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Posts Tagged ‘The Playboy Club’

The other day, I heard from Hilary, a former student who forwarded a pdf of the Letters page in the January issue of Washingtonian Magazine.  The top letter, which called out the editors for choosing to feature a naked woman on the cover, was hers:

Your magazine is cutting edge, informative, and entertaining without being superficial.  However, when the December issue arrived, I was disgusted.  Washington is full of beautiful, powerful, educated, intelligent women of all shapes, sizes, and ages, and this cover does nothing but degrade us to a naked – and I’m sure Photoshopped – figure with some lines about cosmetic procedures floating around her head…

Hilary said she was heartened by the fact that the magazine not only published her letter, but acknowledged the extensive blowback the cover had gotten from other readers.  She also wrote that she was inspired by the documentary, Miss Representation, and since seeing it has been quick to “attack any and all forms of the continued objectification of women, especially powerful women, in our society.”

You go, Hilary.

The cover story in question focused on the dreaded F-word, as in: Don’t like what you see in the mirror?  Fix it!  You can guess the fix: pages of features on everything from going redhead or trying new workout routines to a guide to 12 plastic surgery procedures, complete with prices.  (You can expect to pay anywhere from $2000 to $8000 to lift your eyelids.) All of which got me to thinking.

A while back we wrote about those two fall TV shows, “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am”, where we castigated the male producers for pitching women in bunny costumes and girdles as examples of  “empowered women.”  (Apparently, the viewing public agreed. We’re happy to report that the first show met its timely demise while the second is on well-deserved hiatus.)  But as I clicked through that issue of Washingtonian Magazine, an ugly little thought crept in: It’s not just men who are responsible for our objectification.  You have to wonder if we’re sometimes complicit ourselves: The December cover of   Washingtonian was shot by a women.  All those features to “help you feel your best in the New Year” were written by women, for women.

Are we sometimes responsible for our own misrepresentation?

I found more food for thought over there on salon, where Mary Elizabeth Williams, writing about the new Chelsea Handler TV show, wondered why we consider shows about girls behaving badly to be ground-breaking:

But what really sets [the Chelsea-Whitney NBC Happy Hour] it apart is the whiff of voyeuristic creepiness about building a prime-time block around willowy females who dress up sexy and get their drink on. Is this really the same network that figured out how to give us the complicated, hilarious – and very different – characters of Reagan Brinkley, Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon?

Worse, though, Happy Hour reinforces the stereotype of ladies as inherently less funny than dudes. Chelsea’s humor, after all, hinges upon her being like a guy — someone who sleeps around and gets “lady wood” — but has conveniently appealing blond hair and boobs.

Over on twitter, a trending topic is #thingsaslutmightsay.  Many of the tweets are from men. But not all. Yuck. Jezebel reports on a bathroom sign in a D.C. coffee shop that shows a creepy stickfigure gent peering over the stall at the stickfigure gal.  This is funny? Who knows who came up with that bright idea — but what I wonder is why the sign is still up? Oh, it’s Saxby’s Coffee at K Street and Vermont Ave.  Don’t go there.

And over at The Guardian, Dominic Rushe wonders why, in 2012, the Detroit car show is still using “female eye candy” to sell cars — when roughly half its customers are women?  [Note: the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas is likewise using “booth babes” to accessorize its products.]

Rushe asks a good question.  But I’ve got another.  What’s our own role in all this nonsense? Whether or not we’re directly responsible for any of the sexism that continues to objectify our gender, we do have one responsibility — and that’s to call when we see it.  Just like Hilary.

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Surely you’ve heard about that million dollar lawsuit against Amazon filed by an anonymous actress who claims that Internet Movie Database (which is owned by Amazon) damaged her ability to get work because it published her age.  According to the Daily Dot, the lawsuit claimed:

“If one is perceived to be ‘over-the-hill,’ i.e., approaching 40, it is nearly impossible for an up-and-coming actress, such as the plaintiff, to get work as she is thought to have less of an ‘upside,’ therefore, casting directors, producers, directors, agents-manager, etc. do not give her the same opportunities, regardless of her appearance or talent…”

I know nothing about the woman, other than that she is an Asian from Texas who claims to look young for her age.  I know nothing about her resume.  I have no idea whether she has talent.  I don’t know whether it’s a legitimate lawsuit or she’s just out to make a quick buck.  I don’t even know how old she is.

But what I do know is this. Put a man of a certain age up on the big screen and he’s not only viable as an actor, but might generate some fantasies: George Clooney is 50.  Richard Gere is 62.  Pierce Brosnan: 58.  Sean Connery was named the sexiest man of the year by people magazine back in 1999 when he was, I believe, 68.  Viggo Mortensen is 58. Colin Firth and Hugh Grant: Both 50. And Jeremy Irons?  You may not find him especially sexy, but as Pope Alexander VI in the TV series The Borgias, he gets more than his share of action.  He is 62.

Now let’s turn the tables: Who are the leading ladies of the same age, with the same kind of currency, the same box office draw?  Can’t think of many, can you?  Not necessarily because they aren’t equally talented as actors, or equally sexy, but because they just don’t get the parts.

There could be any number of reasons for this, none of them especially pleasant to contemplate, but what we want to focus on today is just one of them: the gender make-up of Hollywood itself.

For years we have decried the fact that the old guy always gets the cute girl in the movies. We have for years ranted: about the schlubby guys on TV who have the slim trim wives; about the loser guys who end up with, you know, Katherine Heigl; about the sweet young things who are wooed by the guys old enough to be their grandpas.

You have to ask yourself: who writes this stuff?  And the answer, as we discovered when we researched our book, is this: predominantly men.  Back in 2009, the Hollywood Writers Report found that women and minorities had not made any significant hiring gains since 2005, with women writers making up roughly one-quarter of the field: 28 percent of TV writers and 18 percent of film writers.Their salaries also showed a discrepancy: White men $98,875, versus women $57,151—for a whopping wage gap of $41,724.40.

When we checked in with the their latest report, released a few months ago, we found that women’s share had actually declined:

 The present report shows that women writers remain stuck at 28 percent of television employment, while their share of film employment actually declined a percentage point since the last report to 17 percent. Although the minority share of television employment increased a percentage point to 10 percent (matching the shares evident in years immediately prior to the 2007 nadir), the group’s share of film employment declined to just 5 percent – the lowest figure in at least ten years.

Another study, this one by the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television found that:

In 2010, women comprised 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 1 percentage point from 1998 and is even with 2009 figures.

Women accounted for 7% of directors in 2010, the same percentage as in 2009. This figure represents a decline of two percentage points from 1998.

Likewise, a 2011 study by USC’s Annenberg Center found that when it came to creative positions in general, including directing or producing, women were again grossly outnumbered.  In a piece on the study for the Women’s Media Center, the researchers for that study, Stacy L. Smith and Marc Choueiti, wrote:

Turning to behind-the-camera employees, the gender gap is far more problematic.  For every one working female director, writer, or producer, there are 4.9 working males in the same above-the-line gate-keeping positions.  Stated in another way, only 8 percent of directors, 13.6 percent of writers, and 19.1 percent of producers were female across the 100 top-grossing films in 2008.  These numbers are unsettling, as one way to diversify images on screen may be to vary the personnel responsible for making the content.  In fact, this is exactly what our results showed.  When one or more females are involved directing, writing, or producing, the number of females on screen increases substantially (see Figure 1).  In the case of screenwriters, the presence of at least one female on the writing team was associated with a 14.3 percent increase in the percentage of female characters on screen.

All of this has an impact — three words for you:  The Playboy Club, which fortunately just met its timely demise — as the reseachers noted, not the least of which is the fact that when there’s no diversity behind the camera, the women we see in front of it are not only showing a lot of skin, but often unrealistically young.  (Backstage reports that women over 40 account for a mere 8 percent of characters in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 TV seasons to date).

That impact goes far beyond the silver screen, as Jennifer Seibel Newsom, producer of Miss Representation points out:

And really what our culture is communicating to us is vis-a-vis the media, which is this pedagogical force of communication in our culture, is that a woman’s value lies in her youth, her beauty, and her sexuality and not in her capacity to lead…

Back in 2010 when Meryl Streep — the exception who proves the rule? — made news by starring as a sexual being in “It’s Complicated”, she was the subject of a cover story in Vanity Fair, which dug into the stereotypical way in which the media treat women of a certain age:

Any inhibitions notwithstanding, a vibrant sexuality has remained a crucial aspect of Streep’s appeal, despite her advancing years and the limitations that others might try to impose in response. When Clint Eastwood cast her to star opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County, which won Streep an Oscar nomination for best actress, in 1996, his reason was simple: “She’s the greatest actress in the world,” he said with a shrug.

That said, Streep reports, “There was a big fight over how I was too old to play the part, even though Clint was nearly 20 years older than me. The part was for a 45-year-old woman, and Clint said, ‘This is a 45-year-old woman.’”

Old news, perhaps.  But have things changed in the past 15 years?  Probably not, which brings us back to that Amazon lawsuit.  Frivolous or not, it makes you wonder about the biggest question of all: Does Hollywood reflect our reality — or determine it?

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Fast in the wake of the success of “Mad Men”, TV’s retro series on the advertising industry circa 1965, come two new period series for the fall season:  “The Playboy Club” on NBC and “Pan Am” on ABC.

What these two new series have in common is the insistence by their producers that when you eliminate the girdles, the cleavage and the bunny dips, the shows are really about women’s empowerment. That sound you hear is the two of us choking on our morning Starbucks. Let’s review: Women called Bunnies, wearing rabbit ears and cotton tails, and stewardesses subjected to regular weigh-ins and tight undergarments? Both the subjects of drooling men? This is Hollywood’s vision of empowered women?

Don’t get us wrong.  We like Mad Men as much as the next sixties geeks.  And we are the first to admit that the men of Sterling Cooper are hideously misogynistic. But the women — Peggy, who pushed her way to become the firm’s first woman copywriter, and Joan, often the brains of the outfit — make their way with their smarts rather than their sexuality.

Back to these new shows:  we see a difference between a period piece that portrays the way things were for women — versus the proclamation that what looks like heavy-duty sexism is really female empowerment.

What it really is is backlash.

“The Playboy Club” (Tagline: Where men hold the key but women run the show) revolves around a bunny who becomes involved with a high-powered attorney who gets her out of a jam. “Pan Am” (Tagline: They do it all and they do it at 30,000 feet) is about the glory days of air travel, when pilots were Men-with-a-capital-M and stewardesses were every businessman’s, um, fantasy.

Both shows have come up against intense criticism (Making for an unusual alliance between feminists and conservatives, an NBC affiliate in Utah has refused to air “The Playboy Club” and feminist icon Gloria Steinem has called for a boycott of the show.), which has led to ridiculous statements by the two shows’ producers.  Here’s one, via the Contra Costa Times, from “The Playboy Club” producer, Chad Hodge.

“The show is all about empowerment and who these women can be, and how they can use the club to be anyone they want,” Chad Hodge told critics.

Enough said.  And from the producers of “Pan Am”, via TV/Line:

Exec producer Nancy Holt Ganis — who herself was a Pan Am stewardess during the era depicted in the show — explains that this is what life was actually like for these women, who were admirably regarded as “hostesses at a dinner party… a movable feast.”

“Part of the irony of the profession [is] these are college-educated women who [often] spoke multiple languages,” says [creator/producer Jack] Orman, and yet they we still subjected to physical scrutiny to land the job. Says EP Thomas Schlamme, “For me, the show could be called The Best Years of Our Lives, because for those people, at that moment, that what this is. And that’s what the show’s about.”

Really? We’d prefer to give the last words to Gloria Steinem, who might heartily disagree.  Steinem, who went undercover as a Playboy Bunny during the 1960s for a magazine expose, is the subject of an upcoming HBO documentary entitled “Gloria: In Her Own Words” and at the Summer TV Press Tour, she was asked her thoughts about these two new shows.  Here’s what she said, according to the Washington Post:

“Are they aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or are they really showing the problems of the past in order to show we have come forward? Somehow I think the shows are not doing that,” Steinem said, noting wryly that when times get tough, the “white male response” tends to swing to either sadomasochism — or nostalgia.

Recently, she told Reuters that the Playboy Club was “the tackiest place on earth”:

When I was working there and writing the expose, one of the things they had to change because of my expose was that they required all the Bunnies, who were just waitresses, to have an internal exam and a test for venereal disease,” she said.

Earlier, in an interview for the current issue of Interview Magazine, Maria Shriver asked Steinem whether she was glad she had done the playboy expose in the first place.  She said that at first she wasn’t, and in fact returned an advance she’d received for turning the magazine piece into a book.  But ultimately, she said:

.. feminism did make me realize that I was glad I did it–because I identified with all the women who ended up an underpaid waitress in too-high heels and  a costume that was too tight to breathe in. Most were just trying to make a living and had no other way of doing it. I’d made up a background as a secretary, and the woman who interviewed me asked, “Honey, if you can type, why would you want to work here?” In the sense that we’re all identified too much by our outsides instead of our insides and are mostly in underpaid service jobs, I realized we’re all Bunnies–so yes, I’m glad I did it.

She didn’t mention whether she felt empowered when she was doing the bunny dip.  We suspect her answer would have been no.

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