A new NBC show touches an open wound in American history.
Perhaps the most important moment in gender politics in America occurred at a kitchen table in Chicago late in 1953. A young man named Hugh Hefner borrowed a thousand dollars from his mom to publish a magazine that was originally going to be called Stag Party. But apparently there was already a Stag magazine about horses. At that kitchen table, Hefner put together the first issue of his new magazine and decided to name it Playboy after a automobile company that his mom had once worked at. He featured Marilyn Monroe on the cover, who had just landed her first leading role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and was yet to reach icon status.
Fifty-eight years later, Hugh Hefner, now 84, gave up dating two twins simultaneously to marry 24-year-old Crystal Harris. In the years since launching his magazine, Hefner has sparked a profound change in American culture that continues to frame the way we look at sex and gender. The first magazine to show naked women, Playboy gave birth to pornography as we have come to know it—a business that has blossomed into arguably the biggest single media industry in our country.
No other man has had as profound an impact on both the conscious and sub-conscious way men look and think about women and their bodies. From Madison Avenue to Hollywood the way women are portrayed is either a direct result, or a direct rebellion against, the boulder that Hefner started rolling down that hill 50 years ago.
NBC built its upcoming fall schedule around a new period drama glamorizing Hugh Hefner and his bunnies called The Playboy Club. The show, starting in September on Monday nights, is already being heavily promoted as their next big winner. Apparently NBC decided to piggy-back on the success of Mad Men and push the envelope one step further. According to the sneak peaks, the show “captures a time and place that challenged the social mores, where a visionary created an empire, and an icon changed American culture.”
Matt Weiner, creator of Mad Men (and a classmate of mine from Wesleyan), is adamant that his show is feminist in its orientation. It shows secretaries being sexually harassed specifically because that is what really happened. If we’re paying attention, those scenes are not supposed to be funny—but profoundly uncomfortable to watch. He once told me that those women, the ones who were mistreated in offices across the country during the 1960s, have tracked him down to let him know that they appreciate the accuracy of his depiction even if a good segment of the audience misunderstand the point. “It really happened that way,” they say.
Based on the promotion of The Playboy Club, there doesn’t appear to be an effort to show the tipping point when the sex trade was brought into the mainstream and how that revolutionized our culture. I actually didn’t know anything about the show until a relative—a woman the same age as the ones approaching Weiner to thank him—called my wife to let her how profoundly saddened she was after watching the trailer for the NBC show.
The relative explained to my wife that when Playboy was created she was a mother and housewife doing the very best she could to live up the societal expectations of that time. The show glorifies exactly what, at the time, seemed an unfair and sickening change where she tried to keep herself in good shape and remain attractive for her husband, but couldn’t compete with these naked bunnies. It was a profoundly painful memory and she couldn’t believe NBC would glamorize something that was so obviously sexist.
This particular relative is very traditional, hardly a bra-burning feminist, but she got me thinking. Certainly there’s plenty on network television these days that lacks any pretense of information or even art. But as I watched the clips and read more about the upcoming show it seemed to me a canonization of Hugh Hefner himself, the world he created, and the ways in which he has infiltrated everything in modern media down to how sites drive page views (such as this recent semi-NSFW gallery in COED Magazine).
I find it sad and irresponsible that NBC would devote the time and money to a high-production-value series that attempts to glamorize a guy who has done more to give men a bad name than anyone I can think of. He’s also done more damage to the status of American women, both in and out of the sex trade, than perhaps any man in history.
—Photos: Smithsonian Photography Initiative, Courtesy of NBC