I haven’t actually seen The Playboy Club (though I’ve got a request in to NBC for screeners), but it strikes me that Gloria Steinem’s call for a boycott of the show on the grounds that it romanticizes a place she found to be sexist and unglamorous is overblown. The network’s decision to sell the show as a parable of women’s empowerment also seems to be overstating the case — in part because I don’t think it’s necessary.
The very thing that’s interesting about the sexual revolution is that it’s contradictory, right? Getting to a place where your sexuality isn’t your father’s to withhold or give away, and where the way you dress and present yourself is governed by your preferences rather than by norms of what’s appropriate is an important first step. But it doesn’t mean you can’t be sexually harassed, or misinterpreted, or end up in a liberation movement where you’re told that your role is to provide sexual comfort for the men leading it. What’s interesting about the ’60s is the process people went through over and over again, whether they thought they’d escaped sexism, or racism, or homophobia, only to find that they hadn’t, and that they had to try in new and different ways to build a more perfect world.
It’s entirely possible both that the women of The Playboy Club thought that setting themselves up as sexual icons, and that they could be harassed and humiliated on the job. In fact, the first big plot arc of the show, in which Amber Heard accidentally kills a customer who tries to sexually assault her, looks like it’s pretty squarely situated in just that dilemma (even if the death itself is of the One Tree Hill Dog Ate My Heart Transplant variety):
And perhaps more to the point, I don’t think Steinem has to worry. This is a show that posits Eddie Cibrian as a poor man’s Jon Hamm. I’m not particularly worried that it’s going to garner a lot of viewers and critical acclaim and stick around for a long time.