Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How much of the 60's do we want back in our lives?

This post was inspired by a comment I left on a thread over at Pajiba. I was so pleased with myself I decided to re-post a more filled-out version over here, apropos of this being my blog and a more appropriate forum for going out on tangents.

With regards to Pan Am and The Playboy Club, I'm fairly certain that the initial feeling of many people, after learning that these shows were to premier this fall, was that they were trying to capitalize on the Mad Men phenomenon. People without extended cable may have never seen Mad Men, but they've surely heard of it winning tons of Emmys and influencing fashion by re-introducing several flourishes reminiscent of the 1960's. My immediate concern was that these shows would capture all of the visual flair of Mad Men without any of the depth or critique of the era. The review of the two shows, appropriately written as one comparative piece, more or less confirms my suspicions but allows Pan Am the distinction of being the better show.

Without having watched the pilots, what strikes me about the descriptions of both shows is how much they give away about their protagonists in the first episode. One thing that I love about Mad Men is how each episode helps to review a new detail about the character, but it's a very small detail. You have to look at the show cumulatively to even come close to understanding him or her. These shows have taken the much more flashy approach of "she's married, but they're both gay!" and "she's a stewardess, but she's actually a spy!" which, though immediately interesting, is ultimately superficial and causes writers to work backwards and fill in details behind the already big reveal.

Ultimately, the popularity of either The Playboy Club or Pan Am could be an interesting case study in what works on American network television. Though anyone who actually brought their brain with them to a remedial high school course analyzing media and/or literature could see that Mad Men is a better show, it wouldn't be in the least surprising if the instant-gratification aspect of the new network shows garners them more immediate success.

That success could, as a feminist and as someone interested in social commentaries, be frustrating or even devastating. It is too early to tell if either The Playboy Club or Pan Am is going to sacrifice the dignity of its female characters and racial/ethnic minority characters by glamorizing an era which was, as we generally understand now, pretty unapologetically shitty to those classes of people. What Mad Men does right is that it allows us the visual pleasure of looking back in time, but it certainly doesn't valorize the social and cultural mores of the time. It's pretty frank in its portrayal of how women and people of color were openly treated as second-class citizens (compared to today, in which explicit racism and sometimes sexism are unacceptable, but insidious forms of both still shape our culture.) I'm unsure that the network shows will be able to be as constructively critical. That they are network is damning enough, as much of network television tends to be superficial and banking on cheap thrills. The fact that both shows are ostensibly set in particularly oppressive fields for women at the time doesn't help matters, even if marketing wants us to believe that the female protagonists are "empowered" despite their subjugated positions in the workforce. Protip: sexualizing your character is not the same as making her "sexual." The former objectifies her; the latter gives her personal agency and generally respects her as a human being. There is time yet to see if these shows can get it right, but in the meantime I won't be holding my breath.

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