News & Politics

Why Is TV Suddenly Overstuffed With Buxom Bunnies, Sexy Stewardesses, and Charlie's Angels?

With a fleet of "Mad Men"-esque shows glamorizing the "good old days," retrograde sitcoms, and fewer women in the writer's rooms, the TV lineup is discouraging at best.

Here are some images that sum up much of what's disturbing about this fall's new television lineup.

Buxom Playboy bunnies entertain suited, whiskey-swilling men at a private club. Lithe stewardesses offer men drinks as they fly the friendly skies. Charlie's angels suit up in skin-baring outfits yet again, ready to take their boss's calls and do justice in style.

These retrograde images from new shows "The Playboy Club," "Pan Am" and "Charlie's Angels" are the staples of a new season of television in which a post-"Mad Men" old-school aesthetic seems to pervade everything, but without the critique that darker, more nuanced show contains. "Mad Men" (for the most part) warns viewers that underneath the glamour there was a world of gross, painful injustice. These new shows at first glance seem to be imitating the fashion without delving into the finer points.

Those are this fall's big dramas. On the comedy side of the dial, the situation looks better on the surface due to a spate of women-centric shows, but is it?

Two of the big comedy centerpieces of the networks' new sitcom lineups, "Whitney" starring Whitney Cummings, and "New Girl" starring Zooey Deschanel, are basing much of their humor on tired typecasting. As Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams notes, "more clichés about how supposedly hilarious our gender differences are." Men and women: will we ever understand each other? And isn't it hilarious when we don't? these series seem to ask.

A third show, "2 Broke Girls," attempts something more interesting, with titular characters from different sides of the tracks and jokes that aim to expose more about class than gender, but after a rocky pilot punctuated by a diner filled with racist stereotypes and bad ethnic accents, it has yet to prove its bona fides.

Television critics have been having a field day writing think-pieces about what all this means, repeating the common refrain that tough economic times led us as a culture to take refuge in looking back at yesteryear.

TheNew York Times' Alessandra Stanley believes this television lineup reveals a perverse longing for a time when the problems facing women were easy to identify--and when women viewers today can consider them (for the most part) solved:

These shows traffic in nostalgia for a past that was flawed but fixable, and above all familiar. Particularly when our own epoch seems so uncertain and diminished, it’s all the more gratifying to look back at a more navigable time. We can envy earlier generations’ confidence and optimism while gawking at their primitive social mores and constrictive clothing. 

At the Washington Post, Hank Stuever warns us that this nostalgia-fest is in fact perilous for the culture's ability to grow and adapt to our present reality and says the TV lineup is so bad he's inspired to take up feminist arms himself:

Retro is an addiction that rages out of control in a recession; the more we drink it in — the more times we remake “Charlie’s Angels” or wish for a return of stewardesses and other clear-cut visual cues of gender rigidity — the less able we are to move forward and come up with our own ideas.
He also argues that the contemporary-flavored sitcoms are hardly an improvement on the good-old-bad-old-days tone of the dramas: "Whitney and the two broke girls could be the granddaughters of the bunnies and stewardesses, but I doubt the older generation would be all that impressed with what they call progress."

Perhaps, though, there is a reflection of reality in all these shows--the reality of writers' rooms. Although there are a dozen or more prominent female writers whose work features on television this season, overall the representation of women has dropped dramatically, from a place of inequality to start with.

Maureen Ryan at AOL TV looked at the numbers and asked around to find out why the number of women sitting around writers' tables has plummeted in the last half-decade:

In the 2006-2007 television season, 35 percent of the writers of broadcast network, prime-time programs were women, according to an annual study by San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. In the 2010-2011 season, that number had dropped by more than half, to 15 percent. What happened?

Since the latest edition of the annual SDSU study came out two weeks ago, I've posed that question to a dozen experienced television writers and creators ... For some, it confirmed their worst fears. "The situation is getting worse," said one veteran woman writer. "In the '90s, the networks cared more. They don't anymore." For others, it made them re-evaluate gains they thought women had made. 

One of the starkest illustrations of this disparity was seen on Sunday night's Emmys broadcasts when the writers' rooms of "variety and comedy" shows like the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live were briefly seen on camera (watch the video here): they were all, to varying extents, disproportionately male. And while these are traditionally some of the last bastions of male domination of TV, no one batted an eye. It seems like the world of TV, like the Playboy Club, remains a man's world.

Despite these disturbing trends, we hoped to find some diamonds in the rough. To help navigate readers through the pilot season, we offer our initial take on the new lineup of shows and a few standbys to watch if they prove unsatisfying:

New shows:

"2 Broke Girls," Mondays, CBS: Kat Dennings stars as a tough-talking Brooklyn waitress who reluctantly befriends a riches-to-rags co-worker, a newly penniless Hilton/Madoff type. The two begin to bond into a modern-day odd couple and dream of launching a cupcake business. This show has promise in its spirited lead actresses and its frank talk about money, instead of the usual sitcom route of just assuming all characters have enough of it. This is an important step. But the diner with the "multi-ethnic" cast of offensively drawn caricatures and the too-cute dialogue leave quite a bit to be desired. Verdict: Jury's out.

"New Girl," Tuesdays, Fox: This show stars Zooey Deschanel as the new roommate of a coterie of dudely, and less dudely, dudes. It's nice to see a woman as the comedic centerpiece of a show--and Deschanel is gifted at physical comedy--but the "quirky" attributes that comprise her character are cloying and infantilizing. In the pilot, Deschanel's character spends approximately one third of her screen time crying hysterically over a breakup, while her testosterone-mired roommates advise her to tone it down if she ever wants a date again. We appreciate her Lord of the Rings namedrop, and the screenwriters' effort to paint her as a goofy nerd. But it's also accompanied by the underlying concept that she needs rescuing—whether by her gorgeous, strong, supermodel best friend, or her new roomies. Even if you're virulently opposed to Zooey Deschanel's "manic pixie dream girl" persona, though, this show has the potential to improve.

"The Playboy Club," Mondays, CBS: Let's put this review in the words of Gloria Steinem, who as a young journalist went undercover as a bunny in the fabled club and discovered awful conditions including invasive personal exams and grueling hours and pace. She recently said: "Clearly ‘The Playboy Club’ is not going to be accurate. It was the tackiest place on Earth. It was not glamorous at all....I hope people boycott [the show]. It’s just not telling the truth about the era.” As you wish, Gloria. Verdict: Skip.

"Whitney," Thursdays, NBC: Even the previews for Whitney Cummings' relationship sitcom are infuriating: she advises women that if we'd like to annoy our future husbands—and further delay the acquisition of a ring—we should just "keep talking" about our emotions, wants and needs. Meanwhile, the show plays up on her apparent apathy in her long-term relationship, to the point where she's perpetually wearing sweatpants and has no interest in spicing things up for her boyfriend. Though cast as a supremely modern comedy in which a woman assumes the role of the bored spouse, gender-flipping an outdated archetype still makes it an archetype. Perhaps the next episode will feature Lenny Bruce back from the dead, making "My Wife" jokes.

"Pan Am," Sundays, ABC: While it seems to be playing right into same retro mania as "Playboy Club," early buzz on the Internet says the show is more substantive and honest about the trials its cast of flight attendants face--weigh-ins, harassment and so on--while portraying them as bright-eyed and steely willed pioneers, the forerunners of a new type of modern woman. Verdict: Jury's out.

Standbys:

"Parks and Recreation," Thursdays, NBC: Definitely tune in to this charming sitcom starring Amy Poehler as an ambitious (if extremely confused) feminist who genuinely believes government is a force for good and wants to help people. She's an ambitious woman who's actually a nice person, and the show manages to be both funny and heartfelt.

"The Good Wife," Sundays, CBS: Julianne Margulies as the cheated-on political wife turned ambitious trial lawyer who has to juggle the fallout from her husband's sex scandal, raising two kids, winning cases and contending with her strong feelings for her somewhat amoral but attractive boss. The show's legal premises are as ridiculous as they come, but its cast of aggressive female characters and strong characters of color, as well as its packaging of the fantasy that success is the best revenge for a wronged woman, make this a fun one to watch. 

"30 Rock," Thursdays, NBC: Tina Fey is one of America's most beloved feminist comedians, and it's a triumph that the genuinely funny sitcom she created has received such longevity and acclaim. But view with caution: often her portrayal of high-powered TV writer Liz Lemon, and her attempt to balance work, life and love, is a little too bumbling and degrading--and it's hard to believe Fey as slovenly and food-addicted.

Reruns: This season's woman-regression trend is so stark in part because shows in the very recent past have portrayed a plethora of powerful, complex women. For the best recent example, look no further than ABC's "Ugly Betty," which portrayed an awkward but self-determined Betty Suarez trying to make it in the cutthroat fashion magazine industry. The show was canceled in 2010, but it still stands as a funny, progressive comedy with a strong female lead who never once compromised her ideals or dignity. America Ferrera, as Betty, showed how a female character could be wacky and weird, but never self-immolating: "New Girl," take note.

Recent Emmy Best Drama nominee "Friday Night Lights" may have been a show about football, but its main female character, Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), was one of its strongest. Working tirelessly in the public school system, she was also a strong wife and mother who loved her family and students infinitely, but not once let anyone get one over on her. "Medium," which CBS canceled in January, starred Patricia Arquette as a tough, compassionate crime-fighter who never flinched, even when confronting the grisliest of killers. 

With some of our favorite fierce women characters off the air, we'll keep our eyes on the newbies and hope for the best--maybe after the excitement of the first weeks die down, TV's writers' rooms can find a more feminist-friendly groove regardless of their gender makeup.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor.