MTV’s been having a good summer. In part, that’s because the second season of its reality series Teen Mom has been generating huge ratings for the network—it is this summer’s third-most-watched original cable series in the coveted 12-34 demographic. The show, which documents the lives of four young women after they gave birth to children as teenagers, along with its sister show and predecessor 16 and Pregnant, has already generated a fair amount of cultural chatter on the question of whether the show is a valuable educational tool or just, as most seem to have concluded, regular old exploitation of the young women in question. There’s something to this argument, of course. MTV’s ratings success makes for a strange contrast with the fact that Teen Mom’s stars have been occupying the front pages of celebrity weeklies like US complaining that they are dead broke, doesn’t it?
I’m of two minds about the argument. On the one hand I certainly don’t have much faith in MTV’s dedication to social messaging, at least not enough to believe it extends much further than what advertisers are comfortable with. I’m not the first, for example, to point out that abortion, as an option, is not something that’s seriously discussed in the context of the show. You can spin that fact as having something to do with showrunners needing to have a more extended narrative arc than, "Now I’m pregnant, now I’m not." But Teen Mom does follow one young couple, Catelynn and Tyler, after they’ve given their child up for adoption, so sponsor queasiness seems a more likely explanation.
I'm not one to guilt anyone for caring for lowbrow culture, not least because for so many years my bookish university friends made fun of me for watching television at all. (I've felt no small degree of satisfaction that The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Mad Men have had them eating their words more recently.) But every time I've tuned into any version of Bravo's Real Housewives franchise this year, I've had to fend off a sinking feeling that I've hit the rock bottom of my guilty pleasures.
Pete Campbell is a rapist. On Sunday night's episode, he met a young au pair living in his building and helped her out of a difficult situation with her employers. He propositioned her; she refused. Later that evening, undeterred, he knocked on her door, forced her to let him in to avoid a scene, followed her into her bedroom, closed the door, and kissed her, leading her towards the bed. Apparently, for some people, this wasn't clearly a rape. I'm here to tell them: it was.
Pete Campbell is a rapist. I've heard some people say that Mad Men is a show about nuance, shades of grey, and therefore Pete Campbell Cannot Be A Rapist. (As if there was no such thing as a rapist in serious, well-developed drama.) I think these people are doing a very superficial read of Mad Men. I don't think the writer or director of this episode was the least bit confused. The au pair is slightly afraid of Pete throughout. She doesn't want him in the apartment. She recoils when he kisses her. That she submits, ultimately, is irrelevant to the question of whether Pete rapes her. She didn't want to sleep with him; she made it clear; he didn't care. He wanted to have sex, and she was there, and she owed him, in his mind. So he raped her. End of story.
Pete Campbell is a rapist. What Mad Men is being subtle about, when it shows us an episode in which a character rapes someone for no reason better than boredom, is the fact rape doesn't just happen in alleys. It doesn't just come from total strangers who leap from bushes. It doesn't involve kicking and screaming and clawing his eyeballs out, because that would only get you in even more trouble.
Other than Jon, by and large, I have never been much of a watcher of late-night TV. This is no doubt a function of my demographic. I'm too young - I grew up post-Carson. I'm also entirely too cynical to enjoy most celebrity interviews, because much of the time I'm thinking, "It's really bizarre that Kirsten Dunst is this inarticulate," or, "Why hasn't Jared Leto showered?" There are too many books in the world to read, too many blogs to surf, too much sleep to be gotten for me to watch these people night after night, even in the age of the DVR. And I've written in this space before about my suspicion that there isn't any grand standard of comedy anymore, and it seems to me like the non-Comedy-Central contingent of these shows still seem to harbour delusions on that score, of being the Great American Comedian, and so I just kind of tune them out.
So when this hullabaloo about David Letterman getting his pecker in his payroll started to kick up on Friday, readers, I yawned. Having spewed venom all week over Roman Polanski and his defenders (Pedro, why, why??!!!), I was worn out. Besides which, other than the extortion part, there seemed very little scandal in this scandal; the ladies involved were of age, and none appeared to be claiming coercion. I'm not wild about professional men viewing nubile young women in the workplace as their rightful spoils, but I've been in enough exhausting conversations with male friends about such situations ("why do you want to Stand In the Way of Love?") to know better than to spend much time arguing with them about it. I suppose Regina Lasko, Letterman's longtime girlfriend, feels somewhat differently about it, but I can't see how I or anyone else can be of use to her if we take to the soapbox to pontificate at length about just what a horndog she's married.
The fourth season of Dexter premiered this Sunday, and I was rather more excited about it than I would like to admit. I started watching back in the day because it was Michael C. Hall, and I was a Six Feet Under fan from waaaaayyy back, and I made it my business to ensure that the wonderful actors of that show continued to be employed for the forseeable future. As it turns out, Dexter was about as different a role from David Fisher as one could hope for, and I still loved Hall anyway. And then Dexter turned out to have a fallible narrator, which is a favorite literary device of mine. And then, also, it turned out to be bloody. And it had Julie Benz (Darla from Buffy and Angel)! Also there were Latino actors who were not total background characters! I've been hooked ever since. It's camp, and camp can be thoroughly enjoyable when it's as well-written and acted as Dexter is.
But that aside, I tend to have a lot of difficulty justifying my love of Dexter to myself in feminist terms. The macabre is not terribly woman-friendly, after all. Horror movies tends to feed on the startling contrast between blood and really hot blonde chicks, and there's more titillation in it (pun intended), one supposes, than anyone would like to admit. I don't know what makes us morbid; I do notice, though, that the ratio of men to women of my acquaintance who hate horror, and don't like "dark" themes in their arts and entertainment, is roughly 1:1. So perhaps it's an experience that's less gendered than I might otherwise be inclined to say.
Here's my transparent attempt to segue into an untimely essay about Lost (which won't premiere until January but my guestblogging stint ends next week): the promos for Flashforward were so ubiquitous - I first remember seeing one after the Lost finale in May - that I found myself watching it Thursday night with a sense of obligation rather than pleasure. It was, in fact, so terrible that I turned it off after fifteen minutes of wordy expository dialogue that leapfrogged over any compelling sense of dramatic tension the show might have possessed. Which is funny, because this is the show that's supposed to replace Lost for us, when Lost airs its final episode this spring. And yet, Flashforward is thus almost the mirror opposite of Lost.Lost's watchwords are mystify, obfuscate, contradict. Flashforward's are explain, tell, lecture. And so, other than observing to yourself how much Joseph Fiennes is, as he ages, resembling Ralph ever more, particularly in profile... well, there's very little to get interested or invested in in Flashforward. (Oh, and spotting the Oceanic Airlines billboard.)
In fact the only thing that Flashforward and Lost really have in common is that they both belong to this new generation of mainstream fantasy/science fiction - the kind that has better production values than Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica combined - that has finally made its way into network television in primetime slots. These shows have come up with the mainstreaming of ComicCon and the sudden retroactive chic of comic book culture, which, it seems to me, started emerging around the time Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay came out. It's not that we haven't had sci-fi and fantasy in primetime before; it's just that these shows aspire to a sort of network television legitimacy we haven't seen before. They don't just want to be invited to the Emmys; they expect to receive one. And actually, we, the audience, tend to expect that too, on their behalf. And being an obsessive reader of, say, Lostpedia, just doesn't have that stigma attached to Trekkieism, does it? The mainstreaming of fantasy may be good for formerly underdog geek culture, and certainly it seems some people have felt their inner nerd liberated by the trend. But it is still very much the kind of thing that plays out with men, among men, by men and about men. I'm not trying to be dismissive here; I can see that writers of this genre are struggling to find a place for women within it. But they haven't made much headway.
I'll admit that I only really tuned into Eastwick out of a sense of national duty - Paul Gross, like me, is Canadian, and I feel he is owed some serious cash for his talents, wasted though they might be on American network television. (Canadian television has no such riches on offer.) Gross was always a tall drink of water of an actor (he may be known to you as a Mountie), and yet he has what I would call a genuine edge, with a wonderful sense of humor, and there's something about him that for me just feels like home. So whatever he's in, I watch, and so, I watched Eastwick.
To give you an idea of what kind of objections the mere presence of Paul Gross can overcome for me, Eastwick is a loose adaptation of a movie that was a loose adaptation of a John Updike novel. And Updike, regardless of the adulation he sparks in male undergraduate English majors everywhere, hated women. There's really no way to say that gently. He just did. To wit, Eastwick (like the novel itself) is about three outcast women who are brought together by - who else - a dark, mysterious man who understands these women better than they do themselves. The women are, ostensibly, witches, in the sense that they have various powers available to them. These powers are nonetheless heavily rooted in what Updike understands as the bewitching nature of female sexuality - their ability to control men, to make men do as they want. In fact, in the novel, Gross' character, Darryl Van Horne, is the women's own conjuring of the perfect man - and which, apparently, they envision in more or less pure sexual terms.
The psyche of the political wife in the modern era - which is to say, post-defining oneself by one's husband - is the kind of thing I sort of wish feminists talked about more often. And when I say that, I mean talk about in a way that does not ultimately devolve to Hillary, Hillary, and also Hillary, who has become the sine qua non of political wife-fights. In fact, I'd be cooler with these chats being all Michelle, Michelle, Michelle, and Judy Dean, Judy Dean, Judy Dean, each of whom present different models of how to deal with being, in essence, a necessary accessory to your husband's career when you in fact have quite the career of your own. And you aren't, you know, a robot. The frankly far too frequent infidelities of political men (and oh I could go on about this ultimate exercise of male privilege, this "I am important and I shall PROVE THIS WITH MY VIRILITY" and the non-apologies about "what happened" that inevitably follow, but I shall not) throw these issues into sharp relief.
So when I heard about The Good Wife I was kind of excited. I was also excited that someone was handing Christine Baranski a paycheck, and there was even the small bonus of seeing Julianna Margulies though it disturbed my fantasy of her living a secret life with George Clooney and the twins in Seattle. Margulies is in some ways perfect for this role: gravelly and serious. The shoe of a professional woman whose life and priorities were eventually subordinated to that of her husband fits her pretty well, because there's something vaguely dissatisfied in her demeanour too. And do I like that Chris Noth is embracing his slime post-hot-L&O-detective and in the shadow of supposedly-dashing Mr. Big? I do. I really do.
Today, Oprah will be airing an interview with Mackenzie Phillips. Who is that, you say? She is a former child actress who also, coincidentally, happens to be one of the many children of the late John Phillips of The Mamas and Papas. Like most former child actresses, her personal life has been a slow-moving disaster of epic proportions - just last year, at 48, she was busted for cocaine possession. At an airport. This being more or less par for the course in former child actress terms, one might wonder why she is getting the entire hour of Oprah to herself. Wonder no more; E!Online is reporting that Phillips will reveal that she was raped by her father at 19. Phillips also calls the relationship "consensual" at some point, which Anna North at Jezebel neatly deconstructs here.
I'm not so much interested in the horrific details of what happened to Phillips, personally - I wish her excellent therapy and hopefully some peace since justice for these things isjust a word and not a realistically attainable goal. But I am filled with seething anger that these traumatic events are being turned into yet another ratings/YouTube bonanza for Oprah. Oprah thrives on this stuff, of course, even though nowadays her show lies somewhere in a no-woman's land between 20/20 and infomercials. It's the big confessional interviews, though, that are her particular specialty. She just got done with that huge Whitney Houston bonanza, and is currently "interested in" Jaycee Dugard (cringe). She gets them because she's Oprah and she milks them because she's Oprah and good goddamn it annoys me.
Because I live in Brooklyn and I like books, it's been hard to escape the name Jonathan Ames, but I haven't, admittedly, read him. His popularity among a certain set of people has triggered the contrarian in me and I gracefully skirt his work in bookstores and magazines alike. You see, Ames is the kind of person who, the Village Voice tells me, does delightfully irreverent New York things like attend charity events of which he can say, "It's to raise money for Chihuahuas." He names his protagonists after himself. If you've caught my drift, this is the kind of writer who I worry is so well-regarded because he represents a certain kind of trendy New York existence in which everyone nurtures a delightful hip Zooey-Deschanel-esque quirk so that they may safely inhabit a world without regard to responsibility or the dreary business of doing things that are true or meaningful. Or, um, wage-earning.
Someday I shall have to test this prejudice of mine out by reading his books, obviously. For now, HBO has obliged me in delivering a version of Jonathan Ames (penned by Jonathan Ames and called, of course, Jonathan Ames) in thirty-minute morsels (called Bored to Death) to confirm my prejudices. While I've only watched the one episode - which aired last night on HBO but which you can get from OnDemand or, I believe, as a free podcast on iTunes - thus far it has done nothing to alleviate my concern.