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.
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.