Friday, September 23, 2011
KPBS reporter Beth Accomando speaks with UCSD Assistant Professor of Race and Gender Studies Sara Clarke Kaplan about recent gender images.
The 1960s provide the backdrop for the movie "The Help" as well as a pair of new TV shows, "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club." What can the pop culture images from these shows tell us about ourselves. Listen to my radio feature or read the extended interview with UCSD Assistant Professor of Race and Gender Studies, Sara Clarke Kaplan.
First I want to start with a disclaimer. I know that not all movies and shows are responsible for showing a realistic picture of the world or of history. But sometimes there are trends in pop culture and while they may seem silly or trivial they do deserve a critical look.
So when I opened the Fall Preview issue of Entertainment Weekly a couple weeks ago I was just struck by the retro images presented by two new shows, "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club." Then I saw trailers for them at multiple movie theaters. What struck me as images of bunny tails and cleavages filled the screen was that people would be more critical of the depiction of the women if the shows were not set in the past, in fact both are set in the 1960s (and both use Frank Sinatra standards as the music for the trailers). So that just got me thinking about how Hollywood uses period settings to sometimes deflect criticism or avoid dealing with contemporary complexities. And as the cable show "Mad Men" proved you can also get away with things like smoking and drinking, which, when done too often in TV and even films set in the present, gets criticized as setting a bad example. But heck those guys and gals back in the sixties didn't know any better so we can show them smoking and drinking all we want. Okay, I exaggerate to make a point, but only a little.
And the point I want to make is not that I want to censor any of these images or make anyone feel guilty if you enjoy any of these shows or films but rather just to consider these images with a critical eye and consider what these reimagined images of our past say about us. Pop culture, I have always believed, tells us far more about ourselves than anything else.
I asked Sara Clarke Kaplan, UCSD Assistant Professor of Race and Gender Studies, to look at some of the trailers from the new fall TV line up and tell me what she thought of Hollywood's desire to revisit what it sees as simpler times.
"One of the trends that we see emerging is one that I actually date to the late 80s," says Kaplan, "When you think about the resurgence of these happy-go-lucky rewrites of American history, like 'Forrest Gump,' which I always call the great white washing of American history where apparently a not-any-smarter-than-the-average-bear white man is responsible for everything that's ever happened in the U.S. including the civil right movement. So I think what we see is in periods of economic and political unrest, times of great social change, 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."
Here's is one of the trailers she watched for the upcoming ABC show, "Pan Am," about a group of new stewardesses for the famous airline in the 1960s.
The show paints a jaunty, nostalgic picture of flight attendants while "The Playboy Club" looks to the iconic Playboy bunny. Here's the teaser trailer.
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. So "The Playboy Club" can show us tits and asses but pretend it's not really objectifying the women because it's just showing the bunny tail and collar from the famous costume.
But Kaplan says these shows gloss over the reality of those times, "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 the scene from "The Playboy Club," where a bunny informs is "You can go anywhere you want in this world and life is always going to be rough life but we're in here. It doesn't matter what's going on out there. 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.
"There's a kind of fantasy," Kaplan says, "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 with the stewardesses constantly giggling about trying to find a husband or romance. But the reality was that if a woman got married or had a baby she could no longer be a flight attendant but instead, as Kaplan says, "got her wings clipped" and 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. Here's the trailer.
Kaplan says, "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 calls this is a "feel-good rewrite of American history. But I'm unconvinced that there are always benefits in feeling good about certain parts of American history."
But "The Help" along with "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club" have powerful nostalgic appeal and offer a sense of comfort at a times when there are a lot of complexities in terms of race and gender issues.
"What makes these very images comforting," she says, "whether it's a Playboy bunny pouring you a whiskey on the rocks or a black maid storming out of her white employer's house is that these images are part of our longstanding racial and gender fantasies about the roles of women in the U.S. and these are not positive or complex or rich images."
But not all the retro images are bad.
"Something like 'Mad Men,'" Kaplan suggests, "offers a much more complex analysis of race and gender and sexuality in the same time period that refuses to allow you to sit comfortably in caricature. It really pushes you back into the contradictions and complexities of the time and is a really great example of how we can use a popular cultural return to an earlier period to engage in important commentary on the present."
Pop culture also should not be considered in absolute terms of either good or bad.
"This is a terrain where people are working through their conflicted feelings," says Kaplan, "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 because we might learn something about ourselves.
Pam An debuts this Sunday on ABC, The Playboy Club can be found Mondays on NBC, and The Help is currently in theaters.