How The Playboy Club Gets It Wrong

This week at the Television Critics Association panel for NBC's The Playboy Club — the new drama set in the 1960s and revolving around Hugh Hefner's infamous Bunny cocktail waitresses — executive producer Chad Hodge said, "Really, the show is all about empowering, and who these women can be, and how they can use their position to get what they want." His comment is a clear indication that this show will not be NBC's answer to Mad Men, as far as accuracy in portraying how these women really lived. Didn't this guy bother to read Gloria Steinem's infamous essay "I Was a Playboy Bunny" for research?

NPR's Linda Holmes attended the TCA panel and also viewed the pilot. She says that it "looked from the start like the network's straightforwardly network-ish attempt to capitalize on Mad Men, more than anything." And perhaps that is why Hodge is desperately trying to work the whole feminism angle, since Mad Men's creator Matt Weiner claimed the same of his own show. What Hodge doesn't seem to understand, though, is that Mad Men is considered to be feminist, not because it's "empowering," but because it's "a painfully accurate portrayal of the treatment of women [in the 1960s]." Which, according to the people who have seen the pilot, The Playboy Club is certainly not, despite a voice over by Hugh Hefner that claims, "Bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anything they wanted." Holmes likened it to your run-of-the-mill prime time soap.

According to Holmes, there was nothing empowering about the show, not because of its association with Playboy, but because the female characters routinely run to male characters for help in perilous situations. Holmes says, "The 'female empowerment' line is hooey because these particular women, as they are written in this particular show, have no agency and no apparent goals beyond Playboy World."

And it's a shame, too, because Steinem's essay about her experiences working as a Playboy Bunny provide a great blueprint for a show like this to have a very feminist slant. After all, her essay really illustrated how hard-working Bunnies were, despite the many obstacles they faced. But apparently, there is no mention made of how the real Bunnies were essentially lied to about how much they could earn in a week, how painful the costumes really are (Steinem had to wrap gauze around her torso to keep the boning of the costume from rubbing her skin raw), how the women had to pay a daily fee for their costume, and were governed on an incredibly strict demerit system.

At the panel, when pressed about why, exactly, this show is "empowering" for women, actress Amber Heard said that our society is too "puritanical and it's just chauvinistic to deny women their sexuality." The thing is, though, that no one is denying these women their sexuality. And it's not like they're Playmates. Or strippers. Or even hookers. They're cocktail waitresses — in painful outfits. (The TV costumes were modified from the originals to make them a little more comfortable. Still, the show's actresses said they were "tight," "constricting," "child, you cannot breathe," and "there's not a lot of drinking water.")

The icing on the cake is that Hodge says that the show is about "buoying women up and giving them the power" because men weren't allowed to touch the Bunnies. How many waitresses do you go around touching? Is that really the ultimate message of empowerment? To be afforded the privilege of something that should simply be a right? Or rather, to hold men to some of the most basic rules of social etiquette? However Holmes does point out an interesting silver lining here:

Perhaps the good news is that we've now reached the point where it's considered smart marketing to push a feminist spin on your show about Playboy Bunnies. Perhaps we've reached the point, in fact, where you have to try to fit your show into a "we have smart and strong women characters" mold.

The Bizarre Pitch For 'The Playboy Club': It's All About Female Empowerment? [NPR]