But how shameful is it, how absolutely insane is it, that the major discussion about “standards” for broadcast television today always takes place in the context of “indecency” – and in particular, that women’s bodies are “indecent”? I mean, I don’t know about you, but the only think I found shocking about Janet Jackson’s breast-exposure on live television was that metal thing she had on her nipple. Christ, wouldn’t that hurt?
My point is that I don’t think the half-second or so of nipplage has done nearly as much damage to “the children” (always so undefined) as the notion that crazy people who think Barack Obama is a secret Muslim are deserving of more than two seconds of derisive airtime on cable and network news.
Like many a thinking lady I watch the Daily Show mostly for Jon. When it is on hiatus, and it always disappointingly seems to be on hiatus when America goes a little mad in the late summer (2005: Katrina, 2008: Sarah Palin, 2009: Health Care Nonsense), my evenings seem even less magical than they usually are. I am the kind of woman, you see, who would go for Jon - funny, informed, irreverent - over a Brad Pitt in a second. I know I am not alone in this.
But as happens in any relationship, sometimes Jon does things that well... piss me off. See, every once in awhile, his show displays all the symptoms of having been written by Liberal Dudes Who Don't Quite Get It - It usually being women, or women's rights, or women's issues. The show likes to trot out Samantha Bee and Kristen Schaal every once in awhile, but in general it seems rather complacent about its overall dudely tone. And it's easier to take some times than others.
Betty is enslaved, while also being the slave master. This is what I hate about her. She wants freedom and agency when it is convenient. She wants to come down off the pedestal, but she seems unwilling, at least at this point in the narrative, to give up the privilege that comes with being idealized.
I, too, have been bristling at Betty's bad behaviour for some time. I don't think I'm alone in that; there has been something altogether vicious about the way the show has been writing her character of late, something biting and mean about every word that comes out of her mouth. Until about the middle of season two, I could have chalked this up to what I personally felt were the subpar talents of January Jones, but she has grown into Betty's shoes. And in that context I'm starting to blame both the viewers and the writers for all the vitriol hurled Betty's way.
Due in no small part to a summer-long marketing campaign complete with the newly-de-rigeur Twittered event, everybody's been talking about the new show called Glee. Produced by Ryan Murphy of Nip/Tuck fame, it lets everybody live out that fantasy high school experience of gaining fame and popularity while joining - I know you're in suspense - the Glee Club. Glee is the hot new thing so far this season, and has given work to some pretty darn good performers, including Lea Michele (late of Broadway's Spring Awakening), Jayma Mays (completely adorable if hurtling towards Poor Man's Red-Headed Zooey Deschanel territory) and Jane Lynch (who should be in everything ever).
The pilot episode aired in May this year, and felicitously closed with a rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" that rescued it from eternal association as the song that accompanied the letdown of The Sopranos' concluding moments. Unfortunately, if the second episode, which aired last Wednesday, is any evidence, it's all downhill from here. The advertising campaign, as is so often the case, is far more clever than the show itself.
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.
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."
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.
Image from susanphotography at Flickr under a Creative Commons license.
I am just about the only person I know - and certainly the only feminist - who has been religiously watching Showtime's Nurse Jackie (In fairness, Jezebel started out covering it but seemed to lose interest very quickly, and the only regular commentary I see on it is Jacob's excellent recaps at TWoP.) Maybe I should be generous to the fools people who don't watch the show. Perhaps the neglect is due to the unfortunate dead end of July and August. Perhaps it's because the show has the unfortunate timing of airing whilst we are all salivating at the imminent prospect of a new season of Mad Men (more on that tomorrow, by the by), which happens to be everybody's favourite feminist-food-for-television thought nowadays. Perhaps it's because most people I know only watch television shows once they are out on DVD anyway, so all first seasons on cable are kind of a wash, popularity-wise.