A lot has been said about Mad Men's Betty Draper, from her cold demeanor to her role as a lonely housewife, but love her or hate her, she is a complex character functioning within a system that leaves her dissatisfied.
In the early seasons of Mad Men, Betty has pretty much only one outlet to help her to cope with her unfulfilling life: horseback riding. What do horses give her that being a wife and mother cannot?
Cowgirl narratives often depict women and horses building a trusting relationship. But though they're about collaboration and trust, in these stories women almost always employ traditional horsemanship techniques that are grounded in domination and submission. So while these narratives are important in that they show women exercising freedom and agency, they still retain some elements of patriarchy. Control of horses and natural is a parallel to the control of women.
We’ve already discussed that Betty White isn’t the only woman over 60 on TV. But she’s certainly the patron saint of older female television stars. Though White's long been a household name — her incredible career dates back to some of the first TV broadcasts ever, in the ‘40s — something special happened a few years back. In her late ‘80s, she suddenly became a hot commodity. The surge in her popularity was the result of a confluence of events: a scene-stealing role in the 2009 Sandra Bullock movie The Proposal and a funny Snickers commercial appearance that ran during the 2011 Super Bowl inspired a Facebook campaign to get her to host Saturday Night Live. Then she did, in the midst of launching a new show she happened to be in, TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland. Suddenly major magazines were doing profiles, and talk shows were vying to book her. People suddenly remembered: They loved Betty White.
Today, in honor of International Women’s Day, I want to recognize the women who have hung in there for decades on the small screen, playing (mostly) wives and mothers and then grandmothers to the ever-younger main characters. Who’s ready to start a Facebook campaign to get one of these women hosting Saturday Night Live?
On TV, there's a new guard of heroines calling the shots. From chipper Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation to fractured Carrie Mathison on Homeland to narcissistic Amy Jellicoe on Enlightened, we see women anchoring our favorite shows. So what makes these characters so often cringe-worthy?
In The New Yorker, TV critic Emily Nussbaum took note of this new small screen female archetype, the Hummingbird:
They’re different ages; some are more manic, some sweeter or more sour...But they do share traits: they’re idealistic feminine dreamers whose personalities are irritants. They are not merely spunky, but downright obsessive. And most crucially, these are not minor characters. On each show, the Hummingbird is a protagonist—an alienating-yet-sympathetic figure whose struggles are taken seriously and considered meaningful.
At first glance, this seems like a mere gender shift from the lauded male antiheroes whom TV audiences have embraced. Think Tony Soprano, Dexter, Don Draper, and Walter "Heisenberg" White. And to some extent, it's true: Contemporary audiences love to root for the bad guy, so why not the overwhelmingly eager woman?
The Golden Girls’ feminism is self-evident: Four outspoken, post-menopausal women live together and support each other through older age, dealing together with their grown kids, ex-husbands, and dating lives. And they are not the punchline—they make the punchlines. This show, against all odds, was a massive hit in the ‘80s.
When shows like this happen—groundbreaking shows that disprove network executives’ narrow views of what makes good TV—we tend to believe that everything has changed in one swoop. But we are usually wrong. When Golden Girls became a hit in the ‘80s, it was easy to imagine a whole spate of wonderful shows about older folks ushering in a new era of acceptance for stars of all ages.
Remember when Cougar Town premiered four years ago and we all made a whole thing of it because of its name, and, oh my God, what was this trying to say about older women’s sexuality, and why are we legitimizing the use of this offensive term?
I am not making fun. I was one of those people saying those things. But while the show itself knew from the beginning that its title was stupid, it turned out the idea wasn’t so dumb: funny divorced lady funny played by Courteney Cox starts her life over sans husband. The show gradually outgrew its hamstrung premise and morphed into something else altogether: a show about six friends, most of them of a certain age, acting just as fun and confused and complicated as we all do at all ages. It turned out the show wastrying to say something about older women, and it was mainly this: They’re just like all other women!
Last week, novelist Benjamin Percy was interviewed on the TODAY show about his experience of being "man pregnant." Percy wore a Japanese-engineered pregnancy suit for nine weeks in an effort to be a better father by gaining an understanding of what women go through when they're pregnant. When I saw the story (and the smug interview), I was uneasy. Not only was the interview tediously unfunnny, Percy's pregnancy suit struck me as a rude, half-baked attempt to figure out what the hell women have been complaining about since the beginning of time. But Percy's story, originally written for GQ's humor section, isn't the first "dude tries to approximate pregnancy" experiment we've seen lately.
As if on cue, NBC's The Biggest Loser premiered the same day the JAMA study was released. Already known for promoting dangerous weight-loss tactics under the banner of "health," the latest season comes with a fat-shaming twist: kids.