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September 2, 2015

'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.

'Pan Am' Teaser

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!

'The Playboy Club' Teaser

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.

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Cheri Warford

I agree with you. The dated ideals of these shows cause them to ultimately lose touch with today's viewers. I hope they change or get cancelled. It would be more interesting to see men and minorities try to become flight attendants or pilots, then to have pretty girls gloss over social issues. I disagree that the Jersey Shore is an adequate replacement (Patrick Newson).

October 14 2011 at 11:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Of course the Pan Am and The Playboy Club were sexist, THE 60'S WERE SEXIST!!!! These shows should be a learning example for todays women as to how diffucult it was back then to achieve equality. If there is anything to be upset about, it is that we still have shows like the Kardashions whose only claim to fame is flaunting their junk and encouraging a whole generation of girls to emulate their "valley girl" nasel whiny baby drawl in order to get what they want..Young girls can actually watch them shave each others pubic hair and get their ass's xrayed to prove they don't have butt implants, but the Playboy Club is to risque for late night tv? Where the hell is the Parent Television Council or the Mormons etc. when they're really needed, or are they getting kickbacks to keep quiet when their pockets are being filled, just like our goverment.

October 05 2011 at 1:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gigi J Wolf

I flew for Pan Am for twelve years and here's my take on it:

August 26 2011 at 1:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gigi J Wolf

She makes some good points about the details overwhelming the plot, even if they are overlooking many historic details. There were many men who were flight attendants from the beginning, and there were many senior flight attendants. And why is it ok for someone to be a 'waitperson' their entire working life and not be subjected to disapprobation, but it's not ok for people who are flight attendants? They make an excellent living, and get to travel while getting paid. What's to wonder about? It's just human nature to look back on an era twenty years or more in the past and wax nostalgic about it. gigi wolf, author of the Pan Am Airlines Pages and A Woman's Guide To Everything on ChezGigi.com

August 26 2011 at 1:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

One correction -- Gloria Steinem went to work at the Playboy Club in 1963 for a publication called Show. This was nearly a decade before Ms. was started. After the article came out, Steinem had trouble getting more work until she went to New York magazine in 1968. Ms. was launched as a spin-off from New York magazine in 1972. (And I was a loyal reader of both New York and Ms. at the time, so I can confirm this first hand!)

Steinem's Playboy Club story was made into a tv movie called A Bunny's Tale, with a surprisingly well cast Kirstie Alley in the lead. The makers of this series ought to have checked it out...

August 24 2011 at 1:41 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

It's certainly not uncommon to romanticize the past and overlook its shortcomings. Is it fair to point out that the direction of the series isn't always evident from watching the pilot, or a few episodes? There weren't many occupations that allowed women to travel extensively. The airlines did have weight and appearance requirements. Stewardesses who got married or pregnant got fired. Men couldn't be stewards. That all changed by the end of the decade, or shortly after, although one of my colleagues was still referring to cabin crew as "waitresses" in the early '90s. There might be some good stories in showing how those changes occurred.

August 23 2011 at 7:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Patrick Newson

I think what I enjoy most is the blind persecution of scripted TV. Congrats you've joined forces with the Parent Television Council and pissed of Mormons. I think it's important to show the way things used to be. If they can do it with flair and thoughtful story lines all the better. Or if you don't like it flip over to Jersey Shore and The Kardashians for your television focusing on empowered women. There's no signs of misogyny anywhere that can see on those programs.

August 23 2011 at 7:15 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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