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TV's new retro babes are no role models

By Laura Sessions Stepp, Special to CNN
updated 11:28 AM EDT, Fri September 30, 2011
The cast of NBC's
The cast of NBC's "The Playboy Club"
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am" look back before women's liberation, says Laura Stepp
  • Today's young women see the shows only as harmless period pieces, Stepp says
  • But in the workplace, women have still not achieved equality, she says
  • Even so, women are "coming out of the starting gate with more speed," says Stepp

Editor's note: Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both," and "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Early Adolescence." She is a consultant to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

(CNN) -- Washington Post critic Hank Stuever doesn't think much of the TV networks' new shows such as "The Playboy Club," "Pan Am" and "Charlie's Angels."

"If the only women you ever saw were those on these shows, you would have a hard time believing that a liberation movement had ever occurred," he wrote in a recent review. "It's all bunnies, baby dolls and broads -- and bridezillas and bimbos, if you get into reality TV. It's still giggles and jiggles."

I'm with you, Hank. But you know what? We are fast becoming dinosaurs.

It's difficult for me to get excited about weekly reminders of a time when cocktail waitresses were paid to be sex objects, if not sex partners. Or when young, perfectly coiffed stewardesses worked 12- to 15-hour shifts wearing girdles, tight suits, high heels and a smile, no matter how rude the passengers were or how frisky the pilots.

My reservations are not shared, however, by most of the 20-something women I know. The new shows, along with AMC's "Mad Men," have little to do with today's work environment, they say. They are period pieces, nothing more.

"It would be like you watching Westerns," said Stefanie, who works for a Washington nonprofit. (Not exactly, honey. I'm not that old. But, ouch.)

I asked Stefanie and her co-worker Lauren, both voracious television viewers, to talk about this latest Hollywood run on sexism that started, of course, four years ago with the ad agency drama "Mad Men."

"It's important to watch such shows to see how women used to be treated," Stefanie said. "As in, a woman back then rarely knew where she stood. Peggy, a secretary (in "Mad Men"), was promoted to copy writer and Joan, head of the secretarial pool, was not. It had nothing to do with how hard they worked."

Lauren agreed: "The show helps me understand where women had to come from."

Neither Stefanie nor Lauren are bothered by the butt-shaking, boob-exposing women of "The Playboy Club" or by the creepy older men throwing back shots of whiskey and pinching young behinds. They were unfazed even by the comment of Billy, the manager, that he married his bunny girlfriend in order to get her "pregnant and ugly" so that other men wouldn't look at her.

Compared to what else they see on TV -- the reality-TV bimbos on "Jersey Shore," for example -- the newest babes are downright classy, said Lauren. "Bunnies were sex symbols, but it wasn't porn like it is now," she said. "Porn used to be soft-core, art. Now it's trashy."

Club founder Hugh Hefner was selling sex, Lauren continued. "The bunnies were simply putting their best merchandise in the window. Hefner didn't create porn; he just classed it up and monetized it." The bunnies made more money than they could have doing other jobs at the time, Lauren added, and in some cases, more than their male clients. So who really was being used?

The stewardesses of "Pan Am," full-figured and fully clothed, intrigue Stefanie and Lauren in part because they aren't the stick figures that populate so much of television today (including the new, vapid "Charlie's Angels").

"Full-figure is a healthier view of women," Lauren said. I had to agree, even as I squirm at the idea that the '60s look she appreciates was dictated by the suits in the airlines' corporate offices.

Interestingly, the subplots I picked up in "Pan Am" -- predictable "female" themes such as sister jealousy, having an affair with a married man, spending most of their time serving food and smiling -- are not what Stefanie immediately commented on.

She liked the fact that one attendant went against her parents' wishes to work for "the world's most experienced airline," and that another was recruited to be a CIA spy. This suggested some depth to their characters, didn't it?

Yes, I said. However, I reminded her, those attendants had gone about as far as they could within the airline's corporate structure, and if they got married or pregnant, they were grounded.

True, she said, and that makes her appreciate the lack of such restrictions today. "Hard work pays off for women now," she said. "If you want move up the ladder you can." (Just as her TV idol, Tami Taylor, did on the recently departed "Friday Night Lights" when the Taylor family moved to Philadelphia so Tami could become a college dean.)

A dose of reality is called for here. Statistic No. 1: According to an article in CNNMoney, only 12 Fortune 500 companies are run by women, down from 15 last year.

No. 2: While the wage gap between younger women and men has narrowed slightly, men in all age groups still make more than women, according to data from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a Washington think tank.

No. 3: Within the last two years, among 18- to 34-year-olds, twice as many women as men have been unemployed and looking for work for a month or longer, according to a forthcoming report by IWPR.

I suspect Stefanie and Lauren will, somewhere along their career paths, encounter sexist attitudes as well as disparities in salary and responsibility. But I'm delighted they are moving into the workplace with confidence. They don't have to think about feminism as often as my generation did. They were born feminist, as were many of their friends, male as well as female.

They have more choices than did young women of the '60s, are paid more equitably and either laugh off or skewer men who insult them. Some of them work for women. They're coming out of the starting gate with more speed.

That's a good thing, because it will soon be up to them -- and the men who support them -- to move women still further forward.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Laura Sessions Stepp.

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