Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Feminist" television

First of all, I found another site I really really like that I'm going to have to check regularly. It's like a curse, the goodness of the internets, sometimes. This one: The Hathor Legacy focusses on the depiction of women and feminist issues in television and film.

Which inspires me to write a post that's been knocking around in my head for quite some time: I'm bloody sick of the kind of television that is usually held up as "feminist" and putting forward progressive views of women/sex/relationships. Back on my livejournal, I wrote on the limitations of Buffy in this context a few months ago, but to be fair, the more mainstream shows that usually get mentioned in the same breath as "feminism" don't even belong in the same sport as Buffy, to say nothing of ballpark.

Exhibit A: Sex and the City. There was a time I liked that show and bought into the "feminist" rhetoric, with the whole 30-something, single and sex-positive kind of deal. But aside from the fact that the characters are ludicrously shallow and kind of suck, there's a difference between being sex-positive and sex-defined. The original ideal of showing happily single 30 something straight women whose friendships are more important than being made complete through marriage or monogamy falls flat in the face of what actually develops on the show: as Miranda herself says angrily in one episode "Why can't smart, funny, successful women find something to talk about other than men?" Worst, in my opinion, they undermine the whole point of presenting the show that way when all 4 main characters end the series married or in relationships presented as the best thing that ever happened to each of them. Without even getting started on Mr Big's quality as a human being/long-term love interest, contrast that with the final episode of Golden Girls from ten or fifteen years earlier: Dorothy is heading off after getting married, but the others are all sticking together, and the last scene shows the women saying goodbye to Dorothy and her coming back in repeatedly to hug them while her husband waits patiently off screen because these are the relationships on which we built the show. Carrie walking down the street alone and getting a phone call from Mr Big not only tells me that I don't give a shit that his name was John, but leaves me with the message that ultimately I'm supposed to be happy for her because she's landed the one and only love of her life.

Exhibit B: Ally McBeal. Everybody knows this show sucked, but I've thought about it more lately because Calista Flockhart is on the new show Brothers and Sisters, which I actually mostly like, the former Ms. McBeal and her pucker-face kind of included. Why did that show suck? Because, again, we have a relatively successful, not-even-all-that-old career woman who is supposed to show us that men and relationships are not the be all and end all of a fulfilling life, and who really sends us the message that single women are whiny, man-hungry and completely neurotic. Oh, and it wasn't funny at all.

Exhibit C: Desperate Housewives. The marketing of this show veers wildly between yet another apparently woman-positive group of female friends and just plain sexy soap opera, but the ads for the Golden Globes have repeatedly shown Teri Hatcher's way-hyper acceptance speech which included a rant about how fantastic it was for people to recognize such a high-risk show (because the main cast is predominantly women over 40, neglecting to notice the complete lack of risk inherent in filling the show with gossip, sex, murder and deception). So I feel compelled to point out that again we have a cast of women with the following positive and redeeming characteristics: a former model whose self-worth depends entirely on her looks and material possessions, and who actually commits statutory rape; a divorcée single mother who literally falls all over herself to impress men and has absolutely no ability to actually parent or get over herself for even 30 seconds; a career woman who struggles with her husband over which of them should stay home to care for their terrorist children, but who actually manipulates her entire family for personal gain and status; and a neurotic obsessed with projecting an image of stability from whom we apparently learn that Republican women don't have orgasms, ever, at all. It's kudos to Marcia Cross that she actually makes this last one, in all her homophobia and snap relationship decisions, seem anything but entirely reprehensible.

Can we have a moratorium on anyone, like, ever, putting together an ensemble of women designed to show us some sort of positive female something or other? Because it pretty much always winds up doing exactly the opposite, and as I said back in my Joss Whedon livejournal post, a show like Firefly, which is about a whole whack of other stuff and not explicitly strong women, actually ends up doing a much better job of making the women real, likeable and strong in a way that is not forced and that makes it seem like strong women are just a natural part of the world. Which, by the way, they are.

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