Final Insult: Before Cancellation Playboy Club Rewrites Steinem History
by Rachel Larris, Women’s Media Center
Last Tuesday, NBC cancelled the Playboy Club after airing only three episodes, making it the first cancellation of the 2011-2012 season. In August after NBC announced its fall lineup Gloria Steinem, Co-Founder of the Women’s Media Center said she hoped people would boycott the show. “It’s just not telling the truth about the era.”
In response to the news of the show’s cancellation, Steinem today said:
That the Playboy Club TV series set a record for fast failure proves that you can’t lie to women about what was good for us in the past and what wasn’t. Mad Men tried to tell the truth, but the Playboy Club was history according to Hefner.
NBC had come under fire from both progressive feminist groups and conservative morality groups for its celebration of the Hugh Hefner brand. If the show had been a hit, NBC likely would have ignored any cultural or social criticism in favor of advertisers’ dollars, but after dismal ratings for the pilot episode, and successive episodes with even fewer viewers, they pulled out. (Although the show will remain in production till October 10 and there is potential for it to reemerge on cable.)
What probably doomed the TV show even more than the conservative groups is the real question of who the audience for such a show could have even been. It certainly wasn’t a show that would have appealed to most women who likely understood that despite the show’s über-text that PLAYBOY CLUB IS GOOD FOR WOMEN – this was a bill of goods. (During the only three episodes the show’s relentless sloganeering of the benefits of Playboy for women sometimes seemed more reminiscent of kids’ TV shows like Power Rangers than a sophisticated adult drama. Characters repeatedly told each carefully crafted talking points like “the Playboy Club empowers women” and “a Playboy Bunny is focuses on what she wants, not what men want..”) Clearly the show had some kind of ironclad agreement between the producers, Hugh Hefner, and Playboy Enterprises that neither the company nor Hef would ever be shown in an unflattering light. This is great for marketing but terrible for drama, especially with a message that is about 40 years out of date.
While Hef is now making noise that the show should have been on cable (where it would have had more license to show skin and sex) what both NBC and the Playboy Club producers failed to get is that what makes Mad Men work isn’t just that it’s set in the 1960s and it’s on cable. Mad Men is all about the subtext: ”nothing is as perfect as it seems,” not the situation for women, nor for people of color, not even for the Alpha men whose marriages fail because they aren’t equal partnerships. Meanwhile the Playboy Club was all about the text: ‘there’s NOTHING seedy or shady about women living in their employer’s house and working in the Playboy Club.” Apparently most of the Bunnies lived in the Playboy Mansion, danced half-naked only with other women, had lots of parties but were never pressured into having sex with Hef, his friends or anyone else. This version turned the Playboy Mansion into an anodyne sorority house with an off-screen father-figure. Did anyone swallow this version of history?
But we’d be remiss if we failed to mention that the last aired episode was the “Gloria Steinem” plot.
In a way, Gloria Steinem’s 1963 expose on her experience as a Playboy Bunny has cast a harsh pallor over the entire series. It was usually the first item mentioned when a TV critic wanted to compare the show’s treatment of Bunnies to Steinem’s experience.
“Doris:” the Gloria Steinem rewrite
So how did the show deal with this titular incident in Playboy history? It recast events to make the reporter into conniving schemer who printed lies and failed to see the glory of the Playboy Club’s benefit for women.
For those who didn’t see the episode (and it seems almost no one did): The episode titled “An Act of Simple Duplicity” featured a Bunny named Doris, who after only a few days turns out to have been a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. (Apparently “Doris” was terminally incompetent about her secret identity. She felt the need to meet with her editor, while in costume, right outside the club. She also carried a press badge in her purse. That might have seemed suspicious.)
While Doris certainly could have written about the Playboy Club’s gynecological exams for waitresses, what it felt like to work in 3-inch heels, or how well the Bunnies were actually treated by management, issues the actual Gloria Steinem article explored, the character in the show instead sneaks into the manager’s office, steals a bunch of HR files, and writes a story with the headline “Bloody Bunny: A Murder Tail.” (Yes, a real headline would use such puns.)
While the lead Bunny played by Amber Heard, is worried the article is about to expose that she accidentally killed a mob boss – something that happened in the pilot — it turns out another Bunny had a secret. Apparently many years ago she and her husband robbed stores and one time while driving away they ran over an old man. She got off lightly, but they locked up her husband, who she is now petrified will find out where she lives.
In the episode The Daily News promises that the following day the paper will reveal the name of the Bunny murderer (though it actually sounds more like a case of manslaughter). But no worries, Eddie Cibrian’s character, Nick Dalton, visits Doris at the paper. Despite the fact she says she has her facts down cold, Dalton says “murder is a specific legal term.” And the next scene is…Dalton meeting with all the Bunnies at the club saying the so-called murder was “sensational accident” and the paper has promised to print a “retraction and apology.” Really? Cause I think running an old man down while escaping from a robbery could be charged as murder or at least manslaughter. More importantly was NOTHING in Doris’s article accurate? Because even in 1961 papers pretty rarely issued retractions and apologies.
But let’s share the show’s moral lesson of Doris’s reporting when she returns to the club one last time to bring back her Bunny costume. Confronted by Carol Lynne the Bunny Mother, they share this piece of dialogue.
Carol Lynne: These are wonderful girls from all walks of life trying to go somewhere better. We give these girls a chance and I don’t know why you would want to destroy that.
Doris: I came here to find a big story. I thought this was the kind of place where terrible illicit things happened.
Carol: And instead you found a group of hard-working girls just trying to make a life for themselves – why don’t you write about that?
Doris: Because that kind of story doesn’t sell newspapers.
Carol: Maybe not but at least it’s the truth.
Moral of the story: reporters are ambitious, conniving people and they lie all the time just to sell papers. Also there was nothing newsworthy going on at the Playboy Club except “hard working girls.”
Goodbye Playboy Club. Thank god no one watched ‘ya.
Photos courtesy of NBC Playboy Club website