By: Shannon Clarke
I watched The Playboy Club premiere for the same reason I watched Pan Am: Mad Men is on hiatus until March. Undoubtedly, executive producer Chad Hodge knew a show about the original 1960s Playboy Club would draw comparisons to the Emmy-winning period drama and needed a hook.
But “empowering to women”?
Gloria Steinem didn’t buy it. The iconic writer and feminist, who went undercover in 1963 for her expose, “I Was A Playboy Bunny”, urged viewers to boycott the show saying: “It’s not telling the truth about the era”.
Now I had to watch.
Within the first minute of Hugh Hefner’s cheerful voice over, Hodge’s declaration of empowerment already seemed a little thin. “Everything was perfect…fantasy became reality for everyone who walked through the door.” Yes, men walked through the door, and, as made perfectly clear by owner Billy Rosen (David Krumholtz), without their whiny, ugly, pregnant wives.
It gets better.
“Anything could happen to anybody…or any bunny,” says the omnipresent Hef, just in case you thought the women serving drinks in leotards and rabbit tails were people.
The show’s focus is new recruit, Bunny Maureen (Amber Heard). Wide-eyed and naïve, she stands in awe for a few minutes before her fellow bunnies tell her she’d better get moving – she’s selling more than just cigarettes. This becomes clear when a key-holder (a name for the people who frequented the club) corners her in the storeroom, pissed off that Maureen had refused his advances, and attempts to rape her. Enter talented, brilliant, womanizing lawyer Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), the Don Draper of this operation. Nick tries to help her and in the struggle, Maureen accidentaly kills her attacker. This is Chicago so of course, he was no average key-holder: he’s mob boss Bruno Bianchi.
That Maureen didn’t purposefully stab the mobster with a stiletto isn’t what made the scene disappointing. It was Nick who sweeps in to save the day and orchestrates the cover-up that Maureen must just shut up and go along with that takes away from the feminist angle Hodge is trying to sell.
If we are to find empowerment in The Playboy Club it is in the subplots. The show deserves kudos for trying to tackle homophobia, ageism and racism, even if it seems like a lot in one hour.
Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), the first bunny, has now graduated from serving to singing but has ideas about how the club should be run. She’s smart, with business aspirations: “I always knew the day would come when I couldn’t be a bunny anymore. But I promised myself it wouldn’t be because I was too old, it would be because I was too good.” But bunnies aren’t supposed to think, and so she uses her seniority to act on her jealousy toward the younger women, namely Maureen. Her experience makes her intimidating, but her age makes her a joke.
There’s Brenda (Naturi Naughton), the “Chocolate Bunny”, who dreams of being the first black centerfold in Playboy. “You can’t discriminate against these babies,” she says, shaking her breasts in the mirror and adjusting her costume. Brenda is the only character to address any kind of prejudice head on, telling Maureen, men call her much worse than “chocolate bunny”.
And there is Alice (Toronto-native Leah Renee Cudmore) who is using the money she makes fulfilling stereotypical male fantasies to fund a support group for gay men and women.
I don’t believe that no one would watch a show that purposefully tackled the ugliness of an obviously oppressive era. It’s entirely possible some women felt empowered as Playboy Bunnies. As Alice points out to Carol Lynne, she’s making more money than her father. Not an easy feat for women in the ‘60s. But do we need the gloss and glamour to digest it all?
In fairness to the show and its writers, it’s still early, and we don’t know where the show is going. Maureen may not need Nick to protect her as much as we’re led to believe.
There is enough crime, sex and petty jealousy to keep The Playboy Club afloat for the rest of the season. Considering the pilot only drew 5 million viewers, it may need to do more to convince audiences that Playboy Bunnies were among the only women in the world who could be “anyone they wanted to be”.