GOOD

Pan Am and The Playboy Club Trade Sexism For Nostalgia

Like Mad Men, two new shows about the 1960s shine a light on the women of pre-feminist America. Too bad they’re shilling revisionist history.


This fall, two new series are bringing the retro style of AMC's Mad Men to network television. The substance has been lost in the translation.

NBC’s The Playboy Club and ABC’s Pan Am haven't been shy about co-opting Matthew Weiner's high-brow hit. Both shows trade in mythologized versions of the big-city 1960's, drawing on the era's iconic professions—the Playboy bunnies of Chicago's eponymous venue and the Pan Am flight attendants working out of New York's JFK airport. The opening sequence of Pan Am features exhilarating tracking shots of the airport that mirror the first glimpse of Sterling Cooper’s Madison Avenue office.


And the shows' casting directors have borrowed heavily from Mad Men's book. The Playboy Club's protagonist, Nick Dalton, is a buffer, dimpled version of Don Draper—even his name carries the same syllabic cadence. The Playboy Club went straight to the source—it hired Naturi Naughton, the black bunny who made a memorable appearance in Mad Men’s season four, to staff NBC's own fictional version of the club.

Like Mad Men, both shows also shine a light on the women of pre-feminist America. But while the newcomers lift the seduction and circumstance of life as a Mad Men-era woman, they discard the accompanying social critique. Worse, they indulge in revisionist history: They are a women’s movement version of feel-good white-savior movies like The Help or The Blind Side.

None of these shows denies the trenchant misogyny of the 1960s—the constant threat of sexual harassment and assault, the limited choices for professional women, the trap of domesticity. But while Mad Men presents sexism as an unavoidable social force that has shaped every single relationship of the decade, Pan Am and The Playboy Club take a rosier view. The women of Mad Men are constantly demeaned, patronized, and hit on, whether they work as secretaries on Madison Avenue or toil as a housewife in the suburbs. In Pan Am and The Playboy Club, women are free to choose their way out of sexism; both shows frame their female characters' professions as antidotes to '60s sexism. Sure, these shows acknowledge inconveniences of these jobs—namely, that women must be attractive and wear uncomfortable outfits—but the negatives pale in comparison to the financial and geographical freedom that the gigs permit.

"The bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be," the real-life Hugh Hefner proclaims in a straight-faced voiceover on The Playboy Club. “The world was changing, and we were the ones changing it, one bunny at a time.” In NBC's version of the era, the only thing women wanted in the '60s was to be seen as sexualized little pets. In an attempt to explain how wearing a bunny tail empowered women, The Playboy Club just throws money at the problem. After the new bunny, Maureen, flees the boonies to make it in the big city, a closeted lesbian bunny informs her why she made the correct choice: “I’m making more money than my father," she tells Maureen. In a particularly obvious plot point, the lesbian bunny is saving her wages to support the early gay rights group the Mattachine Society.

In Pan Am, the idea of a sexy career as an escape route is made even more explicit. In an early runaway-bride sequence, Laura escapes the clutches of marriage in a red getaway convertible with her sister, then suits up in a girdle to travel the world as a flight attendant. Granted, these women did have some genuine freedoms; real-life Pan Am flight attendants attest that they had far more autonomy than the secretaries of Sterling Cooper and the wives of Ossining.

But for all its promise of a way out of boredom, the concept of the gorgeous, sophisticated, sexily dressed stewardess was a fantasy concocted by ad men and CEOs behind the scenes. One of Pan Am's opening shots focuses on a cover of Life magazine. On it, beautiful Laura dons a beguiling grin, her stewardess cap cocked to the side, her cornflower blue eyes staring up at the heavens. “Come fly with me” was the classic campaign slogan. The cover fits right in with Don Draper’s own offensive advertising philosophy: “Men want her, women want to be her.”

The Playboy Club is even more paternalistic, particularly when it takes stabs at social relevance. The pilot is bookended by schmaltzy, self-congratulatory comments from Hefner, who is credited in the show with battling not only sexual prudery, but racism, too. The “chocolate bunny” of the club (a phrase employed three times in one episode) gushes, "Hef don't care what color people are, as long as they're interesting." The show takes pains to recognize that some powerful men in the era were sexist, bigoted assholes, but that those aligned with the Playboy brand were merciful men who gave lovely young girls a chance at freedom.

If the heroes of The Playboy Club are all uncomplicated good guys, its villains are even flatter. Consider the show's first rape scene, which appears before the opening credits even roll. An older, menacing-looking man follows Maureen into the back room and attacks her almost instantly. There is a struggle, and she accidentally stabs him in the throat with her stiletto heel. Nick Dalton comes to her rescue, helps her dispose of the body, and assures her that there is an explanation for this monster's actions. He’s the boss of the Chicago mafia—the most megalomaniacal man in the country. The intention of the scene isn’t to expose an everyday job hazard faced by the bunnies, it's to set up clear bad guys and nice guys. Dalton, the quintessential playboy, is written as the kind of gentleman who saves women from sexual assault, not the guy who commits it.

Contrast that with a rape scene from Mad Men, one of the most heartbreaking in recent memory. Joan Holloway, Sterling Cooper’s take-no-shit head secretary, is recently engaged to a handsome doctor, Greg, who comes to meet her at her office before their dinner reservations. Threatened by Joan’s sexual past, Greg rapes her in Don Draper’s office. We watch the assault through Joan’s eyes as Greg pushes her face into the carpet, and her illusions about love and marriage are obliterated. But she has no recourse. Greg is violating this strong, self-possessed woman, and he won’t be punished for it.

Mad Men’s critics claim that some viewers take the glitz at face value, idolizing Don Draper and Roger Sterling and coveting the vintage wardrobe while missing the show’s jabs at the deeply sexist, racist culture of the time. Even that rape scene was controversial; Christina Hendricks, the actress who plays Joan, was horrified when fans on message boards placed the word “rape” in scare quotes. But when some viewers choose not to peel back the shiny veneer of the Mad Men world, it’s more of an indication of our culture’s lingering gender issues than the show’s own shortcomings. Pan Am and The Playboy Club keep the nostalgia safely intact. “Don’t worry,” they tell us. “The past is just as shiny as you had hoped.”

Articles
NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

Wealth inequality has been a hot topic of discussion as of late, but it's something that's occurred all throughout history. Class structure is a complicated issue, especially when you consider that haves and have nots have been in existence for over 4,000 years.

A study published in Science took a look at over 100 late Neolithic and early Bronze Age skeletons found in a burial site in southern Germany. The study "shed light on the complexity of social status, inheritance rules, and mobility during the Bronze Age." Partly by looking at their teeth and the artifacts they were buried with, researchers were able to discover that wealth inequality existed almost 4,000 years ago. "Our results reveal that individual households lasting several generations consisted of a high-status core family and unrelated low-status individuals, a social organization accompanied by patrilocality and female exogamy, and the stability of this system over 700 years," the study said.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture

Climate change means our future is uncertain, but in the meantime, it's telling us a lot about our past. The Earth's glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, but as the ice dwindles, ancient artifacts are being uncovered. The Secrets of the Ice project has been surveying the glaciers on Norway's highest mountains in Oppland since 2011. They have found a slew of treasures, frozen in time and ice, making glacier archeologists, as Lars Pilø, co-director of Secrets of the Ice, put it when talking to CNN, the "unlikely beneficiaries of global warming."

Instead of digging, glacier archeologists survey the areas of melting ice, seeing which artifacts have been revealed by the thaw. "It's a very different world from regular archaeological sites," Pilø told National Geographic. "It's really rewarding work.

Keep Reading Show less

When former Pittsburgh Steelers' center Mike Webster committed suicide in 2002, his death began to raise awareness of the brain damage experienced by NFL football players. A 2017 study found that 99% of deceased NFL players had a degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Only one out of 111 former football players had no sign of CTE. It turns out, some of the risks of traumatic brain injury experienced by heavily padded adults playing at a professional level also exist for kids with developing brains playing at a recreational level. The dangers might not be as intense as what the adults go through, but it can have some major life-long consequences.

A new PSA put out by the Concussion Legacy Foundation raises awareness of the dangers of tackle football on developing brains, comparing it to smoking. "Tackle football is like smoking. The younger I start, the longer I am exposed to danger. You wouldn't let me smoke. When should I start tackling?" a child's voice can be heard saying in the PSA as a mother lights up a cigarette for her young son.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

On Tuesday morning, President Trump tweeted about some favorable economic numbers, claiming that annual household income is up, unemployment is low, and housing prices are high.

Now, just imagine how much better those numbers would be if the country wasn't mired in an economy-killing trade war with China, bleeding out trillion-dollar-a-year debts, and didn't suffer from chaotic leadership in the Oval Office?

At the end of tweet, came an odd sentence, "Impeach the Pres."

Keep Reading Show less
Politics

October is domestic violence awareness month and when most people think of domestic violence, they imagine mostly female victims. However, abuse of men happens as well – in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. But some are taking it upon themselves to change all that.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture