(Not so) Leading Ladies.
It’s cold, the weather is changing, we’re all at that point where we are pretending to work, when actually just trying to restrain ourselves from buying presents online – no? Just me? Ok. Well, let’s warm the cockles of your heart with a little feminism, where mulled wine would make you feel warm and add a glow to your cheeks, I will pour fuel on your fire of feminism and get your anger to warm you up.
As ever, my nieces and I have been chatting about things that come up in their lives that relate to feminism (so that’s pretty much everything, as they are finding), and if things don’t come up, I create an environment where I point out things and then find a tedious link; “oh look there is a tree, isn’t mother nature wonderful, speaking of mother’s and the parental role of women….” you see how I am exceptionally subtle in my ways.
This week they pointed out the tediousness themselves by saying, hey Aunty, you remind us of this woman on TV, Mindy. Mindy is a gynecologist in “The Mindy Project” and is possibly the only Indian woman I have ever seen as a protagonist on mainstream TV, apparently that’s not why I remind them of her…as I was repeatedly convinced of. Having watched the show, there may be some other reasons… But it started a question about women in mainstream TV and sitcoms. Now, there was lots we talked about, they went through Made in Chelsea and Hollyoaks, and rightly, pointed out that many of the women that are friends are connected because they have dated a male character or are not really friends as they are all backstabbing each other…over a male character, or are going shopping to buy a dress to impress….a male character. There was a pattern, and we talked about why this existed. They decided it was because media mimicked what was going on in society. But then I asked, what if media is what causes this happening in society? They went quiet, and I think this may have been too much for one evening! They then felt bad for watching these shows but I explained that it’s ok for them to watch it, provided they know to question it and they know that it does not need to reflect society for them.
We talked about the Bechdel Test (which links to a lot of what I write about below). The test analyses films for the capacity they have for women characters. The film passes the test if they a) have at least 2 named women b) these women talk to each other c) they do not only talk to each other about a man. You will be saddened at how many fail.
But it got me thinking about the shows I watch and the women in them, and how I balance the cognitive dissonance about watching them and being feminist. I’m focusing on three comedies, because comedy tends to be the genre that is the biggest criminal of sexism:
The Big Bang Theory: Well, lets be honest, it’s funny and I like science, so we are winning there. But let’s take a look at the main women in the show. First Penny, the blonde, beautiful woman next door, who is struggling to become an actress so is waitressing to get by. She becomes the object of one of the main male characters affections and causes others to make particularly sexist remarks or, just not be able to talk at all, her appearance seems to render one speechless. Often Penny is the butt of the joke, as she is beautiful but stupid (a woman can’t be both, you see), it becomes exhausting how the “funny” is her not getting a scientific joke. One particularly difficult episode saw her learning about physics to maintain her boyfriend’s attention, another sees him use Penny as an object to parade around to old filthy men academic to ensure he gets tenure. A second character is Amy (who I love) she is a neuroscientist (not just on the show) and is introduced to a particularly emotionally incompetent who is similar to her, so both start a relationship of convenience. However this doesn’t last long, as Amy becomes attached and wants a proper boyfriend like other girls and becomes emotionally invested (silly, woman) the male character, Sheldon, remains unchanged (at least it’s realistic…). Lastly, and worst, Amy maintains a status quo in the show, you can’t be beautiful and clever, she is often depicted as frumpy, unattractive and undesirable….you know, cause she’s smart and that’s enough. The third character is Bernadette, she too is a scientist and gets together with another male character. She defies the idea that we can’t be beautiful and intelligent. But strangely she is given a comically high voice and very traditionally “girly” disposition, perhaps this is just in case, we at some point forget that she is a mere woman? I have never been quite sure why she needed that addition. In the beginning of her relationship she was more known for her scientific endeavors and the intellectual exchange, there was even a time where she earned more than Howard (her partner) which was presented a “emasculation” however after marriage, she has become more of an extra piece in the show, and stories are mainly about her as a wife…. So, whilst I love a bit of funny, when I think about it with feminist goggles, it could have aimed higher (incidentally, it doesn’t depict a great picture of academically intelligent men, either…but we all know that too, is actually about patriarchy….)
Given that I have been (not just by my nieces) compared to this woman, I thought I should give it a try. So I watched through and some of it admittedly, is closer to who I am than just her ethnicity (not sure I am happy about that but lets leave the psychology for my friends). She is a partner in a medical firm and a main character who is female, who is not white and is not ridiculously thin or “mainstream” attractive (she is attractive FYI). This is all excellent and she even talks about feminism in her weekly escapades, preventing young girls from feeling forced to have sex, not bending to norms by losing weight or taking down stripper polls with hilarious results (at this point I may start to see the similarities a little more). Where the show lets itself down is that it is essentially about how messed up her love life is and that she sits at home watching “You got mail” crying into a tub of Ben and Jerry’s and mourning about the fact that she hasn’t found a man to make a family with. Almost, TV box, you almost had me. I get how that is funny, but why is it the only thing that is funny? Why is it the only funny woe of a woman?
Often the episodes is around a new man in her life and whether she will manage to make this work, given how flustered she seems to be by the opposite sex and how desperate she is (obviously, I mean, she is in her thirties and should probably feel bad for not fertilizing her ovaries yet). But hey, we’ve got a non conventional looking woman character, TV can’t bring all our Christmases at once.
Never has a show cause me inner turmoil the way this has. Everything in me wants to not like it, yet, there I am laughing and being compelled, WHY?!?! On paper Jess is everything you don’t want a protagonist to be in 2013. Big eyed, wearing ribbons, in need of care, a flustered teacher, who sings songs to her pupils about friendship and doesn’t know how to parallel park. But don’t worry, she lives with 3 dysfunctional men who are man enough to park her car for her. But maybe what keeps it going, is that the 3 dudes are so far away from maturity that if she was to ask them to park her car, they would all suddenly realise their licences had expired. Perhaps by default then, she becomes the competent one and I have therefore made my piece with the situation…?! There are episodes which garner some merit; those where she is unapologetic for her femininity and she sums up why I secretly like her:
“I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children. And I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. That’s just weird, and it freaks me out. And I’m sorry I don’t talk like Murphy Brown And I hate your pantsuit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something to make it just slightly cuter. And that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong.” Quite. I have a polka dot pink skirt, in case you were wondering.
But like all things, it molds to the TV gods and gets all up in my feminist grill, particularly with her need to be the “mother” to the dysfunctional men, or when talking about fertility issues, all the women characters suddenly start to worry they will be incomplete if they cannot reproduce. Don’t get me wrong, babies are awesome, they just don’t need to be the only thing you do. TV, you’ve got some learning to do.
But LOOK! it’s not too bad. If you step out of the comedy genre (because comedy, let’s face it, has rarely had a feminist face) and move into drama, you find a lot more to love and feel ok about. Shows like The Good Wife, The Newsroom and Revenge, do a better job of depicting strong, multi-layered, unapologetic, realistic woman characters.
The best example of this is the one and only, CJ Cregg from the West Wing. Let me introduce you to who I would like to be when I grow up. CJ is (at the beginning) the Press Secretary for the Whitehouse, the spin machine. She is charismatic, intelligent, strong and principled. Yet she is emotional, affectionate, personable and caring. THAT’S RIGHT MULTI-LAYERED. Her character has romantic attachments and goes shopping for Vera Wang dresses whilst talking about the realities of being a woman in public life, the differences she experiences being the only woman around a table of men army officials and the injustices women suffer across the world. One of my most favorite features was that she was allowed to be funny.Take a look on TV the comic isn’t usually a woman. Aaron Sorkin got a lot of things right with that show, but CJ Cregg was, for me, the top of the list.
There is a particular episode called “The Woman of Qumar” which, if you have never watched the West Wing, you should watch and you will understand why this is a character worthy of the praise. Pure class.
TV is not feminism’s friend, for all the patriarchy pulling reasons you’ll know. But there are characters that come along every so often to make it bearable. If you’re looking for a prime time show without sexism, sell your TV, radio and subscriptions because, pal, you’re better off making your own show with sock puppets.
Alternatively, there’s no point in feeling guilty for the patriarchy of generations which you did not create (unless you choose to partake or stay silent). You can change it by question why it’s there and joining in with campaigns and change making projects which are attempting to change main stream media so we can change society and vice versa (a great example of this is Miss Representation)
For now, I’ve made myself feel better so I am going to laugh at something Schmidt says in New Girl UNASHAMEDLY.