Gloria Steinem Is Skeptical of 'The Playboy Club'

One of the show's stars defends Steinem's allegations of sexism

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*Steinem is now calling for a boycott of the show. 8.10.2011

The Players: Gloria Steinem, noted feminist, journalist and political activist; Amber Heard, star of NBC's upcoming show The Playboy Club

The Opening Serve:  This fall, NBC is set to premiere The Playboy Club, which NBC describes as a series which "captures a time and place that challenged the social mores, where a visionary created an empire, and an icon changed American culture." Steinem, a one-time undercover Playboy bunny herself,  isn't fully convinced. "The hierarchical response has two poles," she said in the Toronto Star. "The very worst men are into sado-masochism and the very best men are into nostalgia. So I think this is like the nostalgia industry." She goes on further in a Washington Post report Friday: "Are they aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or are they really showing the problems of the past in order to show we have come forward," said Steinem. "Somehow I think the shows are not doing that [the latter]..."

Steinem's criticisms are the latest in a chorus of skepticism of the upcoming show. From groups like the Parents Television Council equating the show to porn addiction, to a Utah NBC affiliate dropping the show because of risque material, to Soup host Joel McHale calling it "'Mad Men' with boobs" and NPR's Linda Holmes's bafflement on the show's premise of female empowerment--the show has faced a variety of criticism on all fronts in anticipation of its fall premiere.

The Return Volley:  In a report by E! yesterday, Amber Heard, one of the show's stars, had a few words of her own. "Our generation, it takes us by surprise when the Steinems of the world criticize us, I think because we are part of a generation of women who don't have to choose between combat boots and an apron. We can do it in heels."  Heard believes that choice is empowering--as is the show. "There are many women who went on to do things, have careers, become entrepreneurs," Heard says in an article by The Hollywood Reporter. “There are women who have talked to us about their experience. I have yet to meet an ex-bunny who is disgruntled about her experience. I have talked to many women who look back fondly and are thankful for that experience." She goes on about the bunnies in the E! interview, "The [Playboy Bunnies] wanted their own fortune and they went out into the work force doing what they wanted to do. I could not be more empowered by that example, and I think denying women their sexuality is just as chauvinistic, if not worse."

NBC entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt stands by his star and his show. “What it has going for it is a recognizable brand that’s automatically going to draw attention to it, good or bad,” Greenblatt said in a report by Entertainment Weekly. “It’s a really fun soap with a crime element and I think it’s the right kind of thing for us to try.”

What They Say They're Fighting About: If The Playboy Club is guilty of nostalgia and thereby sexism. Steinem argues that shows like The Playboy Club and Mad Men can stray into nostalgia of that period and run the risk of glossing over the time's sexism. Heard, from her experience in meeting former bunnies, insists that the drive and ambition of these women will be portrayed in the show.

What They're Really Fighting About: If women's roles really have changed. Steinem argues that The Playboy Club and shows like it do not "show the past in order to show how far we've come forward." She's worried that, at the heart it, the show may be exploiting scantily-clad, attractive characters and its actresses--and that the men behind the show may be peddling as sexist a product as The Playboy Club it's trying to portray. Heard disagrees, saying that covering up would be sexist, and the freedom to pick which roles she wants is in itself, whether it be in a bunny suit or or not, a symbol of just how far women in Hollywood have come.

Who's Winning: Neither wins until the show comes out, but The Playboy Club and NBC are winning in the bigger picture. Steinem and the show's critics haven't seen the season yet, and their criticisms may just up the show's profile. On the other hand, Heard isn't doing herself any favors by comparing bunny notes with Steinem, someone who actually went undercover at the original club and someone who has fought for Heard's right to "do it in heels." Perhaps what Heard fails to see is that Steinem is criticizing the system and not Heard personally. The true winner may be NBC and the show's ratings--because both its detractors and enthusiasts will be tuning in to see if they were right (and if the other side was wrong).

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.