just what Gloria Steinem asserted in her path-breaking exposé of working as a bunny!

In the second episode, when the bunnies wait anxiously to see who is going to be chosen for the magazine’s cover, we learn that the criteria include brains and selflessness.” Right. The men in the show – well, the good ones – are avowedly anti-sexist and hate the exploitation of women. In the show’s premiere, a new bunny is harassed and then assaulted in a back room by a creepy patron. As she fights him off (and, in a really believable way, stabs him to death in the neck with her spike heel), she’s aided by another male patron meant to represent the alleged chivalry and anti-sexism of most men back then. Fortunately, and in possible testimony to the sensibilities of the American public, the show’s first episode came in third behind its other network rivals (Castle and Hawaii Five-O, both featuring strong women as cops or detectives) and blessedly, was cancelled after just three episodes.

Like The Playboy Club, Pan Am also romanticizes the past, suggesting that being a stewardess was a stepping stone to more weighty jobs. To excuse the show’s longing for the supposedly less complicated gender roles of the past, the women are secretly involved in politics of one sort or the other. One of the flight attendants reads Marx and Hegel on the side (and knows the difference between the two). Another works undercover for the CIA, and in an especially preposterous moment, the Pan Am crew helps rescue survivors of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Unfortunately, this show – with its Desperate Housewives lead-in – opened to strong ratings.

Why care about either of these programs? In addition to romanticizing the sexism of yore, they contribute to the ongoing amnesia about the discrimination that prompted the women’s movement in the first place. They suggest that sexist institutions like Playboy Clubs were the source of female empowerment and strength, when in fact they were exactly what women rebelled against as exemplars of female confinement and exploitation. And they further promote the seductive but preposterous notion that a woman’s real power comes from her sexuality.

When the media gloss over, or deliberately misremember, women’s history and what it was like before the massive changes of the 1970s and beyond, they nurture the notion that feminism is unnecessary. The Playboy Clubs cancellation shows how far we’ve come; the fact that network executives green-lit it reminds us how far we still have to go.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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