One of the more comical incidents of the recent TCA television critics’ press tour was the attempt by the makers of The Playboy Club to defend its romanticization of its eponymous Bunny hutch as “empowering” to women. A lot of the critics assembled laughed it off. But you know what would really help to bolster their case? An endorsement from Gloria Steinem, who went undercover at the New York Playboy Club—right around the early-’60s period the series is set in—to write a magazine exposé.
So, yeah, it looks like that’s not going to happen. Speaking to Reuters, Steinem called for a boycott of the series, which she charged with glamorizing what was “the tackiest place on Earth” and one that hardly empowered the Bunnies that worked there. (Also, who gets top billing in this series about empowering women? The dude, Eddie Cibrian. Arguably he co-stars with Amber Heard, but he gets pride of place in most of the promotional material I’ve seen.)
Steinem’s phrasing in the interview does not make clear whether she’s actually seen the series—”I expect that The Playboy Club will be a net minus.” I would hope that she has, or does, because on principle criticizing works sight-unseen is unfair and often leads to unfounded accusations based on the premise more than the actual content. That said, speaking as someone who has seen the original pilot, so far Steinem’s accusation is pretty much dead on. The show seems much more interested in creating a fun soap opera than telling any hard truths about the club. As Steinem notes, for instance, she found that Bunnies had to be tested for venereal diseases, despite claims—which the pilot explicitly perpetuates—that they were “not on the menu.”
But really, should it be surprising that the series glamorizes Playboy? Consider: the name of an existing company is in the show’s title, its logo is in the show’s logo and its still-living founder, Hugh Hefner, is depicted on the show. Whatever creative independence the show professes, on what planet is this TV series going to present a warts-and-all depiction of any aspect of Playboy’s business, in any era?
All this points up another advantage held by ABC’s upcoming Pan Am; we can debate its merits and whether or not the life of a ’60s flight attendant was empowering (as opposed to “the best women could hope for at the time”), but at least its subject company no longer exists. I’m not sure that what’s best for Playboy is best for The Playboy Club.