Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Bunnies and buzzwords

In which our Diva is officially tired of the word "empowerment"

In the wake of The Playboy Club's moment in the spotlight at the annual Television Critics Association press tour, debate is bouncing around the internet about just what the show means. Personally, I think what it means is really damn complicated, and that's exactly what I like about it. Is what I'm about to say colored by the fact that the show is being produced in Chicago and employing some of my friends and colleagues? Probably. But that's not the only reason I want it to be good and do well.

Some people, notably Melissa Silverstein over at the indispensible Women and Hollywood, have zeroed in on the comments by cast members asserting that the position of their characters is proto-feminist and "progressive."  There's more skepticism about this than I think the the comments actually warrant, though Silverstein is right that Amber Heard's attempt to explain her position didn't quite say what I think she intended it to. From my vantage point, sandwiched between Heard's generation and Gloria Steinem's, I can see both perspectives, and where and how they're missing each other. I've never hesitated to call myself a feminist, but it's not hard to see why many younger women do, and it's not quite the reason I've often seen put forth by their elders. Not so much that they think it entails various other political baggage, but that they have been repeatedly told that it does.

If I'm honest, I have to say I have more sympathy for those young women's position, because I've listened to those who paved the way before me, and heard how often what they have to say sounds an awful lot like "We didn't fight for your right to make your own choices just to have you make the WRONG choices!" How it sounds like going any way but theirs makes you an ungrateful wretch who's setting The Entire Cause Of Women back by decades. Think that sounds melodramatic? Check out the three, count 'em, three indignant comments on the W&H post by judybrowni, who apparently considers childish namecalling to be the appropriate response here. There is no quicker way to send my estimation of you into the toilet than to call any other woman a "bimbo" -- hey, how about throwing in "whore" or "witch" while you're at it? -- and tossing in "know-nothing" and "anorexic" (people still think that's okay? seriously?) into the bargain, along with rampant ageism and repeated implications that acting  isn't "real work" (And what possesses people from various walks of life to tell people from other walks of life that what they do for a living is invalid? It never, ever fails to sound petty and foolish.), pretty much seals the deal.

But I digress. I do think Heard's statement, as quoted in the post, was ill-chosen, and the whole spin of "it's all about empowerment" (although, has anyone from NBC actually used that overworked word, or is it coming from the press? h/t to Mizzelle for confirmation, via this NPR article, that yes, it seems to have started with executive producer Chad Hodge) is ill-advised. And Silverstein is right that the spin is what it's about at this stage of the game, but I'm a bit baffled as to why she -- who writes compellingly about the industry every day, and knows how the spin works and how little it often has to do with the actual product -- seems to be letting it color her impression of the show so much. I doubly scratched my head at this:
Me thinks this young woman better have a damn good show or she should just shut the fuck up and admit she’s on a show that’s about women wearing bunny costumes trying to get by in the world where it was really difficult for single women to get jobs that would pay a decent wage.  You see if they framed it that way, I could potentially be interested.
I... really don't understand how that's not what's being said. I honestly don't. That's exactly the impression I get from the interview videos on NBC's website, and at the Twitter stream from the press conference, and NBC's own description of the show as "a sophisticated series about the transitional times of the early 1960s and the complex lives of a group of working-class women."

One of the places I've seen that last quote is in this article over at Fangirltastic, in which regular contributor Theron expresses skepticism that the show will ultimately prove to be anything more than a standard-issue prime-time soap. She also touches on the much-publicized call to boycott by the Parents Television Council. And while I'm skeptical of the PTC's "Playboy = pornography = unalloyed evil" position, it has raised in advance issues that are relevant, and which seem like they will actually be part of the show. I've seen several comments in various places pointing out the tendency of many people to conflate Bunnies (hostesses/servers in the Playboy Clubs) with Playmates (nude models in the magazine). With this important distinction in mind, I was struck in the trailer by Brenda (Naturi Naughton) bluntly and proudly declaring her ambition to be "the first chocolate centerfold."  There are multiple thorny issues wrapped up in that one line -- the divide between Bunny and Playmate and what it means when one woman sees the first as a stepping stone to the second; our culture's unsettled relationship with a woman who chooses to trade on her sexuality as a commodity; the fetishization of race. (The last is particularly interesting in light of the way Naughton has embraced the "chocolate Bunny" label in her own press statements.)

"You're either the living, breathing fantasy that is the Playboy Bunny," admonishes senior Bunny Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), "or you're not." Hugh Hefner tweeted earlier this evening, "Was being a Playboy Club Bunny in the 1960s empowering or exploitation? Why not ask the original Bunnies themselves? They'll tell you."

I don't have one to ask, but it seems to me the only honest answer is "both." That's certainly what I'm looking forward to in the show, based on the glimpses NBC has given us. And if that seems nostalgic or irrelevant, take a look at this photo from NBC's mock Playboy Club at the recent San Diego Comic Con, of a Bunny flanked by two Tilted Kilt servers. Time warp, anyone?

So, bottom line: We're looking at a show about a very messy and complicated time and place for women. At least, I hope that's what they'll let it be. Because the messy and the complicated haven't entirely left us, and that's the story I'm interested in seeing.