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 This is great for marketing but terrible for drama, especially with a message that is about 40 years out of date.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.

This post by Rachel Larris, first appeared on the site of the Women’s Media Center


Photos courtesy of NBC Playboy Club website


Sheree S.
Sheree S.6 years ago

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....

Anne P.
Anne P6 years ago

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

Lilithe Magdalene

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.

Linda B.
Linda Querel6 years ago

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

alex l.
alex l6 years ago

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?

Maureen North
Maureen North6 years ago

I personally boycotted the show!

Lindsey DTSW
.6 years ago

"....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...."

Lindsey DTSW
.6 years ago

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.

alex l.
alex l6 years ago

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.

alex l.
alex l6 years ago

@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