In a way, it’s too bad NBC’s much-hyped Playboy Club was unceremoniously dumped after merely three episodes. True, the writing was awful and the concept controversial, but for a minute there it brought on a serious conversation about how women are depicted on TV, and about the meaning of our newfound nostalgia for days when women were just starting to find their way into the workplace.
Indeed, NBC’s struggle to frame a titillating show about Chicago’s Playboy Club in the early 1960s as a tale of female empowerment was doomed from the start. You can try being all things to all people, but that doesn’t mean anyone is going to buy it. The contrived effort started with Hugh Hefner’s voiceover calling his Playboy Bunnies “some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be.” Some Bunnies in the series sought escape from a checkered past and a chance for reinvention. Others sought “bigger dreams.” Brenda hoped to defy segregation by becoming the first African-American centerfold, and Alice used her salary to support a nascent gay-rights organization. Judging by NBC’s promotions on the eve of the new season, the series was a veritable ode to the civil rights movement.
Playboy Club was not alone in exploring women’s lives in the early ’60s. ABC’s Pan Am, a tale of globe-trotting stewardesses courting adventure and dabbling in espionage, is still flying on Sunday night, although this period drama too is slipping in the ratings. And of course AMC’s Mad Men, soon to enter its fifth season, purportedly started the trend with its more nuanced depiction of gender roles on Madison Avenue. While Playboy Club and Pan Am emphasize the dreams and desires of young women in the pre-feminist era, they often give short shrift to the real struggles working women faced. The Playboy Club’s utter lack of authenticity stemmed from its failure to engage with legacies of economic and sexual exploitation. Pan Am suffers from a similar jet-age glamorization that gets in the way of truthful storytelling.
What’s interesting about these two fall network series is that instead of harkening back to the reality of their period, they are an exercise in nostalgia for much older myths about women’s work. After all, Pan Am is building upon established stereotypes of the female flight attendant. Sixties media portrayed stewardesses as adventurous, romantic, and sexually desirable–the 1963 film Come Fly with Me and the 1967 best-selling book Coffee, Tea, or Me? are two key examples. Pan Am’s ensemble cast and cinematic quality also evoke The Best of Everything, a 1959 film in which young women pursue publishing careers and affairs in lieu of early marriage. Meanwhile, The Playboy Club followed the formula of Valley of the Dolls, a less celebratory 1967 movie in which ambitious women pursue showbiz dreams, indulge petty rivalries, and make moral compromises. Sixties films about single working women were extremely moralistic: Characters risked lifelong spinsterhood for daring to pursue careers, and their sexual experimentation often led to ruin or death. The Playboy Club and Pan Am aren’t nearly as heavy-handed, but they do depict liberated women as vulnerable to heartbreak and violence.
Pan Am and The Playboy Club tell a classic tale–a small-town girl leaves for the city, dreaming of stardom and adventure. In Playboy, Maureen traded family life in Fort Wayne for independence in Chicago. In Pan Am, sheltered Laura flees her own wedding for a chance to see the world as a stewardess. Both women quickly make their mark: Laura graces the cover of Life magazine, while Maureen was handpicked by Hefner to pose for Playboy’s cover. Despite their iconic status, these characters were atypical for the early 1960s, a time when the average American woman married by age 21. Social and economic barriers kept most women from living the life depicted in these dramas. Dominant sexual mores mandated that young women preserve their chastity for marriage, and single women who pursued affairs risked being labeled poor marriage prospects or, worse yet, mentally ill. Working women faced low wages and limited career options, typically finding menial jobs through classified ads labeled “Female Help Wanted.” On average, an American woman earned 59 cents for every dollar her male counterpart earned in 1963. Given these limited options, being a stewardess was a coveted career because it involved exotic travel alongside the exploitation.
In the first episode of Pan Am, stewardess Bridget fails to show up for work, causing pilots to speculate that she’s newly married–a professional fate worse than no other since flight attendants were often fired if they married or turned 32, an industry practice that conveniently denied women career advancement or retirement benefits. In real life, of course, unions and feminist groups fought diligently throughout the decade to repeal the airlines’ policies–eventually succeeding by the late 1960s.
Airlines also offered irregular hours and paltry pay. In Pan Am, bohemian Maggie agrees to work at the last minute and is flown to the airport by helicopter. While the series presents Maggie’s life as one of whirlwind excitement, we should remember that stewardesses earned part-time salaries but were expected to work at a moment’s notice; mandatory expenses such as uniforms were deducted from their wages.
Perhaps most troubling is the way both series treat sexuality. In the days before sexual harassment was a legal concept, flight attendants routinely faced unwanted advances from pilots and passengers, an environment encouraged by the airlines through increasingly racy advertising and skimpy costumes. Strict monitoring of flight attendants’ weight and appearance placed emphasis on their sexual desirability rather than their professional safety knowledge, an aspect only briefly addressed in Pan Am.
However, Pan Am does tackle sexual harassment head-on in its second episode. An obnoxious drunk passenger leers at flight attendant Maggie, eventually cornering her as she serves dinner. She stabs his hand with a fork, growling, “I am not included in the price of your ticket,” and later tells off her pilot for excusing the man’s boorish behavior. In the very next episode, however, Maggie freely flirts with passengers and uses her sexual charms to gain access to President Kennedy, making light of her sexualized career role. Pan Am’s pilots also flirt with stewardesses, but the affections are framed as consensual romances. The series suggests that flight attendants wielded sexual power–and that harassment was a rarity rather than a routine occurrence.
The Playboy Club similarly raised and deflected the prospect of sexual violence, as Bunny Maureen was nearly raped at the beginning of the pilot episode. In an act of self-defense, she killed her attacker with a jab of her spiked heel; a club member helped cover up the crime. However, because her assailant was a mob boss, Maureen was more concerned with dodging the mafia than any emotional, physical, or legal aftermath of attempted rape. The truth is American women in the 1960s had no legal recourse against sexual assault; the courts would assume Maureen invited the attack. In fact, in several publicized 1970s cases, single women faced more blame than sympathy when they were violently assaulted by their dates.
In the third and final episode of The Playboy Club, a lanky journalist goes undercover as a Bunny, gathers gossip, and writes a front-page article about murder and political corruption within the Playboy Club. “Bunny Mother” Carol-Lynne accuses the reporter of betraying the women’s trust to sell papers–the club, she claims, is a sisterhood of ambitious, hardworking women, but that’s not the kind of story that sells. The “Undercover Bunny” episode is a not-so-subtle jab at Gloria Steinem, who famously exposed the Playboy clubs’ exploitative nature as an undercover reporter in 1963.
In contrast to The Playboy Club, AMC’s Mad Men more accurately represents the misogyny of early 1960s popular culture. The series may inspire nostalgia for mod fashions, male camaraderie, boozing it up at the office and the fast-paced world of ’60s advertising, but it also reminds us of the indignities female employees faced at every turn. Single woman Peggy Olson, for example, is promoted from secretary to copy editor but is denied the wages and respect that her less talented male colleagues take for granted. Saucy secretary Joan Holloway may wield sexual power in some instances, but she also suffers sexual harassment and date rape.
What may be most chilling about Mad Men is the loneliness of the women’s struggle to find their way. There is very little rousing solidarity here. When Peggy uses her newfound power in the office to fire a copy editor for drawing obscene pictures of Joan–a scene that would have called for some triumphant bonding over on network TV land–a wary Joan shows little appreciation, saying she would have handled the matter differently and that all Peggy has accomplished is to show “that I am a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.”
While Pan Am and The Playboy Club minimize or ignore the struggles ’60s women faced, Mad Men endures precisely because it dares to address this painful, raw past. But it endures in the rarefied world of cable dramas that are culturally significant but watched by relatively few Americans. Such honesty on primetime network TV, alas, remains elusive.
Katherine J. Lehman is the author of the new book Those Girls: Single Women in Sixties and Seventies Popular Culture (University Press of Kansas). She is an assistant professor of communications at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.
*Photo courtesy of megpi.