Sign up today and save up to 83% on a Hartford Courant digital subscription
CT Now

Daum: Chick flick TV

Perhaps it's been brought to your attention that this is a big week for retrograde representations of women on television. Monday marked the premiere of NBC's "The Playboy Club," a noir-ish look at Hugh Hefner's flagship Chicago club in 1963, and Sunday will see the launch of ABC's "Pan Am," a stylish, soapy paean to those proto-feminist archetypes known as stewardesses. With their curling cigarette smoke and hourglass-shaped, not-necessarily-Pilates-toned actresses, these shows suggest we're in a moment not just of "Mad Men" withdrawal (it won't be back until March) but out-and-out fetishization of the 1960s (make that the early 1960s, before things got complicated).

It's feminist backlash, right? How else to explain why, in an era where real-life women are running for president and running men off the road of life by any number of measures, women in serious dramatic television roles are still wearing girdles and gloves? Why else would producers set two much-hyped shows with female-driven ensemble casts in places where mile-high ass grabs are company-sanctioned and bunny tails are company policy?

Whatever the reason, don't blame men. For starters, men make up only 40% of TV viewers, according to recent figures. And lest you think that story lines rife with antiquated gender roles are a network ploy to appeal to that 40%, think again. According to Nielsen data, the No. 1 television show watched by men is "American Idol."

In other words, unlike the movie business, where the conventional wisdom is that male audiences call the shots (hence our current period of film history, which, thanks to auteurs like Judd Apatow, we might call la cinema de fart joke), television programmers have long paid close attention to female viewing habits.

Depending on your tastes, that could be a damning accusation because it suggests that women are responsible for, well, most of what's on TV. But it also raises some interesting questions about how women — perhaps especially those who've come of age since the women's movement — view their place in the world.

Can any situation depicting some kind of all-women institution automatically have feminist undertones, no matter how retrograde? Is it possible to glamorize oppressive, exploitative work while also offering a critique of it?

What are we to make of "Pan Am" star Christina Ricci's comment that the show will "send a message of how these women were free and in charge of their lives"? Moreover, how reliable a narrator is Hugh Hefner (yes, the one and only) supposed to be when, in a voice-over at the end of the first episode of "The Playboy Club," he declares that "the bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be"?

Plenty of evidence has accrued to suggest that Ricci and Hefner's views may be more than a little revisionist. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild famously studied the workplace of flight attendants and noted the demands of "emotional labor" as well as physical labor. Even more famously, Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy bunny and revealed in a 1963 magazine article that the pay was lousy, the work physically grueling and the opportunities for advancement negligible. Last month Steinem called for a boycott of the NBC show, claiming that "it's just not telling the truth about the era."

That's undoubtedly true. But in fairness, these programs aren't claiming to tell the truth. They're telling stories — fairy tales, even. And just because they're set in a particular historical period doesn't mean they should be held to any higher standard of accuracy than any other ridiculous thing on television. After all, who complained that "Little House on the Prairie" minimized the hardships of 19th century pioneers?

Pioneers, of course, aren't a big market segment these days. On the other hand, women and their many roles, their sexual agency, their dollars and their votes matter. Or at least we're asked to evaluate TV shows in that light. But, let's face it, not every show is capable of being a cultural touchstone. Some are just entertainment — the sort that women, for better or worse, can be counted on to watch.

Sisterhood is powerful, sure. But sometimes only in terms of ratings.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
Related Content
  • Mark Wahlberg's pardon plea: Should he get his rights restored?

    Mark Wahlberg's pardon plea: Should he get his rights restored?

    If the state of Massachusetts grants Mark Wahlberg's application for a pardon, some critics will no doubt wring their hands about celebrity justice and how the system works for the wealthy. To me, the real issue is why felonies carry lifetime penalties.

  • Seeing the movie 'San Andreas'? Drop, cover and laugh.

    With the action movie “San Andreas” opening Friday, you’ve probably seen the trailer of buildings in downtown Los Angeles exploding apocalyptically. And you probably know that’s ridiculous.   Although I do get a kick out of seeing the letters in the Hollywood sign topple over like playing cards....

  • Can Apple Music live up to the hype?

    Can Apple Music live up to the hype?

    Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook unveiled the company's long-anticipated music-on-demand service Monday, offering this assessment: "It will change the way you experience music forever." That's just the sort of humility we've come to expect from Apple. The fact is, consumers' music habits have been...

  • Hollywood's idealized view of CIA officers is no substitute for reality

    Hollywood's idealized view of CIA officers is no substitute for reality

    Among the many compelling aspects of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the 2013 film about the capture of Osama bin Laden, was the notion (much touted by the film's creators) that its characters were based on real people. This included the heroine, a brilliant and tenacious red-haired CIA analyst named Maya,...

  • 'This is much bigger than me': Jeffrey Tambor's powerful Golden Globes speech

    'This is much bigger than me': Jeffrey Tambor's powerful Golden Globes speech

    At Sunday night’s Golden Globe awards, Jeffrey Tambor paid respect to his cast and crew, dedicated his award and performance of Maura Pfefferman on Amazon’s “Transparent” to the transgender community and showed Hollywood what it means to be an ally.

  • Seinfeld and Maher: More cranky than comic these days

    Seinfeld and Maher: More cranky than comic these days

    On his podcast, the comedian Todd Glass recently addressed the argument that the politically correct thought-control police would have destroyed the career of his icon George Carlin. Glass countered that if Carlin were alive today, he would have evolved with the times instead of holding on to the...

  • 'Game of Thrones': A brief history of the Dothraki language

    In the first season of HBO's "Game of Thrones," Illyrio Mopatis introduces Drogo, the ruler of the Dothraki, to Daenerys Targaryen, the descendant of a deposed royal family. It's not a particularly noteworthy scene, except in that it was the first to include an invented or constructed language....

  • My feminist icon isn't Beyonce, it's a bruised-up backpacker

    My feminist icon isn't Beyonce, it's a bruised-up backpacker

    It wasn’t long ago that feminists were ostracized activists viewed as nothing more than man haters. But thanks to years of work and the recognition from a few key figures, pop culture has finally embraced the notion of gender equality.

Comments
Loading
86°