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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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Comments

5 comments have been made. Post a comment.

TOTALLY

Thanks so much for this post! I've been watching Treme every week and wondering the if lack of female musicians is in fact an accurate representation of the post-Katrina music scene in New Orleans (knowing David Simon's love of a certain kind of authenticity) or if it's just a glaring oversight on the creators' parts. Why are all of the musicians dudes except for Annie? I hope that changes quick! At least Sofia Bernette is representing for female music fans, as you pointed out.

Oh, and while I'm on the subject of Annie, her relationship with Sonny is starting to bug me more and more each episode. That guy is bad news in more ways than one. Also, I hate what a d-bag he is when it comes to "authentic" New Orleans (like when he mocked those relief workers) when he himself is a transplant from Amsterdam. And he is so controlling and jealous! Ugh! OK, rant over. Seriously though, I want them to break up.

TOTALLY

Sonny is starting to bug me too, AnnieFannie. He seems really threatened by any success she receives that doesn't involve him. Remember when he walks out on one of her gigs during her birthday? He also seems to assume that any man interested in working with Annie is sexually attracted to her and that she'll reciprocate. :(

Alyx Vesey

Agreed, now let's bounce.

Good points here. I do wonder if the lack of women in the show is partially reflective of the production end of the show where a large number of men fill the writing room and stand behind the camera. In creating the tapestry of nuanced characters found in Treme (or the Wire for that matter), it may be that the men creating the show aren't equipped or considerate of the female role in New Orleans music. Of course this can be a cop out, because the same logic could be applied to the ethnicity of the production end (where it is probably more white than the show's representation of race)--but a point worth considering nonetheless.
Thanks for introducing the Bounce genre to me. I agree that it could be a great avenue for introducing some new female performers and further exploring the rich New Orleans music culture.

Agreed, now let's bounce.

I'd imagine a lack of female staffers may be the reason for a lack of female inclusion but, as you say, it's totally a cop-out. Ugh, hire on some women or interview some people or get some cosultants or pose questions to the women on the show or something. To me, the "we're men so we can't speak for women" line is symptomatic of the authorial control male creators and EPs have in television (which is itself a derivation of the exact control directors and producers have in film). In David Simon's case, I'd rebutt that argument to reply, "but you're not a black man and have no problem writing for them." 

I was recently talking with Kristen at Dear Black Woman, about Community and how creator Dan Harmon welcomes feedback on dialogue and character motivation and development from the cast and crew, particularly with regard to issues of race and ethnicity. I think this is what men in positions of power should be doing with their status. They should work to include their staff in the development of their work rather than assume that as the voice of their show that they cannot speak to these concerns themselves. Again, it's all about ceding a little authorial control.

Also, yes to bounce! I'm curious as to how and where it'll insinuate itself in the show. I also hope Sofia will talk about her fandom in her own words. 

Alyx Vesey

Bounce in Treme

I'm with ya on the complaint about the underrepresentation of women musicians on Treme. But there's a couple of omissions I noticed...not to be an ass but...

Aurora Nealand (my personal favorite female musician in town!) is in the last episode in Davis' hastily constructed band. You can find out more about her at www.myspace.com/auroranealand . . . my hero!

And Bounce Music actually debuted on the show a week earlier...when Sonny and friends were driving back from Houston on I-10, passing under the New Orleans highway sign, the song on the car radio (in a scene with no dialogue) was "Fuck Katrina" by 5th Ward Weebie. It's a killer song, and a possible example of the first political Bounce song ever. They use it in the show with the tail of a verse and an entire chorus of "Fuck Katrina!!" I was personally amazed and delighted, as were all of the locals I was watching it with at the bar. All of us started shakin'!

As to the future of the show, can't say myself...but Davis' instruction on the piano will lead Sofia to a career as a stride piano player? And as to Bounce specifically, 2 mentions have already been made, I'm guessing we'll see more! ;-)