Pan Am and The Playboy Club Trade Sexism For Nostalgia

Posted by Nona Willis Aronowitz


This fall, two new series are bringing the retro style of AMC's Mad Men to network television. The substance has been lost in the translation.

NBC’s The Playboy Club and ABC’s Pan Am haven't been shy about co-opting Matthew Weiner's high-brow hit. Both shows trade in mythologized versions of the big-city 1960's, drawing on the era's iconic professions—the Playboy bunnies of Chicago's eponymous venue and the Pan Am flight attendants working out of New York's JFK airport. The opening sequence of Pan Am features exhilarating tracking shots of the airport that mirror the first glimpse of Sterling Cooper’s Madison Avenue office.

And the shows' casting directors have borrowed heavily from Mad Men's book. The Playboy Club's protagonist, Nick Dalton, is a buffer, dimpled version of Don Draper—even his name carries the same syllabic cadence. The Playboy Club went straight to the source—it hired Naturi Naughton, the black bunny who made a memorable appearance in Mad Men’s season four, to staff NBC's own fictional version of the club.

Like Mad Men, both shows also shine a light on the women of pre-feminist America. But while the newcomers lift the seduction and circumstance of life as a Mad Men-era woman, they discard the accompanying social critique. Worse, they indulge in revisionist history: They are a women’s movement version of feel-good white-savior movies like The Help or The Blind Side.

None of these shows denies the trenchant misogyny of the 1960s—the constant threat of sexual harassment and assault, the limited choices for professional women, the trap of domesticity. But while Mad Men presents sexism as an unavoidable social force that has shaped every single relationship of the decade, Pan Am and The Playboy Club take a rosier view. The women of Mad Men are constantly demeaned, patronized, and hit on, whether they work as secretaries on Madison Avenue or toil as a housewife in the suburbs. In Pan Am and The Playboy Club, women are free to choose their way out of sexism; both shows frame their female characters' professions as antidotes to '60s sexism. Sure, these shows acknowledge inconveniences of these jobs—namely, that women must be attractive and wear uncomfortable outfits—but the negatives pale in comparison to the financial and geographical freedom that the gigs permit. 

"The bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be," the real-life Hugh Hefner proclaims in a straight-faced voiceover on The Playboy Club. “The world was changing, and we were the ones changing it, one bunny at a time.” In NBC's version of the era, the only thing women wanted in the '60s was to be seen as sexualized little pets. In an attempt to explain how wearing a bunny tail empowered women, The Playboy Club just throws money at the problem. After the new bunny, Maureen, flees the boonies to make it in the big city, a closeted lesbian bunny informs her why she made the correct choice: “I’m making more money than my father," she tells Maureen. In a particularly obvious plot point, the lesbian bunny is saving her wages to support the early gay rights group the Mattachine Society.

In Pan Am, the idea of a sexy career as an escape route is made even more explicit. In an early runaway-bride sequence, Laura escapes the clutches of marriage in a red getaway convertible with her sister, then suits up in a girdle to travel the world as a flight attendant. Granted, these women did have some genuine freedoms; real-life Pan Am flight attendants attest that they had far more autonomy than the secretaries of Sterling Cooper and the wives of Ossining.

But for all its promise of a way out of boredom, the concept of the gorgeous, sophisticated, sexily dressed stewardess was a fantasy concocted by ad men and CEOs behind the scenes. One of Pan Am's opening shots focuses on a cover of Life magazine. On it, beautiful Laura dons a beguiling grin, her stewardess cap cocked to the side, her cornflower blue eyes staring up at the heavens. “Come fly with me” was the classic campaign slogan. The cover fits right in with Don Draper’s own offensive advertising philosophy: “Men want her, women want to be her.” 

The Playboy Club is even more paternalistic, particularly when it takes stabs at social relevance. The pilot is bookended by schmaltzy, self-congratulatory comments from Hefner, who is credited in the show with battling not only sexual prudery, but racism, too. The “chocolate bunny” of the club (a phrase employed three times in one episode) gushes, "Hef don't care what color people are, as long as they're interesting." The show takes pains to recognize that some powerful men in the era were sexist, bigoted assholes, but that those aligned with the Playboy brand were merciful men who gave lovely young girls a chance at freedom.

If the heroes of The Playboy Club are all uncomplicated good guys, its villains are even flatter. Consider the show's first rape scene, which appears before the opening credits even roll. An older, menacing-looking man follows Maureen into the back room and attacks her almost instantly. There is a struggle, and she accidentally stabs him in the throat with her stiletto heel. Nick Dalton comes to her rescue, helps her dispose of the body, and assures her that there is an explanation for this monster's actions. He’s the boss of the Chicago mafia—the most megalomaniacal man in the country. The intention of the scene isn’t to expose an everyday job hazard faced by the bunnies, it's to set up clear bad guys and nice guys. Dalton, the quintessential playboy, is written as the kind of gentleman who saves women from sexual assault, not the guy who commits it.

Contrast that with a rape scene from Mad Men, one of the most heartbreaking in recent memory. Joan Holloway, Sterling Cooper’s take-no-shit head secretary, is recently engaged to a handsome doctor, Greg, who comes to meet her at her office before their dinner reservations. Threatened by Joan’s sexual past, Greg rapes her in Don Draper’s office. We watch the assault through Joan’s eyes as Greg pushes her face into the carpet, and her illusions about love and marriage are obliterated. But she has no recourse. Greg is violating this strong, self-possessed woman, and he won’t be punished for it.

Mad Men’s critics claim that some viewers take the glitz at face value, idolizing Don Draper and Roger Sterling and coveting the vintage wardrobe while missing the show’s jabs at the deeply sexist, racist culture of the time. Even that rape scene was controversial; Christina Hendricks, the actress who plays Joan, was horrified when fans on message boards placed the word “rape” in scare quotes. But when some viewers choose not to peel back the shiny veneer of the Mad Men world, it’s more of an indication of our culture’s lingering gender issues than the show’s own shortcomings. Pan Am and The Playboy Club keep the nostalgia safely intact. “Don’t worry,” they tell us. “The past is just as shiny as you had hoped.”