Fall TV: Midcentury madness
In the last month, an array of decidedly un-modern mid-20th century women have filtered into the popular culture. On TV, they showed up in the premieres of glossy, revisionist '60s period drama shows -- the stewardesses of "Pan Am" and the bunnies of "The Playboy Club." (The remake of the '70s hit "Charlie's Angels" brings it into the 21st century.) Meanwhile, the original Barbie doll, in her zebra print swimsuit and retro-chic black eyeliner, graces the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's California Design exhibition, part of the Pacific Standard Time multi-museum show. And on tape, we heard the 1964 Jacqueline Kennedy purring about women being unsuited to politics.
The TV shows have been assailed, in some quarters, for romanticizing what were rigid, sexualized jobs for women. And some of Jackie Kennedy's utterances have left listeners appalled. Only Barbie seems to have escaped criticism (this time).
Disconcerting as these images of traditionalist women appear, to some extent, they are no more ridiculous than the tableau of contemporary women shown on TV and in movies and in fashion magazines. On the TV show "Private Practice," the women are doctors -- and still perfectly made-up, clad in designer dresses and high heels, never too tired after surgery for a flirty chat, and never, ever anything but thin. In magazines, despite all the bemoaning of skeletal models, they remain skeletal.
On TV, in movies and in real-life pursuit of perfection, we've just traded the girdles of the "Pan Am" stewardesses for Spanx, along with Botox, Restylane and juice fasts. Because on TV, and in real life, it's never enough for a woman to be accomplished and professional; she also has to be thin, wrinkle-free and as beautiful as she can get. At least on the Pan Am flights of yore, a woman only had to be pretty (OK, and know the safety procedures).
There are some notable small-screen exceptions. "Prime Suspect" star Maria Bello, who would never be considered anything less than pretty, still manages to look appealingly real (stringy hair, bags under tired eyes) in her turn as a police detective. Similarly, Edie Falco, in the title role of "Nurse Jackie," never looks airbrushed into some pornographic fantasy of a nurse.
Sure, it's just TV. For "The Playboy Club," it's not even that. After posting dismal ratings, the show was canceled Tuesday.
But wouldn't it be nice for one TV season to see a woman doctor/lawyer/cop who worked really hard, ate too many Tater Tots at night, had a poochy stomach that showed in her skirt -- and still had a sexy boyfriend who loved her anyway? Talk about a fantasy.
Photo: "Pan Am," with Christina Ricci, Kelli Garner, Karine Vanasse and Margot Robbie, is among the new television shows this fall. Credit: Patrick Harbron / ABC