Warning: This post includes two very bad jokes, one of which I'll dispose of right up front. When my wife walked into my study to find me looking at scantily clad Playboy bunnies on the Internet, I did in fact tell her that I was going to watch NBC's latest show, The Playboy Club for the articles -- at least for this one. She refused to watch with me because she didn't think she could handle the attitudes toward women.
I loved, and she disliked, the first season of Mad Men because of its painfully accurate portrayal of systemic misogyny in the 1960s. The thing about Mad Men is that even though you know how the larger story turns out -- hang on there, feminism is coming! -- and even though the show winks regularly at the future (they smoked when pregnant!), watching it offers insight into the agonies of the time. Seeing the submissive wives, patronizing male doctors, and smart women fighting back sexual harassers as they endure their secretarial jobs isn't quite as shocking as watching, say, Rosemary's Baby, which portrays the same dynamics, but without any acknowledgement or consciousness of the fact that the women are treated appallingly. But Mad Men's writers are ruthless with their complex characters, never letting you know who will survive and who will be strangled by the era's social strictures.
There's not as much nuance in The Playboy Club, although it too uses the early 1960s the way TV, movies, novels, and other fiction have long used World War II: We can enjoy the costumes, decor, and music while feeling morally reassured because we can see right and wrong so clearly -- and because we know that all those wrongs will be safely righted. Watching The Playboy Club, you get to feel all morally superior when you recognize that the womanizing lawyer whose past is tangled with the mob can't be all bad; he helps save a bunny from what they wouldn't yet call sexual harassment, and he helps black clients win record-breaking housing-discrimination settlements. When you realize that The Playboy Club features a lesbian and gay man who had to marry each other as cover, you also get to feel morally superior because you know, as their contemporaries didn't yet, that having to hide one's sexual orientation like that is Wrong. When the show's wide-eyed but ambitious blonde (who of course is always going to be in danger) has to fight off an awful sexual harasser and potential rapist, you know that too wouldn't happen now, because We Know It's Wrong.
Of course, it does still happen now, making that moral reassurance tinny and false. Which brings us to various ways in which The Playboy Club gets its civil-rights history wrong: It puts in events that might have happened then, but as most of us would think about them now. For instance, when the womanizing-but-good lawyer wins a civil-rights lawsuit, the show suggests his win makes him more likely to be elected attorney general -- although at the time, even bringing that lawsuit would have put him entirely out of the running. And while I loved the fact that the Mattachine Society gets a cameo -- who except LGBT activists and academics knows about its groundbreaking role in gay pre-history? -- The Playboy Club gets the history wrong, placing both men and women at Mattachine's crowded house party and fundraiser. Mattachine was all men. Lesbians organized independently through the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) (in fact, DOB's founders, the beloved Del Martin and Phllis Lyons, were the first couple to get married at San Francisco City Hall during the brief period when Mayor Gavin Newsom issued rogue marriage licenses).
But most important, according to Gloria Steinem, the Playboy world wasn't glamorous at all; it was degrading and seedy. It's simpler, more reassuring, and probably more profitable to prettify the battles of the past by showing how we think we would fight them now -- all the while adding nostalgic glamor.
I haven't had a chance to check how this show relates to the others being rolled out for the season, but The Playboy Show is just one of several with 1960s backdrops. Hank Stuever at The Washington Post thinks that's more than a little horrifying and that the message is that women are "bunnies, babies, and broads." Alessandra Stanley at The New York Times thinks, rather, that:
...these nostalgic series may be to female audiences what series like "Combat!" and "Band of Brothers" have been for so many men -- a chance to relive historic battles in all their glory as well as horror.... There is horror in seeing how dismissively many men treated women back then, but also a kind of pleasure in revisiting -- with hindsight -- a noble cause played out in a simpler time. Sexism hasn't been vanquished, obviously, but it has splintered into more subtle, ambiguous channels. Back then it was overt, coarse and overdue for assault.
Here's what didn't bother me in "The Playboy Club": the T&A. Yes, there's cleavage, but honestly, the costumes aren't much worse than what you can see on Nickelodeon's tween daytime TV shows. Maybe producers hoped that putting it in the 1960s would allow viewers to enjoy the fixed male/female roles without guilt, since That's Just How It Was, although, of course, We Know Better Now. But unlike Stanley, the show made me think about how far we (now I'm talking as a woman, not a homo) haven't come. Most important, there's that attempted rape, in which the powerful man assumes he has a right to a young woman's curvaceous body: Gosh, that never happens any more, does it?
On a more ordinary level, parents know that toy-store aisles and children's clothes are as gender-segregated as 1960s help-wanted ads: girls in pink petticoats with pink ponies over to one side, boys in sports-themed T-shirts shooting bad guys in their video games on the other. Drive through the South -- from DFW to Dallas, say -- and the overwhelming number of strip clubs alternating with churches makes it clear that women who want to earn serious money can still do so by baring thighs and bosoms to men who want to feel powerful. If you want that served up with pop culture, try watching Friday Night Lights, where the young women who don't go to college end up working at the strip club, writhing around the pole, no cute bunny ears needed.
Although Hanna Rosin's forthcoming book may be arguing that we're living out The End of Men, beginning an era in which masculinity no longer rules the world, I just don't see it. The wage gap between women and men is holding steady, in part because "women's" jobs still pay less than "men's jobs" -- and yes, there are still women's and men's jobs, especially if you don't have a college education. As I wrote here last week, the "mancession" is receding (however slowly) while the "womancession" is not. In a presentation at Radcliffe last week, Heidi Hartman of International Women's Policy Research reported that women are 90 percent of all adult low-wage workers -- and only 6.5 percent of the highest wage workers. According to the census, 40 percent of families headed by a single mother live below the official poverty line; for many moms, divorce still predicts destitution.
But yes, I'll agree with Stanley that The Playboy Club's glamorized period wallpaper -- sexism, racism, hatred of gay folks -- makes clear things have changed, at least somewhat. Take my wife. Please.