I haven't been writing about Mad Men too much because I am trying to let it simmer for a while before I make any pronouncements of quality. I will say that I'm still waiting for the good stuff, and that while I'm moderately optimistic that it's coming, this has, thus far, been a strange season for Mad Men's women.
Take Peggy, for example. You already know that I have a fondness for awkward young women on television. It comes from a sense of solidarity with the future name-taker who hasn't yet seen just how many asses she'll be able to kick someday. So it will come as no surprise, I think, when I tell you that I'm on Team Peggy in the Mad Men universe, hoping that she will ultimately triumph over the men who decided what she was before she had the chance to discover it herself. I have always preferred her awkward ambitiousness to Joan's swagger and tart remarks - there was a sense of the outsider to the former, and a refreshing sort of self-awareness.
The television newswire was abuzz last week with the hiring of two new SNL funnywomen, Jenny Slate and Nasim Pedrad, but as it turns out, they’re not there to up the vagina quotient on a show that has always been Mostly About The Men. No, Slate and Pedrad are replacements for last year’s new ovary-hires, Michaela Watkins and Casey Wilson. And I suppose I should be saying something now about how insulting it is that women aren’t considered funny (thanks a bunch Chris Hitchens) and that there appear to be designated lady-spots on the cast of SNL – the 2009-2010 cast will contain just four inner-gonads havers.
But as I was trying to build up the requisite head of steam to write such a piece, I found I couldn’t, for once, muster the outrage. See, I wish I had something super-intelligent to say about either Watkins or Wilson, but let’s face it: at the best of times, I’m a casual SNL watcher. And just for fun, ask yourself this question: do you know ANYONE who watches Saturday Night Live faithfully anymore? I mean, absent complete boredom of a Saturday evening I can’t imagine forcing myself through an entire live broadcast. Hortense at Jezebel used to have people sit up and join in a thread, but once Tina Fey gave up Sarah Palin’s ghost last fall there was little appeal in it anymore. So I can’t help but feel, somehow, that it’s a compliment that few women are “funny enough” (scare quotes intentional) to be regular SNL cast members these days. It’s sort of like that time in my eight-grade gym class when the girls were made to watch the boys play basketball so that we’d “learn something.” Oh, we did, and that lesson was: bumping the ball with your knees does not count as dribbling.
For at least the last thirty years (and probably more) my mom has been a faithful viewer of The Young and the Restless. For several years in there I was too - my earliest memories involve eating the peel from her apple while watching the show. Without fail, my mother has taped every episode, even if she's watching it live, in case she is called away. Great woe awaited the daughter of hers who accidentally interfered with its taping on the VCR every once in awhile - though always the result of a mistake my mother acted as if I had deliberately planned the ruin of her day. Vacations are organized with an eye to how my mother will get to catch up on her show. Nowadays I'll only see glimpses of it when I'm home, and not much has changed: Victor is still endlessly remarrying and divorcing Nikki, Jack Abbott still has an abundance of sandy blond hair, and there is always, always, a rhinestone somewhere in the frame.
I'll admit that despite all the wooden acting, the stilted dialogue, the unbelievable marriages and remarriages and devil possession plots, I did, for a while, succumb to the hypnotic power of the soap opera. There is something reassuring about them, the same people there every day, without fail, missing only a few major holidays a year, never changing and always predictable. And I can see, very well, that they broke up the monotony of housewivery for many women. Moreover, soap operas have occasionally displayed a penchant for progressivism: most recently, they've been introducing gay and lesbian characters with little judgment, and more than a little reverence.
Somebody should probably call these people up and inform them that actually, there is already a modern adaptation of Heathers on the air and it’s called Gossip Girl. Oh yes, of course, Gossip Girl isn’t actually witty or smart or anything but Serena did kill that one guy and dates the modern version of Christian Slater’s character if said character had poured his dreams into modern Brooklyn “writer” “soulful” soullessness. So please, for the love of God, don't try to remake it these days. We'll end up with a poor substitute for Winona Ryder, I tell you what.
Look, like everyone, I liked Heathers back in the day. I just need to amend the proposition that I think that television is nice to women, somewhat, to say I think it's nice to women over the age of 18. In fact, if anything, there is one archetype on television I think we have all had enough of in the last year: high-school bitchy. (Lest you forget, in Tina Fey's famous words, this was Sarah Palin's most annoying personality trait.) I am utterly and totally bored by the limited interpretation of the lives of teenage girls on television today. Not a one of them seems to have the least bit of a problem with the world of consumerism and hot purses, and if they have academic or professional (read: fashion) ambition at all (read: Blair Waldorf), it is because such ambition would confer on them social status they would like to have. Genuine intellectual curiosity, in a teenage girl on television today? Pshaw. You can't tear those ladies away from their Manolos! And it's the reality too! Have a look at The Hills sometime if you're looking for reasons to commit suicide, ladies!
I'm a big advocate of the political power of popular culture. I want to make every single person who is still saying, "I just don't understand why they have to be so public about it," sit down and watch The Laramie Project. The ability of narrative to move us is a side of feminist activism we don't talk about much, but it is, to me, the best one we have, which is why I love writing about pop culture from a feminist angle. I don't go, as I've said before, for monocausal explanations of just about anything. But I do think there's some relationship between seeing something depicted in a story and finding it easier to approach in real life.
The exception that's been proving my rule lately is the appearance, suddenly, of a spate of television shows about fat people: More to Love, The Biggest Loser, Drop Dead Diva. I put it this bluntly because in general, I'm an advocate of fat acceptance, and that includes calling fat what it is: fat. The Washington Post, in what one supposes was a hamfisted attempt at solidarity, recently proclaimed that "fat is fabulous" on television these days. They went on to speculate: what could possibly be behind this trend of having so much adipose tissue on display? Could it be that the fat people are taking over (the article slyly notes that "adult obesity rates increased in 23 states last year, and nearly one-third of all children in 30 states are considered overweight")? Alison Sweeney, the host of The Biggest Loser, limply offers that it must be about people connecting with the "human spirit."
Those of us who watch HBO's True Blood would have a hard time denying the show's sex appeal (or at least, sex). After all, Bon Temps, Lousiana (the fictional setting for the show) is one seeexxxy town. Vampires banging humans? Check. Humans banging shape-shifting farm animals? Check. A racy sex website hosted by a main character? Check. A crazed ancient goddess who makes everyone around her bang each other? Check. But female rape fantasies realized by gentlemanly Civil War-era vampires? Um, no, actually.
The current issue of Nylon Magazine features an interview with Anna Paquin (main character Sookie Stackhouse), Stephen Moyer (her boyfriend Vampire Bill), and the show's creator Alan Ball. Much of the interview revolves around Anna Paquin's nipples and hair color (thanks, Nylon! I guess blondes really do have more fun!) but this final quote from Stephen Moyer has me sharpening my stakes (and not just because I think Vampire Bill is kind of a douche):
Epilogue: Stephen Moyer, on Vampire Sex:
The thing about vampirism is that it taps into a female point of view – you have an old-fashioned gentleman with manners who is a fucking killer… it's an interesting duality, because in our present society it would be an odd thing for a woman to say, 'I want my man to be physical with me.' How, as a modern man, can you fucking work that? It's one thing to be polite and gentle… But when do you know it's OK to crawl out of the mud and rape her [as Bill does in one scene]?... It's difficult stuff for a bloke, but a vampire gets away with it…. I think that's the attraction of the show – it's looking back at a romantic time when men were men, but they were still charming."
Behold, Sookie Stackhouse living out every modern woman's fantasy (or... not). Image via Icons of Fright
WTF, Vampire Bill? Was raping women a "gentlemanly" activity when you were growing up during the Civil War? (Yes, he grew up during the Civil War.) Do you think that forcing yourself on a woman and sucking her blood is the "romantic" realization of every frigid, non-Vampire-dating woman's fantasy? And am I the only one who read that coming-out-of-the-grave scene as completely consensual (if a bit unhygienic)? Let's discuss.
If you haven't been watching America's Best Dance Crew this season, it's time to start. For those out of the loop, ABDC (as it is known in the in-crowd) is a dance competition show on MTV that combines crew battles and audience voting to determine, well, America's best dance crew. Sure, the show is a little corny, and the awesome Artistry in Motion crew was eliminated last week despite their body-positive message, but ABDC has a lot to offer the feminist television viewer. The show focuses on teamwork and togetherness as opposed to the abilities of certain individuals, and every week they give the teams a different challenge (the Beyoncé challenge was particularly kickass). The real reason to watch, though, is Vogue Evolution.
America's Best Queer/Gay/Trans/Vogue/Activist Dance Crew!
I don't imagine many of you are Dollhouse viewers, not least because the new series by Joss Whedon of Buffy and Angel fame had a rocky ride of a first season. If you gave up on him, I have a new mantra for you: Joss is always worth the trouble. Joss identifies as a feminist, and indeed, before anybody scoffs or points to Buffy's short skirts or what have you, I encourage you to read this.
That said, Dollhouse ain't perfect, on feminist or any other grounds, frankly. I only managed to stick it out through its initial rough patch on faith alone. See, Fox forced Joss to retool the show and rearrange some plot development early on. This led to some awfully confusing early episodes in which the network's desire to sell the show as Sexy! seemed at odds with Joss's own plans. The premise of the show being a brothel staffed by people who have, literally, had personality lobotomies, this isn't just in bad taste - it is bad marketing.
Here's a shocker: when you start dating your boyfriend thirty seconds after he leaves his wife, the woman who carried his eight children, he might not be sticking around with you for very long. You might also be surprised when, as his divorce is being talked about everywhere from websites, to TV shows, to our podcast and oh, right, on his reality show that perhaps maybe, just maybe, you, as the lady who decided to date this man, might be dragged through the mud along with him when his divorce from his wife and subsequent fall from A-#1 Super Dad status gets ugly. It was a fantastic idea to date him in the first place, don't get me wrong. I mean, as a "journalist" for Star Magazine who was supposed to be covering the shitstorm that is Jon and Kate Gosselin's life right now, you definitely did not overstep any boundaries by being with him in the first place. And yes, you should absolutely go on E!, Inside Edition and The CBS Early Show and let all of us know how he "totally screwed (you) over and acted like a dirtbag". Maybe, you know, you shouldn't have believed him when he said he would be with you forever. This is a man who started seeing you when he was still married. Perhaps, and this is just me rambling here, you shouldn't go on TV and get upset about how you broke up and are now having to deal with the aftermath. This is douchey behavior. Yes, Jon Gosselin's behavior was douchey, as well, absolutely, but you cannot fight douchebaggery with douchebaggery, you know what I'm sayin'?
I can't say that this first episode of the third season of Mad Men wowed me, but I suppose it was inevitable, amidst all the hype, that the episode would disappoint at least one person in its audience. And indeed, it was something of a shaky start. Don's reminisicing - or, really, more accurately, reimagining, since he can't possibly remember - the circumstances of his own birth made for a rather confusing opener. Not only did there seem to be, literally, a dick joke in it (not a particularly clever one IMHO), it was an oddly sentimental moment for a character whose trademark is emotional opacity. Don has never been the kind of man who much interests himself with the inner lives of women, or more particularly someone attached to the notion of mothers and origin. He is, as the old saying goes, the epitome of a self-made man, constructed entirely of the things he thinks he wants to be, however disappointed he may be when he gets them.
These scenes seemed designed to tell us that Don is newly recommitted to his life at home with Betty and the kids (who are soon to number three). But we swiftly learn that he is still a womanizer. But there's something new about his taste. One of the things that has always rescued Don from the "complete tool on the subject of women" column has always been his interest in what used to be called "difficult" women - sexually-free, bohemian Midge; reluctant adulterer Rachel; ambitious Bobbie; mysterious Joy. Whatever might be said of Don's philandering, in short, at least the man had taste. But this time, Don is after an airline stewardess (played broadly by Sunny Mabrey with an irritating accent) for whom mystery and subtlety are foreign concepts. And, for the love of God, she's a blonde - very much what Betty might have been had her modelling career tapered off (the
stewardess coyly offers that she is asked all the time whether she, herself, is a model) and she had never gotten married.