Tuning In: Treme's musical gender gap
Treme is half-way through its first season on HBO. The serial drama about the historic neighborhood's recovery from Katrina, has already been renewed for a second season. It is also, in many ways, creator David Simon's proper follow-up to The Wire, though he has also contributed The Corner and Generation Kill to the network. As such, expectations have been ramped up considerably. In critical reception I've seen of the show, the consensus seems to be that the show has potential and makes interesting use of its featured music, but puts too fine a point on certain characters and plot developments. Randall Roberts has also pointed out how the show fails in representing New Orleans's music culture. Aymar Jean Christian also composed a take-down of Davis McAlary, a hip white interloper played by Steve Zahn.
I'm pretty much in line with these criticisms. I'm interested in the show and am a fan of many of the actors in the ensemble, but am not sure where the show or its characters are going. I will admit that I love hating Zahn's McAlary, whose type I've encountered elsewhere. But as it is a show about music, specifically a music scene in New Orleans traditionally off limits to tourists, I'm intrigued. And as a Southerner with some personal experience with the Big Easy, though admittedly with the tourist-friendly French Quarter, I was curious as to how New Orleans would be rendered.
But I was also more than a little concerned about the potential for an absence that has proved itself evident: female musicians. So far, the only woman represented is violinist Annie, played by Lucia Micarelli. Even then, we know very little about the character beyond her classical training and that her keyboardist boyfriend Sonny Schilder (Michiel Huisman) gets jealous when she plays other male musicians' gigs. At this point, she doesn't even have a last name. It should be noted that The Wire faced similar criticisms with its representations of women.
Furthermore, until last Sunday's "Shame, Shame, Shame," the show overlooked bounce, a subgenre of hip hop that recently came into vogue but emerged in New Orleans during the early 90s. Alison Fenderstock and Aubrey Edwards discussed its origins on WNYC in support of an exhibit recently on display at Abrons Arts Center. With this relative oversight, the show may undermine its studiously constructed sense of authenticity and its obvious reproach toward gentrified new residents and slumming outsiders by excluding these contributions. Cheeky Blakk recorded with Rebirth Brass Band, who appear in the pilot's opening scene. Funk band Galactic appear in the second episode. They also recently released Ya-Ka-May, which features several LGBT artists who align with offshoot sissy bounce.
I'm especially interested in seeing where sissy bounce would fit in with Simon's depiction of Treme. Artists like Katey Red, Sissy Knobby, and Big Freedia would certainly challenge it and potentially make the show more inclusive. It could also align the series with The Wire, which featured a few key gay and lesbian characters (though June Thomas points out their problematic trajectories in a Slate piece which contains spoilers). It also seems a way to open up a culture that has been strictly depicted thus far as primarily a black man's game, but a man's game nonetheless.
I hope the show takes initiative to complicate this as the show's narrative continues to unfold. Perhaps it will. Bounce was introduced this week by teenage Sofia Bernette (India Ennega), who was listening to an unidentified artist affiliated with the subgenre on her headphones. While her novelist father Creighton (John Goodman) was the one who commented upon it, his daughter brought it into the show's world. In the coming weeks, maybe she and other girls and women will further ingratiate themselves across racial lines into this decidedly male musical environment.
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