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Gender Images in the Media

September 23, 2011 11:06 a.m.

KPBS reporter Beth Accomando speaks with UCSD Assistant Professor of Race and Gender Studies Sara Clarke Kaplan about recent gender images.

Related Story: Rants and Raves: Stewardesses and Bunny Tails


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

KPBS-FM: Women in Media
By Beth Accomando
Air date: September 23, 2011

The 1960s provide the backdrop for a current film and a pair of new TV shows. KPBS reporter Beth Accomando speaks to UCSD professor Sara Clarke Kaplan about recent pop culture images of women.

WOMEN (ba). wav 3:59

Tag: "Pan Am" debuts this Sunday on ABC, "The Playboy Club" can be found Mondays on NBC, and "The Help" is currently in theaters.

The new fall line-up features two shows set in the 1960s, "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club."

SARA CLARKE KAPLAN: When people talk about the appeal, the nostalgic appeal of these upcoming TV shows part of that sort of comfort level is because the images are so familiar. (:17)

But familiar images are not always accurate says ethnic and gender studies professor Sara Clarke Kaplan. KPBS reporter Beth Accomando considers some current gender images coming up next on Morning Edition.

When the going gets tough, Hollywood heads to the past.

SARA CLARKE KAPLAN: I think what we see is in periods of economic and political unrest, times of great social change, is that there is a desire to return to what many would think of as the good old simpler days which are actually were not as great or as simple as they are often reimagined.

Sara Clarke Kaplan is Assistant Professor of Ethnic and Gender Studies at UCSD. She's been watching trailers for new fall TV shows like "Pan Am," which debuts on Sunday.

CLIP Upon boarding passengers are greeted by the beauty and grace that is the Pan Am stewardess.

That show paints a jaunty, nostalgic picture of flight attendants while "The Playboy Club" looks to the iconic Playboy bunny.

CLIP You're either the living breathing fantasy that is the Playboy bunny or you're not.

Kaplan says these shows present a wish fulfillment for the good old days when men were men and women were, well, property. These shows objectify women but deflect criticism by claiming they are just being historically accurate and showing women as they were back in the sixties. But Kaplan says these shows gloss over the reality of those times.

SARA CLARKE KAPLAN: I think that we're missing a kind of way in which both flight attendants and waitresses at places like the Playboy Club, were expected to be at the beck and call of men in ways that rendered them sexually and physically and economically vulnerable in ways that I think are clearly missing

As in this scene from "The Playboy Club."

CLIP You can go anywhere you want in this life but we're in here and we're the safest, richest, luckiest women in the world. We're at the party.

The show makes it sound like turning down the chance to be a Playboy bunny is like saying no to absolute freedom and independence.

SARA CLARKE KAPLAN: There's a kind of fantasy where the return to the good ole days where women fit into these very narrow roles is acceptable because it can be rearticulated as a sign of female self-empowerment, which I find very troubling actually.

Troubling because the reality of those times was that women faced severely limited employment opportunities. But "Pan Am" makes the job sound like a romantic lark.

CLIP He's married should we spike his food or his drink... both... marry me... are you mad?... say yes.

But the reality was that if a woman got married or had a baby she could no longer be a flight attendant but instead had to take a desk job. Kaplan is also concerned about a film set in the 1960s, "The Help," about a white woman who writes a book about black maids in the Jackson. Mississippi.

SARA CLARKE KAPLAN: I find it very troubling in the history of black women's domestic workers struggling for independence in terms of their work hours, in terms of their lives in terms of their capacity to take care of their own families in terms of equitable work wages, when that story is retold in a way that makes them the supporting characters in their own struggle, I wonder if it does a similar violence.

Kaplan feels this is a feel-good rewrite of American history.

SARA CLARKE KAPLAN: I'm unconvinced that there are always benefits in feeling good about certain parts of American history.

But Kaplan doesn't like to talk about pop culture as being merely good or bad.

SARA CLARKE KAPLAN: This is a terrain where people are working through their conflicted feelings and for scholars it's really interesting to think about what it means to have investments in things like reproducing the history of the civil rights movement as led by white women who empower black maids but more importantly than thinking of it as dangerous or bad or good it behooves us to think of it as a window into the everyday anxieties and fears and fantasies that American people have.

And to look at those fantasies with a critical eye.

For KPBS News, I'm Beth Accomando.