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Final Insult: Before Cancellation Playboy Club Rewrites Steinem History

Final Insult: Before Cancellation Playboy Club Rewrites Steinem History
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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 This is great for marketing but terrible for drama, especially with a message that is about 40 years out of date.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.

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Photos courtesy of NBC Playboy Club website

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7:49PM PDT on Nov 5, 2011

Yeah this is ridiculous...I really liked the show,,,very intriging and interesting, I do not see what the uproar is all about,,,jeeezzz its television and if you do not like it,,,turn it off....

8:28AM PDT on Oct 15, 2011

I actually liked this show. The focus on gays and lesbians in the mid 1960s was very refreshing. Hope Bravo picks it up.

2:33AM PDT on Oct 14, 2011

I was hoping it would be in the "Mad Men" line of showing the misogyny of the period and was looking forward to it coming to Netflix where I could see it (no TV). Sad to hear this is the take it tried to present. Of course, given that the Hef is still alive, I can see why. Sad. I had avoided watching "Mad Men" for that reason, but was pleased to see it as a more accurate portrayal of the lives of women - and how everybody suffered from it.

9:51AM PDT on Oct 13, 2011

Glad to see the end of that trashy show....

6:07AM PDT on Oct 13, 2011

lindsey d
you are using an anti-feminist blog as your source,
which is problematic.
and as i said, wife beating was not illegal. one could beat ones wife with impunity, as long as the husband did not break her bones. it was considered only illegal to injure her permanently. as to the laws - as was stated before, the laws only applied to broken bones or permanent disfigurement, and in all other cases of battery, did not apply. which means beating your wife WAS NOT ILLEGAL. only beating her until her bones broke was.
should i restate it again?

5:29AM PDT on Oct 13, 2011

I personally boycotted the show!

4:54AM PDT on Oct 13, 2011

"....In America, there have been laws against wife beating since before the Revolution. By 1870, it was illegal in almost every state; but even before then, wife-beaters were arrested and punished for assault and battery. The historian and feminist Elizabeth Pleck observes in a scholarly article entitled "Wife-Battering in Nineteenth-Century America": It has often been claimed that wife-beating in nineteenth-century America was legal... Actually, though, several states passed statutes legally prohibiting wife-beating; and at least one statute even predates the American Revolution. The Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibited wife-beating as early as 1655. The edict states: "No man shall strike his wife nor any woman her husband on penalty of such fine not exceeding ten pounds for one offense, or such corporal punishment as the County shall determine...."

4:53AM PDT on Oct 13, 2011

Alex, I repeat your earlier statement: "we know that raping your wife was not considered a crime, nor was beating her. it didn't become illegal in Canada until 1985, and not in the US until the 90's."

First you say that beating one's wife wasn't illegal until the 1990's in the U.S. Now you're trying to backtrack somewhat but are still wide off the mark. You are trying unsuccessfully to generalize. The U.S. has a multitude of states with a multitude of laws concerning assault. And merely because in some cases police ignored the law doesn't mean the law didn't exist or that it wasn't enforced in other cases.

4:38AM PDT on Oct 13, 2011

in 1874, the North Carolina Supreme Court nullified a husband’s right to chastise his wife “under any circumstances.” But the law included, “if no permanent injury has been inflicted, nor malice, cruelty, nor dangerous violence shown by the husband, it is then better to draw the curtains, shut out the public gaze, and leave the parties to forgive and forget.”
this was considered the standard for response until strict laws with actual penalties were passed in the 80's and 90's.
if the woman had no broken bones and was not scarred, it was considered that no law had been broken. beating your wife until she bruised was considered incorrect, but was ignored by police, and thrown out of court by judges.
as to the rape ; several countries in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia made spousal rape illegal before 1970, but other countries in Western Europe and the English-speaking Western World outlawed it much later, mostly in the 1980s and 1990s. some states in the US did not outlaw it until 2000 or later.

4:32AM PDT on Oct 13, 2011

@Lindsay D
as i studied them for three years, i feel i am on firm ground here.
in the sixties, in the US, a "sufficient number of beatings" had to be proven before the husband was convicted. beatings that did not break bones or leave scars were considered "trifling matters" and ignored. cops who visited domestic violence scenes were told to talk the couple through it, not arrest anyone. in the late sixties beatings became grounds for divorce, but the plaintiff had to prove that there were "enough" beatings, and that they were "severe enough". earlier on, domestic violence cases are taken only in Civil court - where there were no serious punishments, and where the majority of cases were thrown out by Judges as being "private matters". in the 70's, battered women who left their husbands were denied welfare due to their husband's income. this happened in Chicago and many other major cities.
in Minnesota it wasn't until 1979 that any law was passed that had a penalty for wife beating. in 1982 the supreme court refuse a woman damages for her beatings because they "didn't want to disturb the peace of a happy home".
in 1874, the North Carolina Supreme Court nullified a husband’s right to chastise his wife “under any circumstances.” But the law included, “if no permanent injury has been inflicted, nor malice, cruelty, nor dangerous violence shown by the husband, it is then better to draw the curtains, shut out the public gaze, and leave the parties to forgive

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