Playboy Bunnies: Hollywood's Vision of Female Empowerment?

Fast in the wake of the success of "Mad Men," AMC's retro series on the advertising industry circa 1965, come two new period series for the fall season: "The Playboy Club" on NBC and "Pan Am" on ABC.

What these two new series have in common is the insistence by their producers that when you eliminate the girdles, the cleavage and the bunny dips, the shows are really about women's empowerment.

That sound you hear is the two of us choking on our morning Starbucks.

Let's review: women called Bunnies, wearing rabbit ears and cotton tails, and stewardesses subjected to regular weigh-ins and tight undergarments? Both the subjects of drooling men? This is Hollywood's vision of empowered women?

Don't get us wrong. We like "Mad Men" as much as the next sixties geeks. And we are the first to admit that the men of Sterling Cooper are hideously misogynistic. But the women -- Peggy, who pushed her way to become the firm's first woman copywriter, and Joan, often the brains of the outfit -- make their way with their smarts rather than their sexuality.

Back to these new shows: We see a difference between a period piece that portrays the way things were for women -- versus the proclamation that what looks like heavy-duty sexism is really female empowerment.

What it really is is backlash.

"The Playboy Club" (tagline: "Where men hold the key but women run the show") revolves around a bunny who becomes involved with a high-powered attorney who gets her out of a jam. "Pan Am" (tagline: "They do it all and they do it at 30,000 feet") is about the glory days of air travel, when pilots were Men-with-a-capital-M and stewardesses were every businessman's, um, fantasy.

Both shows have come up against intense criticism (making for an unusual alliance between feminists and conservatives, an NBC affiliate in Utah has refused to air "The Playboy Club" and feminist icon Gloria Steinem has called for a boycott of the show), which has led to ridiculous statements by the two shows' producers. "Playboy Club" producer Chad Hodge told Contra Costa Times, "The show is all about empowerment and who these women can be, and how they can use the club to be anyone they want."

According to TV/Line, "Pan Am" executive producer Nancy Holt Ganis -- who herself was a Pan Am stewardess during the era depicted in the show -- explains that this is what life was actually like for these women, who were, she said, admirably regarded as "hostesses at a dinner party... a movable feast."

"Part of the irony of the profession," creator and producer Jack Orman reportedly said of 60s stewardesses, is that "these are college-educated women who [often] spoke multiple languages," and yet they were still subjected to physical scrutiny to land the job.

TV/Line quotes executive producer, Thomas Schlamme, "For me, the show could be called The Best Years of Our Lives, because for those people, at that moment, that what this is. And that's what the show's about."

Really? We'd prefer to give the last words to Gloria Steinem, who we're guessing would heartily disagree. Steinem, who is the subject of an upcoming HBO documentary entitled "Gloria: In Her Own Words," went undercover as a Playboy Bunny during the 1960s for a magazine expose. At the Summer TV Press Tour, she was asked her thoughts about these two new shows. Here's what she said, according to the Washington Post:

"Are they aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or are they really showing the problems of the past in order to show we have come forward? Somehow I think the shows are not doing that," Steinem said, noting wryly that when times get tough, the "white male response" tends to swing to either sadomasochism -- or nostalgia.

Recently, she told Reuters that the Playboy Club was "the tackiest place on earth":

"When I was working there and writing the expose, one of the things they had to change because of my expose was that they required all the Bunnies, who were just waitresses, to have an internal exam and a test for venereal disease," she said.

Earlier, in an interview for the current issue of Interview magazine, Maria Shriver asked Steinem whether she was glad she had done the Playboy expose in the first place. She said that at first she wasn't, and in fact returned an advance she'd received to turn the magazine piece into a book. But ultimately, she said:

... feminism did make me realize that I was glad I did it -- because I identified with all the women who ended up an underpaid waitress in too-high heels and a costume that was too tight to breathe in. Most were just trying to make a living and had no other way of doing it. I'd made up a background as a secretary, and the woman who interviewed me asked, "Honey, if you can type, why would you want to work here?" In the sense that we're all identified too much by our outsides instead of our insides and are mostly in underpaid service jobs, I realized we're all Bunnies -- so yes, I'm glad I did it.

She didn't mention whether she felt empowered when she was doing the bunny dip. We suspect her answer would have been no.