The Parents Television Council has to be one of the smartest outfits in Washington. They’re incredibly good at identifying winning controversies, even if they’re not necessarily right on the merits. And it looks like their latest scalp might end up being NBC’s The Playboy Club. PTC’s been targeting the show for months, and now they’ve announced that seven advertisers have pulled out of The Playboy Club, theoretically in response to PTC’s call for a boycott. There’s no question that such a move would make sense given the show’s dismal ratings. And while PTC is right that the show has, in the words of PTC’s president, Tim Winter, been “a commercial disaster,” I think he’s wrong to call the show a “degrading and sexualizing program.”
I don’t think that being a Playboy Bunny was inherently liberating, and I think it was a mistake for the network and the show’s creators to sell it that way over the summer. It was a ridiculous claim, and easy for the show’s opponents to debunk. But showing women being super-empowered all of the time isn’t the only way to make a feminist show. And while The Playboy Club has some contradictory elements and mixed messages, I think that on balance, the show does more to display the evils of sexism than it does to promote them.
There’s no question that, at least in the pilot, The Playboy Club was still trying to sell the idea that being a Playboy Bunny was, well, the Hef’s pajamas—glamorous and liberating all at once. Voiceovers from Hugh Hefner in that episode insisted that the Bunnies were super-liberated, even as the actual events of the show insisted, they were still quite vulnerable. In the world of the show, whatever the Bunnies might have believed about their jobs, they were still vulnerable to clients who assumed they were prostitutes, powerful figures who sexually harassed or assaulted them on the job, men who didn’t want to promote them, and rigid standards for their self-presentation enforced by other women. And outside the club, the characters have boyfriends who want them to quit, abusive ex-husbands they’re in hiding from, or sham marriages to help them hide their sexual orientation. The Bunnies may get excited about the chance to be on the cover of Playboy, but the $2,000 that comes with the career opportunity is also a big deal. They may live in a swanky dorm, but they’re still grown women who can’t afford or aren’t allowed to have their own apartments.
This, as with The House Bunny, a charming Anna Faris vehicle about a former Playboy Bunny from 2008, doesn’t really do much to make the case that it was awesome to be one of Hef’s girls, now or then. Maybe being harassed was worth it if the money let you hide from a husband you couldn’t divorce. Maybe selling your sex appeal was worth the chance to become the first person in your family to own property in a gentrified Chicago neighborhood. In its clumsy way, The Playboy Club has made these dilemmas clear. The show isn’t good. With the ratings it’s getting it’s probably going to be cancelled. And the PTC will be able to claim a huge scalp out of it. But when The Playboy Club dies it’ll be because it’s a not very well-written, and often badly-acted television show, not because it glamorizes Bunnydom, or because it’s sexist.