If you're on a site about feminist response to pop culture (spoiler alert: you are), you have probably heard of the Bechdel Test for movies. Conceived in Alison Bechdel's Dykes To Watch Out For, the test is simple: to pass, the movie in question must feature a conversation between two named female characters that is not about a man. It's a good indication of whether or not a film is at all concerned with women, or if its focus is entirely on men. It's deceptively simple; upon hearing this for the first time, I thought "well, surely almost every film must pass!" But no.
While I am not the movie writer in residence here (check out Snarky's archive for that!) I've found that it's easily applicable to other forms of media, including television! It's not a standard I apply to every single episode of every single television show I watch, but more of something that occurs to me while I'm watching. "Oh," I'll think while watching Tami and Tyra talk about college on Friday Night Lights. "This episode clearly passes the Bechdel test! Awesome!" The Bechdel test is not a way to tell whether or not a show is feminist—that depends on the viewer's interpretation of the show and their definition of feminism—but it's a good way to gauge the development and value of female characters on the show.
Mad Men is back on Sunday for its fourth season! I am a big fan (I've written about the show often at Deeply Problematic) but unfortunately I cannot write critically about a season that has not yet aired. Nonetheless, I do have a few specific subjects I want to see addressed in season four. The first two are issues that the show is already addressing quite well, and which I would like to see explored further. And the second two are matters the show has not yet addressed (to my satisfaction, at least).
There's not a whole lot I have to say about Police Women of Memphis as a show in general. I think that glorifying a very problematic justice system as this show seems to do is probably not fantastic. But, I like that it depicts ladies in positions of authority, being competent. It's also cool that many of these women are of color. And one of the cops on the show is named "Virginia Awkward", which is a pretty kickass name.
PWOM came to my atttention this weekend after I heard of its depiction of an almost radical act. It portrayed women as being worthy of respect, and protection. As not deserving of sexual harassment. This in itself would be worthy of praise. But this depiction is particularly worthy of singling out because the women being protected were trans women. And in a media environment that generally depicts trans women as deceptive, predatory, disgusting, and generally less than human, that's exceptional.
United States of Tara, a show about a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), recently wrapped up its second season. I haven't yet seen it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first season—I love Toni Collette and Diablo Cody, and there are not a ton of shows about women by women. There are even less shows set in my home state of Kansas. It's a funny, well-written, and on some levels well-executed show.
But, after rewatching and researching the show's origins and authorship in a critical context, I was perturbed to realize that the show's portrayal of disability was not only sensationalistic, but inherently based on appropriatiion. In United States of Tara, DID is used as a metaphor, an analogy, a plot point—part of the human experience, yes, but also an opportunity to speculate, crack jokes, and make grand statements about Life (normal life: that is, with able privilege) and Being A Woman (an everyday woman: that is, one who is not crazy).
In an interview with Salon, Munn says "these women [Jezebel bloggers] sit behind this very thin veil that I can see right through, this idea that 'we stand up for women.' If you stand up for women, then don't bash me." This quote reveals a strict adherence to what I'll call the Palin Feminist Fallacy: the idea that if a woman does something, it is automatically a feminist action. Being "okay" with a sexist remark doesn't mean that it's automatically no longer sexist, and being a female who makes misogynistic jokes doesn't somehow cancel out the misogyny.
Weeds in its first three seasons was an excellent show—it was well-written, clever satire with multifaceted and funny characters. Its send-up of the rhetoric and culture of suburbia was funny and pointed and coherent. Celia was a hilarious and capable antagonist, and I loved that the older het white men on the show—Doug, Andy, and Dean—were strongly characterized as inept and lazy. In contrast to the class and race privileged characters in Agrestic, Heylia James and her nephew Conrad Shepherd, the pot dealers who gave Nancy her start in the business, were funny, sympathetic, and competent. They were easy to root for, while Nancy made irresponsible decisions by the dozens. Heylia and Conrad took themselves and their ambitions as individuals seriously, and handled themselves and their business adroitly.
I'm not alone in thinking that Weeds has fallen hard in recent years. The basic thesis of the show in its fourth and fifth season seems to be "everything falls to shit, and Mexico and Mexican folks are every awful stereotype you've ever heard." All but the most clearly and slowly spelled out motivations of the characters are completely unintelligible. It's not very funny, and doesn't put sexism or racism or classism in any kind of critical context. The greatest indicator of this steep drop in quality is the complete and total erasure of Heylia and Conrad. Much to the show's detriment, these two fine characters have been abandoned, literally never mentioned at all after the end of the third season.
Today, I conclude my comparative review of South Park and Family Guy. This is the last part of a four-part series (one, two, three for your convenience) called the Offensive Olympics. These shows are both notable for their propensity to rely on political shock value and the oppression of marginalized bodies to make their jokes, so I am investigating which is worse, and on which axis.
My affection for shows like King of the Hill and the Simpsons (the kind of shows that Family Guy half-heartedly rips off) grows the more I watch it and the better I know the characters, the setting, the style of humor. With Family Guy, though, I just grow irritated and bored.
Image: A seafoam green television from the past, the Braun HF 1. From Wikipedia.
TelevIsm is a series about currently airing television shows. I imposed this parameter on myself so that I would not post endlessly about shows that I love that are gone, like Battlestar Galactica and King of the Hill (an excellent show that the brilliant Snarky's Machine and I turn the discussion to in a few comment sections round these parts.) But today, I thought I'd shift the conversation to the future: the 2010-2011 network television season.
Since I've begun my stint here at Bitch, I've been watching a lot of Bones on Netflix. Are you ready for a surprise, faithful TelevIsm readers?
I'm kind of in love with it.
I spend a lot of time critiquing how ladies and folks of color are portrayed on television, but Bones is a rare show that consistently portrays their politically marginalized characters as competent, admirable, and worthy of respect and commendation.