Reality TV Hits a New Sexist Low With NBC's Playboy Show

It’s a pathetic attempt to romanticize a time when men ran the show and women served them, one way or another.

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So-called reality TV is bad enough. But NBC wants to take us a step further—make that, a step backward—with its retro-reality show scheduled to debut this fall.

Here’s how the network describes the show on its website: "An American icon is born. A provocative drama about a time and place in which a visionary created an empire, and an icon changed American culture."

That’s the sort of hyperbolic rhetoric some might use to describe, oh, maybe Ronald Reagan. Or maybe it could be applied to a civil rights or human rights leader. Perhaps Gandhi.

But this is actually how NBC describes its upcoming series The Playboy Club. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]

Yes, this is a show meant to take us back to the good old days, when women either stayed home and waited for their husbands to come back from a Playboy Club, or actually put on some ridiculous, suffocatingly tight little bunny outfit, complete with cotton tail and long ears, and served drinks to men, all the while trying to balance a tray while managing to stay on top of high heels and keep their breasts from spilling out of their costumes. The pornographic quality is not what makes it offensive; the old Playboy magazines and club scenes are pretty tame, as modernly available porn goes. Madonna has performed onstage wearing outfits not much different from the bunnies (although she lacks the subservient demeanor). It’s more that it’s such a lame and pathetic attempt to try, one last time, to romanticize a time when men ran the show and women served them, one way or another.

True, part of this supremely bad idea is undoubtedly due to Hollywood’s endemic lack of individuality or artistic courage. Extremely talented people might come up with extremely good ideas, but executives are nervous about sinking cash into something that isn’t backed up by a proven formula. Witness the hilarious and brilliant scene at the start of The Player, in which Buck Henry, seeking to pitch a movie idea, says, "It’s Pretty Woman meets The Gods Must Be Crazy." In the case of the 21st century playboys, some network executive in a (non-bunny) suit must have figured out that if Mad Men is so popular, surely another show taking place at the same time in history, when women were not executives (and still, quite obviously, are underrepresented as television executives) would sell as well. Other shows that depict women as ridiculous, conniving idiots (such as all the Real Housewives shows) seem to do well—though it’s notable that the version made in Washington, D.C., where women are as hyper-serious and politics-obsessed as the men, did not get renewed. And women don’t always do much better when they make the artistic decisions. Director Nancy Meyers seems to like having her lead female characters cry and cry (and cry) uncontrollably, or possess an inexplicable insecurity despite their professional accomplishments (insecurities eventually vanquished by a male character). But The Playboy Club is a new low.

Perhaps the show will indulge the adolescent fantasies of either the viewers or the producers of the show. But it won’t change history, and it won’t change the future. Women are doctors, lawyers, presidential candidates, parents, athletes, and corporate executives. Deal with it, NBC. Or as Sarah Palin would say, "Man up."

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