“The Playboy Club” is the number one TV series I’m excited about this fall. How could I not be psyched for (another) show about the ’60s and the fight for women’s equality? Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who went undercover as a Bunny/waitress for a magazine exposé in 1963, is calling for a boycott of the show, but I truly hope it will instead provoke lots of discussion and have some teachable moments.
So, I read with interest an interview with actress Amber Heard in Playboy magazine. As the star of the show, she does not have an easy path ahead of her. In every single interview, she will be asked her opinions about Playboy Clubs and women who worked as bunnies/waitresses — on some level, to justify the show’s existence. That must be tedious to repeatedly answer, not to mention that she must be worried about giving the “wrong” response. After reading her Playboy interview, though, I think some publicist has to hand this woman a history book stat so she doesn’t make a fool of herself.
Playboy told Heard that there is a Playboy Club at the Palms in Las Vegas asked if “this acting thing doesn’t work out,” would she consider working as a waitress? Heard responded (emphasis mine):
“Oh please. [laughs] No, not so much, though I have nothing but respect for the women who did. Back then it was not an option for women to go out and earn money and support themselves. Marriage was the best and most practical option. What I like about ‘The Playboy Club’ is that it’s about women who were being independent and earning as much as their fathers. It was their chance to live their own life, to do whatever they wanted on their own terms. The feminist movement is often clouded by Gloria Steinem’s perspective, but to deny women their sexuality is just as chauvinistic. The women who worked at the Playboy Clubs were using sexuality to their advantage.”
Oh, honey, you don’t know a damn thing you are talking about, do you?
I don’t disagree with Amber Heard that marriage may have been the best or most practical option for a lot women before the sexual revolution in the ’60s, or that working at a Playboy Club afforded some women their own money and independence. However, her comments about “it was not an option for women to go out and earn money and support themselves” is just wrong. Poor women and lower-middle class have always had to “go out and earn money and support themselves.” Work wasn’t an option; it was a fact of life. Some poor and lower-middle class women have turned to sex work (I’m referring to waitressing at the Playboy Club here as sex work, although that’s debatable) because it was their best option to support themselves, not because it was a radically independent choice.
It is only middle-class and upper-class women (who in the ’60s, I’m guessing, were predominantly white) for whom working to earn their own money was a “choice” and for whom sex work was a radically independent choice. The marriage track — or the MRS degree, as it’s sometimes called — was indeed the predominant option of choice for a lot of middle-class and upper-class American women. They were expected to finish high school, perhaps study at college or work a few years, and then marry and begin pumping out children. If a middle-class woman ever had to work again, it was because their husband lost his job or died or something like World War II happened and all the men got shipped off to war.
Amber Heard’s comments about what caused women to go to work at Playboy Clubs belies a total ignorance about feminism and class issues. I understand that some of Heard’s job as the lead actress on the show is to put a positive spin on the way Playboy Clubs are portrayed, especially in an interview with Playboy magazine. But there’s no excuse for these just plain wrong comments that depict Playboy Clubs as a great liberator of women. That characterization is totally glossing over the fact that plenty of women have always been forced to work; finding a job to earn one’s “own money” is a great privilege.
I hope going forward that Amber Heard is more careful with her interviews and doesn’t present such a revisionist history of the women’s movement. While I don’t agree with Gloria Steinem that there should be a boycott of “The Playboy Club,” I can empathize with her concern that the show is distorting history if their lead actress is spouting off stuff like this.