Guest Post: Retro-sexism: What’s the Allure? by Emilie Spiegel and Sarah Bloodsworth

by Melissa Silverstein
September 28, 2011 2:15 AM
8 Comments
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This fall’s crop of new TV series includes The Playboy Club and Pan Am, two shows set in 1960s, both centering on young women doing “glamorous” jobs and allegedly redefining what it meant to be a woman in mid-century America. Both shows infer that being a Playboy Bunny or Pan Am stewardess (respectively) could be a progressive opportunity for a young women—a chance to break out of the molds set by their mothers and to live out their own dreams in a freer society. In either case, the jobs themselves aren’t terribly liberating... in fact, all exclamations about “new breeds of woman,” and “choice” aside, the gigs are largely based on retro (even for the 60s) archetypal male fantasies of docile, servile, perfectly beautiful women.

But hey, they get to “see the world” who cares if it’s in a Bunny uniform or a Pan Am one. It was a kind of freedom, wasn’t it?

Not to dismiss the actual women who were in fact Bunnies or Pan Am stewardesses -- historically speaking -- we're talking about a time when women in the work place, especially in such visible roles, were still unusual. The possibility of world travel and an autonomous salary were high on the list of motivating factors for any job. But let’s be clear, because neither of us were alive at the time, it’s more or less impossible for us to weigh in on the prevalence of sexism inherent in either job. So instead, we need to consider why, from Playboy to Pan Am (and yes, even Mad Men), these retro styled shows dealing with careers, which put male-fantasy demands on female mobility, are having a moment.

It can be fair to say we are a little ambivalent about our fascination with beauty. To be a Bunny or a stewardess, a woman had to be beautiful—and of a specific and highly regimented level of beauty at that (sorry, fun and freedom are only for the foxiest among us, homely girls need not apply). Prettiness still equals social mobility to a large degree, but perhaps the remove of a period peace allows us just the right amount of distance so we feel less guilty in our reveling and gawking. As gender roles and beauty standards are ever changing, maybe it feels safe to hearken back to a time when they were more rigidly defined. Are retro-styled TV shows then a kind of ethnography-- are we little Margaret Meads watching safely on our TVs? Are we dreaming of the past when the women of the 60s were dreaming of the future? As much as sexism is a pretty broad label to slap on the era, we’re all watching these shows in a moment that does talk about (and at least pay lip-service to abhorring) sexism.

We all enjoy romanticizing bygone eras and decades we wish we lived in-- we become nostalgic for a time and place we never even knew—one that that seems fantastical from afar, but in our retro-styled TV binge, it might serve us well to remember that the truth was probably never so glamorous. As much fun as it is to visit other eras from the safety of our TVs, and to borrow a touch a glamour via Betty Draper’s red lipstick, Bunny Maureen’s winged eyeliner, or Stewardess Laura’s perfectly flippy hair, it’s crucial to remember the strides women like them made and the roads they paved in order to make the sexism depicted on these shows seem so very retro.

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Emilie Spiegel is a grad student, studying the effects of Media Cultures on young women. She lives in Brooklyn. Sarah Bloodsworth likes to market films and write stuff.

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8 Comments

  • Nick | September 29, 2011 3:21 AMReply

    "Score one for males"?. What does that even mean? Who is even keeping score? This is simply a point of view piece on why shows that emphasize retro-sexism seem to be a trend lately - and it's an interesting POV at that.

    Also, generally speaking, comments are never removed form any boards unless highly offensive or inappropriate.

    Chill dude.

  • Lisa | September 29, 2011 3:14 AMReply

    I don't think it's fair to group Mad Men into this discussion. Yes, it depicts female exploitation, but this is not the show's raison d'existance. What I have appreciated about the show is that it's presence is flexible enough to allow the world and the characters to evolve. Yes, Peggy started out as a secretary, but now she is a copywriter and frankly kicking #$%$#%. The show is about enough different ideas that the world can change but it will still go on. Pan Am and Playboy Club, however, have no other reason to exist. if the women became liberated and happy there wouldn't be a show.

  • Allison | September 29, 2011 1:08 AMReply

    Yeah, David's comments make no sense.

    Anyway, Mad Men has also gotten some criticism as well:

    http://www.salon.com/entertainment/tv/2010/07/23/mad_men_bad_for_women

  • David | September 28, 2011 7:36 AMReply

    buahaha, any comment that attempts to argue with this asinine article is deleted..Score one for males.

    Don't write idiotic shit and then delete the persons post when they call you out on your stupidity..Makes you look even dumber.

    Loser.

  • Yvonne | September 28, 2011 6:53 AMReply

    It's been suggested that part of the appeal of these shows is that we can watch these shows and smugly pat ourselves on the back because of how far we've come since then--instead of seeing how far we still have to go.

  • C.K. | September 28, 2011 6:02 AMReply

    Doh! That should be times we LIVE in.

  • C.K. | September 28, 2011 6:01 AMReply

    It's interesting to read this analysis because I really don't understand the appeal of these shows (would rather have dental work done that tune in). From the commercials and general material I've read on these programs, they mostly seem to glamorize sexism, which doesn't seem at all entertaining to me personally. However, clearly there are people watching or at least the perception that they will appeal to a large enough group of people to make the shows viable. But I dunno, the times we leave in still seem highly sexist so it's difficult to imagine viewers would see these views as really being behind us...

  • LeonRaymond Mitchell | September 28, 2011 3:30 AMReply

    For people of Color we can get caught up in watching theses shows and have fun cause the reality of it was those shows all represent a time when we still told to sit in the back of the bus and and use the back door to places to dine, all three shows are only about WHITE MALE FANTASY AND RACIST VIEWS so we can watch and laugh but the reality of those times as much as we want them to be a distant memory but for so many many it was truly brutal to remember!!!

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