Women as Bunnies: TV Falls Back

While the new fall television lineup is showcasing plenty of strong women – including Christina Applegate, Zooey Deschanel, Debra Messing, Chelsea Handler, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Kristin Chenoweth – there’s an undercurrent of anti-feminist backlash – which is oddly pitched as feminist.

We’ve got Charlies Angels, who are all wet within the first 15 minutes.

Pan Am offers a throwback to air travel’s “‘good old days’ when women didn’t sit in First Class, they just served men who did,” observed New York Times’ Maureen Dowd. Stewardesses strut, Stepford style, “Uniform in every sense of the word. Young, pretty, thin and unmarried, well-groomed and white-gloved… and offering blank smiles of compliance,” says Caitlin Flanagan at the Wall Street Journal.

Not unlike the bunnies who populate The Playboy Club, a show pitched as being all about female empowerment. That’s right. Scantily clad in painful costumes, living in a world where women seemingly exist for the sole purpose of arousing men and being ogled by them. But that’s not demeaning, the producers insist. They’re bunnies, not centerfolds – as though that marks an important difference. Meanwhile the bunnies nakedly play in a pool as men watch them “as if at SeaWorld, only much, much better.”

One observer asked, “Is there something just a little weird about women objectifying themselves (and other women) in the name of empowerment?”

Men are subject. Women, object. Men are human. Women are bunnies, who sometimes reemerge as sea life. Dowd quotes one TV producer describing it all as:

A hot fudge sundae for men: a time when women were not allowed to get uppity or make demands. If the woman got pregnant, she had to drive to a back-alley abortionist in New Jersey. If you got tired of women, they had to go away.

Female empowerment, indeed.

When The Playboy Club’s star bunny was asked at press conference how the show empowered women, she supposed, “It’s just chauvinistic to deny women their sexuality.” But does this show encourage women’s sexual enjoyment, or are they primarily objects in service of others’ desire?

Sold as female empowerment, the shows serve up a subversive message.

Still, the fact that these programs are even posing as feminist suggests we’ve come a long way, baby!

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on September 14, 2011, in feminism, gender, objectification, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Pan Am and The Playboy Club portray life in the 50’s,60’s,70’s, it won’t make sense if we saw those women any other way when in public. This is one of those situations that I think you have to watch the show in order to judge it, it doesn’t seem like you did that, you just took the reviews and ran with it. I love both of those shows and I will tell you why. Pan Am and The Playboy Club do show a lot of half clothed women but it also shows their struggles and what they have to overcome as women in that era. Each girl has a specific story and when you follow them you don’t only see how many different things women had to deal with but also how strong they have to be in order to get through it. They act with poise and are totally fearless. If I had young girls I would absolutely want them to see these shows. In Pan Am Kate is an informant for the US Government during the Cold War. She has tasks all over the world that seems impossible and you want to know how she is going to get out of things. She’s cunning and independent. All of the stewardess’ had to be bilingual, and a lot spoke three languages, which just proves how hard it was to become one. I asked my mom about being a Pan Am stewardess and if she ever wanted to be one. You know what she said to me? “Those were the independent women that wanted more than what their lives were offering them. They were the cream of the crop and had to prove themselves time and again. It was the ultimate customer service.”
    I think we take for granted that being a stewardess, or a bunny, in today’s society has a negative, or trashy, connotation, but back then? Step back because if you had one of these jobs it showed that you wanted to go somewhere, you wanted to be someone, and you were willing to work for it. So although it seems like these shows have set feminists back in their goals please watch them before you also lay judgment. You might be surprised.

    • Television show reviews always come out before the series start. And since I wasn’t handed a DVD by the producers to actually watch them beforehand I reported on the consensus of reviewers. Which were unanimous.

      The shows can still be argued as holding feminism back because while they were ahead of their time then, they are behind the times for now, and often glamorizing that behind-the-timesness.

      Though I’m glad to hear that Pan Am so far has been better than its pilot.

      Hope you feel better soon.

  2. Well, two of the three shows you mentioned were cancelled pretty quickly, so at least some aspect of them wasn’t very pleasing to viewers. I will admit that I have seen every episode of Pan Am and have thoroughly enjoyed them. I’m glad that I read this post though because I’ll constantly be thinking about how the women are portrayed in this show from now on. I find the descriptions written in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal very superficial and misleading of what actually goes on in the show. Though these stewardesses are supposed to be seen this way by the public, the show makes it pretty clear that not every woman offers a “blank smile of compliance”. Take for example, the scene where Christina Ricci’s character stabs a man who went far beyond cossing the line by trying to touch her. She did barely poke him with a fork and was forced to keep quiet about it after, but this issue definitely left Ricci’s character furious and left a bitter taste in my mouth, which I feel was part of the intent of putting the scenario in the show. What actually goes on in their lives is both a revolt and internal struggles against the ideals and norms that women were expected to live by in the 1960s and perhaps even today (because it would be terribly wrong and inaccurate to say that women don’t exeperience oppression in some form almost everywhere they go in the present day). After reading your blog post, I won’t just daydream about the beautiful make-up and hair styles or the lovely dresses and gowns while I’m watching Pan Am. I’ll start thinking about what messages the show is sending about middle and upper class women in the 1960s. These women were clearly more priveleged than others of their generation and time and it’s interesting to see how they dealt with their social status and how their expereinces are different and similar to women in the present day. Thanks for your post!

  3. There was a documentary I saw on Travel Channel about the whole Stewardesses culture & thinking. Weight & height restrictions, no glasses, no speech problems, age limits, etc. To say nothing of passengers & flight crews hitting on them. This documentary also commented how “Stepford” style they had to be, as well. Groan.

    The mindset that helped to keep shows like “Baywatch” going is still entrenched in society.

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