Bunnies and Stewardesses: Fall TV’s Racy Slant

With "The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am," skin is in (John Russo/NBC, Bob D'Amico/ABC)
With "The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am," skin is in (John Russo/NBC, Bob D'Amico/ABC)

(TheWrap) — Here's some good news about the upcoming fall TV season: There will be a marked increase in the number of actresses populating new series!

Now, the other news: They appear to have packed pretty light when it comes to wardrobe.

From the tight uniforms sported by the stewardesses on ABC's "Pan Am" and the Alphabet Network's sexy re-commissioned "Charlie's Angels" crime-fighters, to the fluffy-tailed servers of NBC's "The Playboy Club," the fashion trend of the season appears to be flesh, and plenty of it.

Call it the resurgence of Jiggle TV, a titillating genre that briefly blossomed in the 1970s with the original "Charlie's Angels," before giving way with the exit of "Baywatch."

[Related: Is 'The Playboy Club' Just 'Mad Men' With Boobs?]

Though none of the series have yet to debut, the trend of new shows featuring female leads in little clothing and subservient positions has already been met with criticism.

Gloria Steinem, who gained notoriety by going undercover as a bunny at the Playboy Club in New York in 1960s and writing an exposé about the working conditions, has said that she's hoping for a boycott of NBC's "The Playboy Club," claiming, "It normalizes a passive-dominant idea of gender. So, it normalizes prostitution and male dominance."

Christine Baranski, co-star of "The Good Wife," has similarly chimed in, telling New York magazine, "I'm rather appalled that they're now making television shows about Playboy bunnies and stewardesses... I think, 'Really? Haven't we gone past that, well past that?'"

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Apparently not. But why now, in particular, does there seem to be a resurgence in flesh-centric TV fare?

Certainly, AMC's "Mad Men" seems to have loosened the jar lid with its highly successful exercise in flesh-friendly, misogyny-laced nostalgia.

And it might be no coincidence that the upcoming series — like "Mad Men" — all have retro elements to them. ("The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am" are both set in the 1960s, while "Charlie's Angels" is a revamp of a 1970s Jiggle TV progenitor.)

Martha M. Lauzen, Ph.D., the executive director for Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, suggests that, particularly in dour financial times, male viewers — not to mention the overwhelmingly male decision-makers at the networks — might be looking to retreat into less complicated, more comforting times.

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"In times of economic and social upheaval and difficulty, nostalgia and a longing for an era when life seemed simpler tend to bloom," Lauzen said.

That could be especially true in an era when men — at least the ones not on TV, anyway — find themselves losing economic and social ground to the fairer sex.

"As women continue to gain economic, social and political power, there is always some sort of backlash, a desire to put women 'back in their place,'" Lauzen adds. "These programs may reflect that type of wishful thinking."

Naturally, those involved with the series have a different take on the matter. At the Television Critics' Association press tour earlier this month, "Pan Am" star Christina Ricci dismissed cries of sexism, claiming that her series provides "a really great message for young girls and women... [Air travel] is something that's exciting for these women. We're as excited as the passengers are."

Never mind that the Pan Am stewardesses were subjected to mandatory girdle-wearing and weigh-ins. Or that the trailer for the series prominently features a clip of one of the stewardesses stripped down to her bra as she frantically changes clothes in the back of a taxi.

Get a sneak peek at "Pan Am" right here:

Similarly, Amber Heard, who portrays Maureen on "The Playboy Club," praised the original Playboy Bunnies as pioneers of women's lib.

"[They] wanted their own fortune and they went out into the work force doing what they wanted to do," she told E! Online. "I could not be more empowered by that example, and I think denying women their sexuality is just as chauvinistic, if not worse."

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A lofty sentiment — but one that might fall, um, flat when it comes wrapped in a skin-tight, cleavage-baring Playboy Bunny outfit.

Whether "The Playboy Club" and its ilk serve as crass exploitation or lessons in empowerment wrapped in an attractive package, Lauzen said that there will probably be more of the same coming, particularly if the current trend toward fewer women behind the scenes continues.

"The percentage of women working as writers on broadcast programs plummeted last season, declining from 29% in 2009-2010 to 15% in 2010-2011," she said. "The industry remains mostly male, and these programs may reflect the behind-the-scenes gender ratios."

Looking at the credits for the shows in question, Lauzen noted, "many of the important behind-the-scenes roles on these shows are filled by males."

Indeed, Drew Barrymore's executive-producer role on "Charlie's Angels" stands as a prominent exception to the general rule — along with Nancy Ganis, a former Pan Am stewardess who serves as an executive producer of "Pan Am."

ABC declined to comment to TheWrap for this story, while NBC and its series producers did not provide comment before publication.

So can viewers look forward to — or look askance at, depending on the perspective — reboots of "Three's Company," "The Love Boat" and other jiggle-TV mainstays of yore?

Maybe. But if the new crop of plots and character development end up as skimpy as the outfits, audiences just might decide to bounce elsewhere.

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