Fall TV: Equality for women will not be televised

(RNN) - This season's network television landscape is going retro, taking its cues from both the Mad Men craze and the bawdy sexiness of reality TV. But don't look to your television set to offer much in the way of unobjectified female role models.

The big trends this fall in TV-land focus on good-looking women from shows set in the 1960s, to single 20-somethings trying to make their way in the world. Oh, and women dressed in bunny costumes to the delight of the white males around them.

Worst of the worst

Getting the most heat this season is The Playboy Club, in trouble with the female set for objectifying women and setting them back to a time before the feminist movement.

The show has stirred up more controversy than the other new shows this season, offending Bunnies and professors alike. Playboy, as a brand, has a reputation for being less than family friendly, and the show isn't much different.

Former Playboy Bunny Marilyn Miller worked in the Chicago, L.A. and New York clubs. In an interview with Vanity Fair, she says the only truthful part of the show is the setting itself.

"They did a wonderful job re-creating the club physically, but everything else …"

She said many of the racy scenes, including one of a Bunny having sex in the bathroom, would never have happened. Bunnies weren't allowed to date key holders. In fact, the men weren't allowed to touch the women at all.

Accuracy aside, the intellectuals and critics agree the show offers little to tune in for.

"It was badly acted, had a dreadful script and a complete refusal to engage in women's lives during the period," said Dr. Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College in Boston.

Despite the multitude of female characters, the show appears to be directed solely at white men. According to Dines, the show evokes an era outside the current economic hardships, a time when white men didn't face so much competition from other groups, such as women or blacks.

Hugh Heffner, who narrates the first episode, "is mischaracterized all the time as supporting women's rights, or trying to change the  rules of society," said Dines.

In actuality, his magazine started out being more about articles than the well-known photo spreads. The magazine targeted post-World War II men, showing them how to become consumers and promoting an anti-female movement that started in the 1950s, Dines said.

Playboy taught men what to buy – clothes, cars, even ice buckets - and advertisers saw this as prime marketing material, a sort of a manual for the demographic, she said.

The flip-side

Pan Am is a different story, however.

On the surface, the new show appears to be bout a group of attractive women. It's actually about women trying to break out of their assigned societal roles.

In the 1960s, becoming a flight attendant was a way to escape from a world where women had limited options. For the first time, women weren't looking to go from their parents' home to their husband's. They had college degrees and were getting a taste for a new, emerging movement that sought to bring equality to fairer gender.

The show's "female characters are much more interesting than its male ones," according to Brian Tallerico, from HollywoodChicago.com. "But I wouldn't go as far as to say that it's smart enough to be considered empowering. Maybe eventually."

Maybe: The show did get some history right. Pan Am stewardesses (a term that real Pan Am stewardesses prefer over the politically correct term, "flight attendant") were subjected to weight checks and required to wear girdles to keep an ideal feminine figure.

In an interview by AOL TV, a group of Pan Am stewardesses discussed their views of the new show. Most of the women found it accurate for the most part, except for fact that stewardesses were made to keep their hair above their shoulders.

"Indeed, little girls would look up to us and we could feel it, you know. And they would, actually, the mothers would come up to us and say, 'Can she talk to you?,'" said one of the former stewardesses.

Both shows are copycats of Mad Men, according to Tallerico, because "Everything that works gets copied." He admits both have mastered the swinging style, but "both shows are missing the most essential ingredient from their inspiration - realism."

Tallerico predicts The Playboy Club will be canceled in October, while Pan Am might fill a Sunday evening niche that boosted shows like Desperate Housewives to popularity. Pan Am, he believes, will at least last the season.


The sitcoms 2 Broke Girls and The New Girl take gender roles in a different direction.

In both shows, young white women find themselves dealing with bills and dating in the modern world. Even the show, Whitney, deals with familiar television fodder of long-term relationships, and the contrast between men and women.

The circumstances are relatable, and the characters are more empowering than their bunny counterparts by being closer to reality, according to Tallerico.

Still, the new shows this season don't offer a variety of female role models.

"There's no show about old women, women of color, with disabilities or poor women," said Dines. The new shows focus on specific women, and the others aren't represented anywhere.

Dines thinks American television has a "narrow image of women," and that most shows are just "here to sell a product. No one will look at an older woman that's overweight and think they need to spend money on A, B and C," said Dines.

The entertainment value of the shows, however, seems to overshadow the social implications. "Is it funny? Is it well-acted? Both of these shows are 'yes' for both questions and should do well," said Tallerico.

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