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Monday, July 18, 2011

Does Sexism Sell?

ABC and NBC are spending a lot of $$$ to market sexism to a new generation. An insidious media campaign is helping the networks along by working to convincing women that they're not smart enough to know the difference between real life and make believe. Wouldn't the little ladies be a lot happier if they just returned to their "place?"

NBC is at least being honest and "in your face" about its intentions. There's nothing subtle about the sexist message behind their new Fall TV show - "The Playboy Club." The "About the Show" section of NBC's Playboy page puts the message right out there. It says:

It's the early '60s, and the legendary Playboy Club in Chicago is the door to all your fantasies... and the key is the most sought-after status symbol of its time. Step inside the seductive world of the Bunny, the epitome of beauty and service, and rub shoulders with the decade's biggest mobsters, politicos and entertainers (like Tina Turner and Sammy Davis, Jr.)

The Playboy Club will feature Eddie Cibrian starring as Nick, the dapper hero presiding over a world of grown women who saunter around in tiny little plunging neckline bunny suits, complete with fuzzy tails and matching bunny ears. Hugh Hefner's voice-over says that Nick's world was an amazing place where "everything was perfect, where life was magic, where ... fantasies became realities for everyone who walked through the door." Hef's tagline doesn't add "except for the women selling their dignity to make a dollar" - but that would've been a little too honest now, wouldn't it?

ABC is trying to convey its sexist message a little more subtly - but it still comes across loud and clear. The network's promo page says that in the 60's air travel was "the height of luxury" and the pilots are "rock stars" while the stewardesses are "the most desirable women in the world." The page doesn't say that the women are paid to show off their cleavage and legs to the mostly male travelers. The promos show shots of women bending down to assist passengers and lots - and lots - (Did I say lots?) of leg shots. So the video footage shows what the network doesn't say about Pan Am's slant.

I got the message and have discussed it - too often - to my darling hubby. But I was very, very interested to run across an article today as I researched this post. It proves that I wasn't the only one who noticed that both TV shows play to male fantasies at the expense of female dignity. I ran across an interesting article from the May 22nd edition of the Los Angeles Times written by reporter Melissa Maerz. She sounds like a smart lady making a living in a business that doesn't require her to serve or service her male colleagues (unless she's into that kind of thing). Ms. Maerz's piece states as follows:

Luring more male viewers is particularly important to ABC, whose audience is 65% female. True, some women will enjoy both networks' lipstick-feminist take on career girls busting their carefully manicured fists through the glass ceiling. (One "Playboy Club" bunny tells her friends that she's making more money than her father.) But both of these dramas also indulge a popular male fantasy -- at a time when many men are anxious about job stability and women are getting higher college degrees, "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club" recall a less threatening era, when an ambitious woman's prime goal was to serve the guys who rule the boardroom. The "Pan Am" tagline boasts, "They do it all and they do it at 30,000 feet."
So two networks in the same season are trying to lead women to march backwards to a time when they did a good job if they kept their men happy. How to do that without having all the currently uppity women getting all pissed off and militant? Well, one way would be to attack something the women really enjoyed. The best defense really is a good offense now, isn't it?

Now, what is it that those smart, ambitious broads particularly enjoy? Oh, yeah, they like to read. And what kind of book sells best to women? Romance novels. Now that's the ticket. We'll get 'em all stirred up and we'll try to do it in a way that makes 'em do what they do too much of anyway - we'll make 'em think. What they'll be thinking is that if they don't stop reading all that crap about love and passion they might lose the man they've got at home. We'll have experts that are women tell the little ladies that they should put down those books and ereaders and spend more time catering to their man.

And out come the recent pair of articles that have gotten so much press lately. The first piece by Kimberly Sayer-Giles appeared on eight (8) days after Ms. Maerz's LA Times article. In it, author Shaunti Feldhahn claims that women can become "dangerously unbalanced" by romance novels "entrancing but distorted message." The psychologist cited in the piece, Dr. Jill Slattery, says that when women reading romance experience the same "natural high" as men viewing pornography. When the "high" wears off, women crave another release and buy another romance novel. The shrink says she's seeing "more and more women who are clinically addicted to romance books."

The Sayer-Giles article quotes a "pornography addiction counselor" as saying that reading romance or viewing porn may cause women to have affairs. The so-called experts claim that romance novels lead women to expect too much intimacy from a real relationship and become unhappy because they can't get as much satisfaction from their partner as they do from reading a romance. The experts say women need to focus on their real relationships, STOP READING ROMANCE, and spend more time with their partners. The piece doesn't mention watching TV with your partner as a suggestion but I ask you, if you're spending time with your hubby, aren't the odds pretty good that watching TV is one of those activities you'd engage in with your "real" partner?

The other piece appeared on July 7th in the UK's Daily Mail. Written by an unnamed reporter, it cites a magazine article by "relationships expert" Susan Quilliam in the Journal of Family Planning And Reproductive Health Care. The Daily Mail article was titled: "The Mills & Boon Effect: Why A Romantic Read Can Harm Love Lives." Quilliam says that although romances "may account for almost half the novels bought" the books' "idealized" notions of love and sex give readers "false expectations."

Quilliam says that romance may be a great foundation for a novel, but it's "not a sufficiently strong foundation for running a life together." (Quilliam also complains that not enough condoms are used in romances.) She says that readers start to believe the stories which causes them so much trouble that they seek counseling. Then the counselors tell women to STOP READING ROMANCE "and pick up reality."

Now, once women stop doing all that pesky reading, surely they'll stop pushing for career success and will see that real success is catering to men - like on The Playboy Club and Pan Am.

The belief that women can't separate reality from a romance novel is beyond insulting. But even if I believed such a load of divine ca-ca, I'll be a toadfrog's toenail before I ever, ever allow ANYONE to tell me what I can and can't read. Like many other women, I have worked to build a successful career - actually two because practice law and I write some of those "dangerously addictive" romance novels. I truly and deeply hope that our society has progressed far, far past the place where women can be convinced that "their place" is serving men.

Today's women are strong enough partners in a relationship to protest their men watching The Playboy Club or Pan Am. Maybe women should insist on a little TV equality too. CBS hasn't imbibed the sexism Kool Aid-- yet. If CBS wants to garner a ratings number that will pound its competitors into the dust, it should respond to the anti-woman bias of the other networks by putting on a sexist show of its own. The Chippendale Club, anyone? All the wait staff will be men wearing tiger-striped kilts with tiger tails and cute little pointy ears.

NBC and ABC shouldn't forget that "dangerously addicted" women can be mighty dangerous adversaries.

And anytime a man in your house watches The Playboy Club or Pan Am, exercise your Female Fierceness by buying another romance novel.

Mary Anne Graham
Quacking Alone Romances
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("Playboy Club" pictures are property & copyright of NBC, "Pan-Am" pictures are property & copyright of ABC, all other pictures copyrighted by their respective owners)


  1. Ha! You tell them Mary Anne!


  2. Here's my two sense: I'm in a happy long term relationship (five years going on six). Neither of us has a problem with what the other chooses for entertainment, pornographic or otherwise. Men who occasionally watch porn are NOT automatic cheaters. Women who read romance novels (most of which are NOT porn, btw) are NOT automatic cheaters either. There are so many factors that might lead to cheating, and most of them have more to do with how you treat one another than what you do in your separate time. In any case, a little fictional inspiration can be good for a relationship ;)

  3. @Janice - Thanks for the encouragement;

    @fairypenguin: I agree! And I have no real problem with porn - except I don't think romance novels are porn at all. However, I do find romances "inspirational" sometimes. Like you say, that makes 'em good for a relationship.

    Thanks to both of you for taking the time to comment!

  4. Allow me to begin by posting my credentials.

    Seven historical romances published in the 80s and 90s.
    B.A. in Womens' Studies, earned when I was 52, honors thesis on romance novels.
    M.A.I.S. with emphasis on sociology, masters thesis on the sociology of arts & crafts fairs.

    First point, and one that is often ignored when those of us who are on the pro-romance side begin our defense: The women who read romance novels are NOT like the men who read James Bond or Stephen King or Clive Cussler simply because women who read romance novels tend to read A LOT of them. This is why romance outsells mystery, science fiction, westerns, thrillers, etc. by such a wide margin. This is why backlist romance novels keep used bookstores in business.

    Second point -- The underlying premise of virtually every m/f romance novel (which is what the critics are attacking) is the HEA. And that HEA is identical to what most of the readers see as a common goal for themselves, their friends, etc. Yes, there are many single women who are perfectly happy being single, but the overwhelming cultural norm in our society is one man, one woman, HEA. The fact remains that many romance novels play out just like high school dating rituals, and that's not a criticism, just an observation. The underlying premise of a murder mystery is not something that has a comparable parallel to most of our daily lives. We read the mystery for the intellectual challenge, not the emotional mirror.

    Third point -- Much of what's in romance novels as they've been written over the past 40 years is not overtly feminist, and yet many self-proclaimed feminists have defended them. Most writers and most readers, in my personal opinion, fail to recognize that just because the heroine gets to have great sex does NOT make the story pro-woman. There are contradictions that are rarely explored.

    Fourth, and probably the most common and valid and important defense of romance novels, is that men probably wouldn't complain so much about their women reading romance novels if they, the men, were more involved in their relationships. Why the hell is it that men are so damned afraid of this? Are they afraid of being inadequate by comparison? Destroying the competition, as in getting their women to stop reading, won't make them better lovers, better providers, better friends. It will just make them look like jerks.

    And one more other tiny little bit of humor regarding the sexism of 1960s air travel: Those of us who are old enough might remember the original Mickey Mouse Club and pre-teen Darlene Gillespie's training to be a stewardess. She was reminded OFTEN never to bend over. . . .

  5. @Linda:

    I hadn't realized that the attack was focused on m/f romances, but you're right about that. Strange. The effects the critics are talking about would certainly apply to m/m or f/f relationships as well. But the focus of criticism has been on m/f romances.

    Are the critics implying that same sex relationships would not be harmed by reading romance novels? That doesn't make sense.

    We do all look for the HEA in our lives and - I believe - in our books, especially the romance novels. I promise my readers an HEA every time. And although all situations in life won't turn out to be happy, there's nothing wrong with happiness as a goal.

    I'd love to hear your take on the contradictions you mention.

    And I bet the stewardesses on "Pam Am" - who will all be female and "traditionally attractive" will be bending over a lot! Funny point about the Mickey Mouse Club!

    Even if the TV shows are portraying the 60s, they could do it with a nod towards their 2011 audience. I'd like to see a man in one of the bunny suits serving a table of women every now and then. And how about a pilot in the cockpit of one of the Pan Am planes? And a steward serving the guests?

    Thanks for your comments and I would love to hear your take on the contradictions you mention!

  6. All good points...going back in time to put "women in the correct place" is like bringing back "Father Knows Best" or "Leave it to Beaver" where DAD knew everything and MOM stayed home, always dressed up, and didn't work outside the home.
    These shows are no doubt written by men, approved by men...female executives would cringe at the blatant condescending to subservient women on shows.
    As for the "expert" reports about the evils of romance books, consider the source. Probably unsatisfied, bored people who can only feel important by gaining some fame by any means...even if they sound like idiots.

  7. I think one of the reasons the '60s are attractive is that they were last gasp for the dominant white males before Second Wave feminism struck big time. With the advent of Playboy Magazine (in '57, I think, or maybe '55, can't remember off the top of my head) and then the clubs, these guys were able to have their cheesecake and eat it at home too. But once Betty Friedan identified the problem that has no name and women -- especially those who had had a taste of financial independence during WW2 -- the patriarchal house of cards began to crumble a bit. (Not that it's ever really come tumbling down.. . .) That generation -- my dad's generation -- is almost gone, so now their sons are hitting retirement and looking back with fondness at a time they really don't know a whole lot about. Is that making any sense? And that's the boomer generation, and there are a lot of them.

    But it's also I think a reflection of the times we're in now. The 50s and 60s were boom times, not only in terms of population growth but in terms of wealth creation. Compare that to today.

    One of the best books I've ever read about the subject is Susan J. Douglas' 1994 book "Where the Girls Are: Growing up female with the mass media." Allow me to quote from the Introduction:

    "I am a woman of the baby boom, which means my history is filled with embarrassment, littered with images I'd just as soon forget. Old photos of my friends and me in platform shoes or, worse, hot pants, our hair freshly ironed, arm-in-arm with some neanderthal yet highly self-satisfied boyfriend in a surplus army jacket, serve as unforgiving reprimands of how naive and pliable we seemed in our youth. Reading the diary I kept as a teenager is now excruciating, so mortifying that, if anyone else were to find it, I think I would blind myself with hot coals or simply commit hara-kiri. I look back at my former self, her hair mottled like tortoise shell after an unfortunate encounter with a box of Summer Blonde in the upstairs bathroom, the words she wrote in her spiral notebooks obsessed with two topics -- boys and sex -- and I wonder: Who are you? How could you have been so insipid? Are you related to me? How did you become me?

    "I don't know where you were in, say, 1964, but I divided my time between screaming wildly for the Beatles, wearing a cheerleading uniform, scrubbing my face ten times a day with Noxzema and putting my hair up in rollers the size of Foster's lager cans. (This was when I and all my friends learned to sleep on our faces.). . . "

    Except for the Summer Blonde and the cheerleading uniform -- I would dye my sort of reddish hair jet black in 1967 and it stayed that way for over 30 years; I was never popular enough to be a cheerleader -- Douglas' account of 1964 is identical to mine, right down to the hot pants, the spiral notebook diaries, and sleeping on my face. The book recounts the mixed messages, the contradictions of the media's representation of and messages to women, but when I read it in 1998, after I had quit writing romances and decided to go back to college, virtually everything in it also applied to romance novels. More than a decade later it still does.

  8. @Marianne & Linda:

    I agree that the wish to return to better times lies at the heart of the 60s TV show explosion.

    Women of the 60s started as proper little girls who knew their places. They grew into rebels and their rebellion made new places for women. I think we owe a great deal to those courageous women.

    Today a woman's place could be at the head of the boardroom table - or in the White House. Given that, I don't see any way on Earth that women would make that journey back in time.

    And perhaps that's the real motive of the anti-romance movement as well. But it's doomed to fail because today women know that their place is wherever they want it to be.

    The genie is out of the bottle and ready to reach for the stars.

  9. Besides being a male romance author, I also host the Romance Radio Network where I interview writers. I have been privileged to have authors, such as Nancy Gaffney, Erin Sinclair, Nora Weston and many others on the show. Their books are overwhelmingly full of empowered, strong women characters.

    The niche television shows, mentioned above, aim for a particular segment, as reported, but, I believe these are doomed to short lives. Their gimmick, a return to the 60s era of blatant peacocking and sexual innuendos can't survive the episodic nature of prime time television delivering tripe, using women as sirens to sell beer.

    Romance novels have changed dramatically from bodice-rippers to reflect the current times. Authors, such as those I mentioned above, write compelling stories, requiring thought and intelligence (see my reviews on as examples). Their themes and underlying references belie the superficial and delve into more than prose as a prelude to sex.

  10. Mary Anne Graham --

    Unfortunately, the genie may have been out of the bottle for a while, but there are definitely forces pushing her back in.

    And if you want to know my theories on why there's no great rush to criticize m/m romance or f/f romance, you'll have to come over to my blog (tomorrow)! ;-)

  11. Okay, you can come over to any time now. What's there is just a scratching of the surface, but this is a discussion I've been having, often only with myself, since 1995.


    Linda (who also happens to be a Linda Ann; does that count for some kind of divaship?)

  12. @Desmond:

    It sounds like you have interviewed some fine writers. I popped by your site and found that your books look interesting as well. I hope you're right about the short life span of these TV shows. It annoys me that they will have any life span at all. I wish networks would look at these things and say - are we risking our female audience for the prospect of very little gain.

    @Linda: I'm going to pop by your site and check out your post now. I'd suggest everyone interested in the current bashing of m/f romance pop by Linda's site to see her views on why the "bashers" aren't attacking m/m or f/f romance as well. And BTW - to me, an "Ann" in your name counts a lot. I'd suggested RomANNce Divas as an alternate name for this site!!

  13. I hope these television shows disappear quickly. The problem I see is that women have no dignity in so many of the popular shows that focus on male fantasy. But they also have no dignity in some of the reality shows either, like Bridezilla, or whatever it is called. Has anyone heard of the word, decorum? I really love that word. LOL I don't know how we as a society have allowed women to be debased in rap and other popular forms of what some people call entertainment. Romance is so much more than all that.

  14. Hi there, Mary Anne Graham's husband here.

    As homework for putting Mary Anne's post together here, I watched the promos in question and read synopses of the shows on their respective websites.

    It seems to me that the networks are just putting a fresh coat of lipstick on the same old pig. Or, given the content involved, more like putting a pig on the lipstick.

    In my opinion (as little as it matters), the networks are trying out a "Desperate Housewives" formula for show marketing. That is, previews show a bunch of cheesecake with a neo-traditional premise (women staying home while their men go off to the rat race), but the show itself targets the usual female demographic.

    I don't know why they would do that, to tell you the truth. Maybe they're hoping to "trap" men into watching the shows? Maybe they're trying to generate the sort of controversy that we see in this very comment thread - a sort of real life trolling - with the hopes they'll attract more (ticked off) female eyeballs to their first few episodes, which are the make-or-break ones for a new series.

    I really don't think they're trying to cater to men at all. Many other channels on cable are doing that already, with mostly reality shows like American Chopper and job-oriented drama like the Law and Order series.


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