Why is it now socially acceptable for Comcast-owned NBC to offer a series on the Playboy Club of the early 1960’s, whose pilot shows bunnies swimming naked in a pool with “men watching them as if at Sea World, only much, much better.” Or to bring back the sexist Pan Am stewardesses of the 1960’s, whose job requirements were the subject of many successful class action sex discrimination suits in the 1960’s against the airline industry?
Perhaps such shows are fitting for a time when the United States Supreme Court is primed to rule in the Wal-Mart class action sex discrimination case that, as Judge Alito put in an oral argument, discriminatory practices that are “typical of the entire American work force” cannot violate Title VII. The 60’s and 70’s class actions that stopped Pan Am and other airlines from imposing weight, apparel and age restrictions on female stewards – rules still in effect during the new television series – are apparently too retro for the current era.
Hollywood producers are overwhelmingly Democrats who give money to candidates who typically support women’s rights. But this does not alter their desire to make money by promoting sexist and misogynist gender portrayals, and for shaping culture in a direction directly contrary to their stated political ideals.
Just how bad the situation has gotten for women in Hollywood was the subject of an astonishingly frank April 11, 2011 New Yorker article by Tad Friend titled, “Funny Like a Guy: Anna Faris and Hollywood’s woman problem.” Among its observations, which go unchallenged by men and women in the industry, “Relatability for female characters is seen as being based upon vulnerability, which creates likeability. So funny women must not only be gorgeous; they must fall down and then sob, knowing it’s all their fault. Ideas for female-driven comedies are met with intense skepticism.”
Friend’s article provides several examples of how we’ve gone a long way – backward – since the screwball comedies of the 1930’s and 40’s where women like Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard had major roles (Friend’s full story is available through subscription only).
The Republican Assault on Women
What makes Hollywood’s backlash against feminism particularly troubling is that it coincides with a Republican Party that prioritizes the de-funding of Planned Parenthood and other women’s programs. There once was a time when cultural leaders stood against anti-feminist political trends; today, Hollywood sees dollars from not rocking the boat by challenging the conservative tide.
Clearly, Hollywood also produces positive examples of women, but they remain the exception. Intelligent, career-minded women unobsessed with their inadequacies are few and far between on television and movie screens, emblematic of a broader culture where even left-wing Socialist men like Strauss-Kahn can rise to power despite a history of sexual assaults.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, as well as The Activist’s Handbook.
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