Prime Time Sexism

By: Nikki W. 

I am having a problem. My problem is not that television executives have time-warped back to an era when objectifying women openly was a-ok. Let’s face it, that reality still exists and it has nothing to do with “Mad Men.”

No, my problem is the idea that recalling the heyday of women’s objectification is somehow good for women.

In an article called “Retrofitting the Feminine Mystique” in The New York Times, journalist Alessandra Stanley makes two fatal errors: discounting the sexism that still defines our culture, and assigning to it some kind of romantic nostalgia. About a spate of new shows coming to TV this fall, namely a series about Playboy bunnies and another about stewardesses (when they were still called stewardesses), both set in the 1960s, Stanley says:

There is horror in seeing how dismissively many men treated women back then, but also a kind of pleasure in revisiting — with hindsight — a noble cause played out in a simpler time. Sexism hasn’t been vanquished, obviously, but it has splintered into more subtle, ambiguous channels. Back then it was overt, coarse and overdue for assault. (emphasis mine)

Sexism is still overt, coarse, and overdue for assault. We’ve seen it in the clothes retailers market to girls and in the media’s treatment of a female candidate for President. Sexism isn’t a cute reminder of a by-gone era, it’s a daily reality for girls and women.

And it isn’t fun. Or funny. Or character building!

Bunnies supposedly cater to male fantasies, yet on this show the men are almost beside the point. “The Playboy Club” is a Rona Jaffe novel tucked inside a Playboy centerfold: beneath the plunging décolletage and pajama parties at the Hefner mansion lies a tale of female survival and camaraderie under fire. Male viewers may be drawn by the title of the show but it’s likely that they will quickly tune out and turn to the real Playboy channel.

To suggest that girls and women will benefit from watching “a tale of female survival and camaraderie under fire” is ludicrous. It posits that the sexism, abuse, and discrimination that defines womens’ lives is a feminist’s rite of passage and to pose that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

A better take on the 60s throwback phenomenon comes from The Washington Post’s Hank Steuver, who points to the strange juxtaposition of 1960s sexism on 2011 entertainment:

On the plus side, women write and produce and star in more TV than ever. But 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.

Wishful thinking on the part of those in power? If they can romanticize a time when chivalry went hand-in-hand with chauvinism, perhaps we’ll forget the truth about how women are portrayed in the media and how harmful it is to actual, real women. And it is harmful–it’s impossible to see such representations over and over and not absorb some part of the message. It’s even more impossible if you’re a teen girl, watching celebrities for cues on how to navigate social situations and coming away with the sense that the survival plan includes bigger tits and a suspicious dislike of other women. Steuver says:

Whether fictional or quasi-real, TV’s women occupy a world of placation and sublimation through cupcakes and extreme couponing and physically impossible jujitsu. It’s Bravo’s “Housewives” threatening to ruin one another, egged on by fans. It’s a false sense of outspoken independence, shackled by beauty myths and the pretend liberation of promiscuity.

As girls and women tune in to see bunny-tailed beauties and their 35,000-feet counterparts, what will they begin to think about themselves? And as boys and men watch the same shows, what will they begin to think about women? Ask yourself and tell the truth: could shows that portray women as sex fantasies using their bodies to get by ever be good for anyone?

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