Laurie Penny: Playboy for the new generation

For some, Mad Men is an elegant fantasy of curvy secretaries in stylish swing-skirts

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Austerity is back and sexism is being served up old-style for a new generation. Hooters, the vintage American ribs 'n' racks chain, whose scantily clad waitresses are required to sign employment contracts consenting to "joking and innuendo based on female sex appeal", is set to open three new restaurants in the UK. In London, after a 30-year hiatus, Hugh Hefner's famous Playboy club will soon reopen in all its bunny-bouncing glory.

Jobless women in Cardiff and Bristol are apparently flocking to staff the new booby bars, eager to escape unemployment via the newest trend in popular misogyny: retro-sexism. The phenomenon is not exclusive to these erotic eateries but they exemplify the twisted logic of contemporary sexual objectification. Complaints have largely been dismissed by patrons and business owners, who are keen to remind us that, since sexism doesn't exist anymore, paying to be served food and drink by underpaid young ladies in hotpants is "tongue in cheek". The official strapline of the Hooters brand announces that it is "delightfully tacky".

Male commentators are also quick to insist that objectifying women in this tacky way is ironic, and hence not seriously meant. But ironic sexual arousal is extremely similar to unironic sexual arousal – so it's lucky that the formula of these retro jiggle joints, derived from the plasticised aesthetic of pornography, is about as erotic as a gas bill. The Playboy empire in particular is a wilting, impotent cliché, its "bunny" branding a weary rehearsal of sterile stereotypes of femininity, all bouncy smiles and submission.

But sexism seizes its chances, and for some of today's troubled working men, cowed by the fiscal sadism of the new regime, indulging in a little vintage sexual power-play may offer an easy way to feel momentarily less abject. These titty bars, and the porny feminine culture they represent, evoke an era when the formal rules of inequality were at least static and comprehensible. Women were real women, and men were real sleazebags.

Retro-sexist entertainment is an astute commercialisation of the male yearning for perceived liberties of a past that never really existed, but which looks terribly glamorous: an age of bottom-wiggling subservience when jobs were for life and working stiffs could afford to stuff a few shillings into a stripper's garter.

Nostalgia for a sexist past is not just restricted to the explicit sliver of the economy that serves up misogyny with French fries and a floury bap. It's part of the same social trend that prefers to see the television series Mad Men as an elegant fantasy of curvy secretaries in stylish swing-skirts, rather than a horrifying dramatisation of the drab desperation of women's lives within living memory. These days, women are not often required to smile sweetly like Joan from Mad Men when clients comment on our breasts – unless we work at Hooters, of course. And now, the presentation is savvy, intensely modern, based around cynical notions of "choice" and "empowerment".

Defenders claim that because the young women who work in these places choose to do so, that must mean that it is all-empowering and a good laugh. The Hooters website claims: "To Hooters, the women's rights movement is important because it guarantees women have the right to choose their own careers, be it a Supreme Court Justice or Hooters Girl."

After almost a century of female suffrage, however, the choice between living on a dwindling pittance of benefits and peddling one's pert behind is perhaps not a choice to celebrate. Millions of women employed in the public sector will soon be out of jobs. The choice to earn the minimum wage as part of a frigid commercial pageant of erotic dominance is anything but tongue-in-cheek. And if the economy double-dips, more of us will feel obliged to cash in on our double-Ds. There's nothing ironic about that at all.

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