Stewardesses, bunnies and angels: Fall’s femme-centric TV lineup — but is this a woman’s world?

Fall TV’s retro reversal in female roles is scintillating on the surface but causing a stir among critics. declared “The Return of Jiggle TV” with three shows in particular—“Pan Am”, “The Playboy Club” and the inexhaustible “Charlie’s Angel’s”—whose selling point seems to scream sex. Judging these shows by their billboards, a woman’s figure constitutes her forte.

On the surface, this obsession with an earlier era, when gender roles were more clearly defined, seems a bit nostalgic. Weren’t things glamourous then? Wasn’t air travel easier? Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who famously infiltrated the Playboy world as part of an investigative piece for Show magazine called for a boycott of the NBC drama. “Clearly ‘The Playboy Club’ is not going to be accurate,” Steinem, who went undercover as a Playboy bunny at the New York City club in 1963, told Reuters. “It was the tackiest place on earth. It was not glamorous at all.” Steinem also said, that unlike “Mad Men” which depicts the 60s with “some realism”, she thinks the fluffiness of the Playboy Club “normalizes a passive dominant idea of gender.”

“[I]t normalizes prostitution and male dominance,” she said.

And in male-dominated Hollywood, harking back to the Cold War cool of the 60s is relief from reality. In the smoky nightclubs of Chicago, or the darkened, liquor-scented restaurants of Manhattan current anxieties about power and control brought on by the economic crisis are forgotten. Sense is dulled by the ubiquity of the sensual.

I explored some of these themes in an interview with Nancy Ganis, the co-executive producer of “Pan Am” who herself was a Pan Am stewardess in the 1960s. Rather than objectify women, Ganis said the clear-cut gender roles of the 60s set boundaries and encouraged respect.

It’s hard to tell, what with the requisite girdles, supervised weigh-ins and protocol panty hose (“not too dark; this isn’t a cabaret”), that the 1960s world depicted in “Pan Am” is supposed to be about the era’s most worldly women.

ABC-TV’s new hour-long drama, which premieres Sept. 25, is set at a lush airport popping in Pan Am’s signature blue. Stewardesses walk in a perfectly synchronized horizontal line (like at a cabaret), each leg in kick-line step as they ascend their version of a stage — the tarmac. The women talk like this: “I get to see the world,” one stewardess, Maggie (Christina Ricci), tells her boyfriend. “When was the last time you left the village?” And the men, awed by the Pan Am breed of beauty and brains, say things like: “Get your fanny to midtown, Sweetheart!”

It’s not exactly the milieu remembered by Nancy Ganis, one of the show’s creators and executive producers, who was a Pan Am stewardess more than 30 years ago. Ganis took to the skies for the first time in 1969 as a wide-eyed 21-year-old in search of the world. Back then, she said, becoming a stewardess was an indication of ambition and intelligence, and many of the women hired were well educated and from privileged backgrounds. On the show, a woman gets props for being “trilingual.”

“Pan Am hired people to be like the girl next door,” Ganis said by phone from the show’s New York set. “We were supposed to have very high moral standards. We were considered ambassadors of good will, sort of a quasi-diplomatic corps. You came to the job with certain innate skills — how to be gracious, good manners, poise.”

But, even with Ganis at the show’s helm, truth can get lost in translation.

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