'Pan Am' and 'The Playboy Club': Obsessive, Miniaturist and Yes, Sexist
by Stephanie Earp, posted Aug 23rd 2011 5:00PM
I always thought I was a fan of period pieces -- 'Merchant & Ivory,' HBO's 'Rome', Austen adaptations -- but I wish the '60s would go away. Not the '60s as they happened, the '60s as they've been reconstructed by pop culture. Nostalgia for this version is so tedious. The clothes are so specific and so binding, the important historical figures and dates are capital-"I" important, and the rampant inequality on display is plain old gross.
I wish we could leave the obsessive costuming and continuity details to the big screen. Unfortunately for me, two new shows this fall are building on the '60s mystique of 'Mad Men.' 'Pan Am' and 'The Playboy Club' seem to me simply an excuse for writers and designers to be obsessive, miniaturist, and yes, sexist.
Because of the meticulousness of the styling there's an appearance of effort, but all that hard work should be going into creating plots and characters that are timeless enough to transcend the era. What we have here are shows with costumes for stars -- the blue Pan Am skirt suit and the bunny bodysuit -- and the women who fill them out are afterthoughts.
One commenter on a YouTube video preview of 'Pan Am' defended the show saying it's impossible to make a show based in the early '60s that isn't sexist. How can that be true, when art made during that period wasn't always sexist, or racist, or some other 'ist'? Harper Lee published 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in 1960, Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' followed in 1962, and Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are' came out in 1963. These are works that are very much examining the current ethics and social mores, yet they do not participate in them.
Oh, I'm sure if we looked we could find some insensitive phrasings to modern eyes, but if these authors, in their vastly different genres, are able to write intelligently about their times while actually living though them, I don't see why highly paid television writers with 20/20 hindsight can't manage the same thing. When questioned about it, the show-runners resort to telling us how it's all true: women were oppressed, men said nasty things about them, people wore corsets!
And it is true: In the 1960s some dudes were total sexist jerks. That's not a television show, that's a factoid.
ABC's 'Pan Am' asks us to care about a similar factoid-as-plot -- that women used to really want to be stewardesses. The network spin has it that the job was a gateway to empowerment, enlightenment and bright futures, but thanks to gratuitous weigh-in and girdle-snapping scenes in the pilot, the press isn't buying. Most of the articles about this show (like this one) are wondering why a show clearly aimed at a female audience so clearly relishes humiliating its female characters.
NBC's 'The Playboy Club' goes even further and bases a show on the factoid that Playboy used to have clubs and women worked in them wearing bunny costumes. They manage to recreate, I'm sure, the actual texture of the bunny tail -- and thanks to an HD closeup you'll have the chance to check that out for yourself.
In the pilot, the blonde bunny accidentally kills some bigwig when he tries to molest her. What if instead of that lame-o plot, someone had thought to buy the rights to Gloria Steinem's story -- you know, when she went undercover as a bunny and wrote about the experience for fledging Ms. magazine? That way she would be supporting the show instead of calling for a boycott, and bonus: it might have a fresh and interesting plot!
It might have allowed the writers to examine both the staid sexism and rising women's movement at work. But in the new TV-ified version of the '60s, Playboy Clubs exist but Ms. magazine doesn't.