Coffee, Tea, or Meme?
Published: September 28, 2011
I’m so glad August is over and I’m done re-enacting the Summer Vacation Pageant, that time of year when our nation likes to pretend we’re an endless pastiche of swimmin’ holes and stolen watermelons and Sousa jamborees performed in the gazebo in the town square. Believe me, I’m not one of those spoilsports who gnash their teeth about how Singapore is kicking our ass in mathematics every time school lets out. When I was a recipient of summer vacation, I enjoyed it—and on despairing days I get a frisson of delight thinking how I never have to return to Towson High ever, ever again! But now that I’m the working mom scrambling to find childcare from late May to early September, I resent how for three months our culture collectively, willfully hallucinates that kids are out catching fireflies while Mom is busy setting huckleberry pies on the windowsill to cool.
Summer vacation is an elaborate fiction, a pageant of vanished Americana (and feminine service-with-a-smile) that we compulsively reenact each year. I’m extra sensitive to its pantomime lately because of TV shows like Pan Am and The Playboy Club. I know, I know, ABC and NBC, respectively, are aiming for the same fertile stretch of America-in-flux-plus-girdles where AMC successfully planted Mad Men in 2007, but the secret of Mad Men is that its complex female characters are tragic figures, in one way or another. (Also, seven of the nine staff writers are women. If you are a heterosexual woman with a crush on Don Draper, you are being wooed, Cyrano-style, by a room full of your peers.) The secret of Pan Am and The Playboy Club is that they offer a way to vicariously enjoy social inferiors in uniforms serving you in ways that aren’t polite to enjoy in public anymore. (Unless, of course, that stripper really, sincerely likes you.) Gratuitously servile roles have been verboten for African-Americans for decades, but nobody objects with the same visceral, I-did-not-just-see-that disgust to watching women step ‘n’ fetch it.
Well, except Gloria Steinem, bless her contrarian heart. She’s got the choicest words for the show that in her eyes “normalizes prostitution and male dominance.” It sounds like first-wave hyperbole until I reread her infamous expose of what it was like to actually be a Bunny in the bad old madmen Mad Men days. (What other waitress job have you worked that required a pelvic exam and STD test before being hired?) The Playboy Club starts to look less like a copycat inevitability and more like a piece of Hogan’s Heroes-style post-facto propaganda. (Sexual harassment and slave wages? I see nothink, nothink!)
But what irks me the most is how these shows, with all their gutsy gals cutting new paths in a man’s world while wiggling and cooing in kitten heels, is the falsehood that feminism was won by the pretty girls. I know it’s a lie that being a feminist means loving coveralls and hating Clearasil, but the biggest swaths and loudest dialogues were cut by women like Germaine Greer and Andrea Dworkin and Amelia Bloomer and Carrie Nation, women willing to surrender the only power—beauty—deemed acceptable for women to yield, and instead be gross, frightening, unfashionable, and despised in the service of a bigger truth.
Yeah, but you’re going to watch it for the clothes, right? (Those satiny Bunny bustiers are beautiful, I’ll admit.) The old saw “I read it for the articles” becomes “I just love the silhouette of that era. I’m a fashion junkie.” (Well, then, why isn’t there a sitcom about 12 sloe-eyed, tangle-haired Williamsburg beauties working in an American Apparel sweatshop and being harassed by Dov Charney? You could call it Baby Doll Cut or something.) Well, please, Ulrike Meinhof had more style than Joan Holloway on her most inflated day. We can have it both ways: I wanna do a stylish drama about a militant womyn’s collective in the late ’60s. Slim hiphuggers! Suave Eurotrash shades! That tangled tear-gas riot look for hair! Here’s the tough, scrappy lesbian separatist (Rashida Jones) and the underground newspaper publisher (Taylor Momsen) and “featuring ROONEY MARA as Ti-Grace Atkinson.” I see great co-branding opportunities—menstrual cups, speculums, pepper spray. Banana Republic will do a line of “redstocking chic.” Victoria’s Secret’s gonna sell pre-scorched bras. Actually, that’s a myth: The women protesting the 1968 Miss America pageant didn’t burn anything, they just tossed some girdles in a garbage can. But if everyone else is playing fast and loose with women’s history in the name of fashion, hand me the Zippo. It’s gonna be boffo. NBC, call me.
> Email Violet LeVoit