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 This is great for marketing but terrible for drama, especially with a message that is about 40 years out of date.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.
Photos courtesy of NBC Playboy Club website
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