Bunnies, babies and broads: What is TV trying to tell us about women?

September 15, 2011

The possibly immortal Gloria Steinem, now 77, sat on a stage at a Beverly Hills, Calif., hotel one afternoon this summer and took questions from TV critics about a range of random topics. The occasion was a biographical HBO documentary about Steinem’s life as a feminist but also her life in a particular brand of show business — public intellectual — in which she makes herself available to once again point out how badly the media and entertainment industries portray women.

Naturally, someone had to know: Gloria, what do you think of “The Playboy Club,” the new show on NBC, set in 1963?

She’d heard of it — being as her writing career took off when she went undercover as a bunny in one of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs and wrote about the deplorable working conditions. Steinem was reserving judgment until she saw it. “Are they aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or are they really showing the problems of the past in order to show we have come forward?” she wondered, correctly surmising the former. In tough times (tough economies), she said, people tend to seek solace in glossy paeans to yesteryear.

Later, Steinem apparently watched “The Playboy Club” pilot, which, among its other throwback (and throw-up) moments that aggrandize that place and that time, includes a line in which a male character tells another: “You’re the only man I know who puts his hand up a girl’s skirt looking for a dictionary.”

Steinem issued this raspberry via an interview with Reuters: “Clearly ‘The Playboy Club’ is not going to be accurate. It was the tackiest place on Earth. It was not glamorous at all. . . . I hope people boycott [the show]. It’s just not telling the truth about the era.”

* * *

Lasting heartbreak awaits anyone who looks to TV shows to tell the truth about much, but God bless Steinem for believing it can.

Truth, of course, is the opposite of the reason most of us watch TV. Digesting 27 of this fall’s new dramas and comedies over a few days of marathon watching has had the strange effect of turning me into even more of a sideline feminist, although I don’t know what to do with that or how to articulate it in a way that doesn’t quickly make me sound like I’m doing Steinem drag.

On the plus side, women write and produce and star in more TV than ever. But if the only women you ever saw were those on these shows, you would have a hard time believing that a liberation movement had ever occurred.

It’s all bunnies, baby dolls and broads — and bridezillas and bimbos, if you get into reality TV. It’s still giggles and jiggles.

My, the jiggles. This season’s uncalled-for retread of “Charlie’s Angels” (co-produced by Drew Barrymore yet entirely absent the ironic panache of her 2000 big-screen version) brings the word “jiggle” back into play, though with the 21st century’s predilection for gymnastics and martial arts. This has the effect of making the jiggle seem more lithe and elegant, but it’s not the curves that have gone jello-esque — it’s the brain stem. How is it possible that a “Charlie’s Angels” in 2011 would make the “Charlie’s Angels” of 1976 look like Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”?

Whether fictional or quasi-real, TV’s women occupy a world of placation and sublimation through cupcakes and extreme couponing and physically impossible jujitsu. It’s Bravo’s “Housewives” threatening to ruin one another, egged on by fans. It’s a false sense of outspoken independence, shackled by beauty myths and the pretend liberation of promiscuity.

Many nights — save for those in which you encounter the rare sort of character seen in “The Good Wife” or “30 Rock,” or in Claire Danes’s role in Showtime’s new espionage thriller “Homeland” — you watch TV and sense that Steinem’s stone has rolled all the way back downhill. There is but one Alicia Florrick and one Liz Lemon and one Carrie Mathison (Danes’s character) unfairly burdened with the task of rolling the rock back up.

To be clear: This is a vastly mediocre fall TV season in every way, even after I graded it on a curve. It doesn’t do much for men or women (or dinosaurs). It’s a season filled with some zippy ideas that fizzle out within minutes of the first episodes. I expect a lot of quick cancellations.

But what is most striking about it — what critics and pop-culture observers have picked up on — is the surfeit of new shows about women. Others have dubbed it a victory, yet why do the women we meet depress me so? As I watched, the overriding question I’ve written in my notes is, often in exasperated all-caps, is simply this:

WHAT THE [EXPLETIVE] HAPPENED TO WOMEN?

To go with NBC’s bunnies, we have yesterday’s stewardesses in ABC’s attentively detailed but sorely mediocre “Pan Am.” Both shows clumsily reach for “Mad Men’s” coolly calibrated regard for the past, presenting themselves as tales of covert proto-feminism: By time-traveling backward, the premise seeks to upend the idea that women were ever truly oppressed. By serving cocktails for Hefner, women were in fact seizing their destinies. By serving cocktails for Pan Am, they were charting a course for tomorrow’s career women. Their hardships — girdle checks for the stewardesses in “Pan Am,” the squeeze of tighter, wire-framed bunny suits in “The Playboy Club” — are seen as so much light hazing in an endless initiation into a man’s world.

As Steinem noted, those shows are less about women and more about this era of nonstop nostalgia that we live in. Retro is an addiction that rages out of control in a recession; the more we drink it in — the more times we remake “Charlie’s Angels” or wish for a return of stewardesses and other clear-cut visual cues of gender rigidity — the less able we are to move forward and come up with our own ideas.

* * *

In related news, the laugh-getter this season is for a character to inform a man that he’s being so unmanly that he has acquired female genitalia. I’m not the only critic out there who received copies of the comedy pilots this summer and couldn’t resist counting the many jokes that use the word “vagina”; I quit after eight. I don’t know how much credit playwright Eve Ensler (“The Vagina Monologues”) can take for this, or if she’d want to.

“Whitney,”a much-promoted Thursday sitcom on NBC — created by and starring 29-year-old Whitney Cummings, who grew up in the Washington area and made her reputation with vicious comedy roast appearances — struggles to present us with a likable loudmouth and mostly fails to endear us to the character. Like comedian Sarah Silverman before her, Cummings tantalizes us with the notion of fearless and bawdy humor, free of the usual rhetoric of gender. It seeks to make obnoxiousness part of the cliche. Dragged to a wedding in the first episode (where she eventually consoles herself with that modern girl’s best friend, the gourmet cupcake), Whitney gains a fuller awareness that she and her long-term boyfriend remain proudly unmarried but nevertheless bored with one another in the bedroom, and so on.

On today’s sitcoms, the undercurrent of an imaginary gender war has broken banks and become a flood, dismantling social norms only to reconstruct them more rigidly in the last few moments of an episode. To further blur the role reversals, one of Whitney’s equally brash friends must mount a defense for wearing pants to the wedding, which goes like this: “Get off my [testicles],” she says, which is ironic/funny because she has none.

One show, apparently, cannot quite contain all of the vagina-related humor Cummings has to offer, which is why she co-created “2 Broke Girls,”which will air on CBS. Here, a disgraced debutante and an angry hipster become unlikely friends while working at a Brooklyn diner. Both shows act as a sort of epilogue to the mid-century women suffered in the era of “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am”: Whitney and the two broke girls could be the granddaughters of the bunnies and stewardesses, but I doubt the older generation would be all that impressed with what they call progress.

* * *

But I’ll take all of them over Zooey Des­chanel. Mere days after Steinem sat alone on that Beverly Hills hotel stage and assured confused scribes that she is fine with any young woman who is fine with herself and looks forward instead of looking back, Deschanel and the co-stars and creators of her migraine-making new Fox sitcom “New Girl” sat in the same spot and took softball questions. “When did you first realize you were adorable?” one reporter asked.

Adorkable is actually the word being proffered by Fox publicists. Deschanel plays the same character that has endeared her to a specific kind of mainstream/alternative market. She capitalizes on a lot of tee-hee and emotional fragility, with eyes as big as a kitsch painting of wildlife. It’s that whole flowery sundress, nerdy horn-rims, bicycle basket, put-a-bird-on-it tweeness of the forever child. Also, she records indie rock albums and makes a point of singing a lot in the new show — tra-la-la-la — which only makes it more awful.

When her character, Jess, answers an ad seeking a roommate in a houseful of bachelors, I started looking up the ages of the actors playing the characters: Although they are bestowed with lives and situations resembling 23-year-olds, their average age tops 30.

Zooey Deschanel is 31. She’s too old to act like this, in a show that calls her a girl. Once again, I scribble in my notes a variation on a theme: Whatever happened to women?

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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