'The Playboy Club': Can women be empowered while wearing bunny costumes?

amber-heard-playboy-alt.jpgNBC's "The Playboy Club" has yet to premiere (tune in Monday, Sept. 19 at 10 p.m.) and it's already causing controversy. A Salt Lake City NBC affiliate is refusing to air the series, and the Parents Television Council is urging other affiliates to keep the show off the air as well.

At the Television Critics Association Press Tour on Monday, the showrunners and stars of the series quite literally faced their critics. Addressing the affiliate issue, executive producer Chad Hodge says, "That is certainly their right to air or not air the show; we're just excited that another network in Salt Lake City has picked up the show."

The theme of the day was whether or not the series, which is set in the 1960s at the Chicago Playboy Club, degrades or empowers women. The bunnies in the series certainly have their various secrets, and there are certainly "dirty dealings" happening at the club, though there's no implication that any of the women are having sex for money.

In fact, the producers and actors defended the show throughout the panel, maintaining that the overarching theme of the series is female empowerment. Set in an era where there were limited job opportunities for women, the Playboy Club bunnies made their own money in a legal way. "These girls are smart, they're going to school, they're buying property," series star Naturi Naughton says. "Things that a lot of women weren't able to do at that time. They're using their resources and relying on themselves."

"It's mild, compared to a lot of stuff that's on television," executive producer Ian Biederman says, noting that the writers' intent is not to be racy or exploitative, but to tell a character-driven story. "It's a lot of fun, there's a lot of music in it and a lot of energy. That's the true [intent] of the show."

Clearly tired of critics attacking the amount of T&A in the show, Jenifer Lewis -- a Broadway veteran with a no-nonsense attitude, interrupted the panel. "Look, yeah, people were having sex in the bathroom... I just had sex in the bathroom!" she shouted. "Take my character, Pearl. Pearl is a seamstress in the Playboy Club. She's the mother hen to these girls; they come to me with their problems. Pearl herself is representing many African-American women at the time who were coming off welfare, coming out of the domestic world, looking to empower themselves and make a name for themselves and get a job. So yes, the sex will be there, as it is everywhere, in every show. But it's about these women, and it's character-driven, and Chad Hodge has written an incredible multi-dimensional character for me. I know that I'm representing a large part of the civil rights movement and the history there. I just think that it's going to be fun and I know that I'm going to be fabulous in it."

It's hard to argue that. Slightly more soft-spoken, Amber Heard says that the series is about women making a choice in the face of the opportunities and expectations that existed at the time. "I'm very fortunate to be part of a generation now where I don't need to choose between combat boots and an apron," she says, coyly. "I can do it in heels."

As for whether it's chauvinistic for male writers and executives to produce a show that features women who spend most of their time in barely-there bunny costumes, Heard says, "I think it's just as chauvinistic to deny a woman her sexuality."
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