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.
There are lots of different dads on Parenthood: single dads, married dads, almost-stepdads, mostly absent dads, and of course, stay-at-home dad Joel Graham (Sam Jaeger). Married to high-powered attorney Julia (Erika Christensen), he was a contractor until the recession hit. Since then, he's been the primary caregiver for the couple's daughter, Sydney, who is 5 when the series starts.
The show doesn't stint on clichés associated with stay-at-home dads, from Julia feeling threatened by the flirty, make-everything-from scratch homemakers her husband now hangs around with to his father-in-law wondering why he doesn't have a "real" job. Joel himself sometimes seems frustrated by his lack of a creative outlet or a social life not involving children. But for the most part, it's a positive portrayal of a man who doesn't resent his wife for having a job, or consider his own contribution to the family to be any less important. He's probably more patient than Julia, steps up to the plate when it comes to both discipline and showing affection, and is a caring, competent father.
The New Normal isn't the first time we've seen gay dads (in this case, dads-to-be) on TV. But from Will & Grace's Jack McFarland to LeRoy and Hiram Berry on Glee, they're usually non-custodial fathers or secondary characters. The aughts brought sitcoms It's All Relative and Normal, Ohio, both of which centred around gay fathers, but neither found an audience.
It wasn't until 2009's Modern Family that a successful network sitcom showed gay men being full-time fathers — and even there, their portrayal is stereotypical and desexualized. That's something Glee and The New Normal creator (and out gay man) Ryan Murphy publicly criticized in 2010, stating that if he were to make a show with two gay leads, their kissing would be shown as no big deal.
It's not that I don't enjoy Modern Family, exactly. It's a slick sitcom that showcases some great acting and witty writing. But despite including characters who are gay and people of color, at heart it's a deeply conventional show, more interested in peddling stereotypes than subverting them.
Most often, Modern Family's white heterosexual family with a stay-at-home mom is presented as the default, including in the show's promotional images, most of which literally position them at the centre of the show: the "normal" people those wacky minorities orbit around. The first season poster even made this overt, describing the family units we could expect to see as: "straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional" — that last word providing reassurance to conservatively-minded potential viewers that storylines wouldn't get too progressive.
Brainy, outspoken, and with a fashion sense all her own, Blossom modeled confidence (and oh, so many hats) for a generation of teenage girls.
Along with unquashable self-esteem, she also possessed that mixed blessing, the "cool" dad. With his tight jeans, collar-grazing hair, hippie past, and career as a professional pianist, Nick Russo wasn't your typical TV father. He thought of himself as laid back, and his kids could confide in him.
When Blossom and her bestie, Six, made a video for a school-related media contest about the importance of wearing condoms, and the principal refused to submit it on the grounds of decency, her dad and Six's mom went into school with the girls to complain. Sure, the show could be preachy and heavy-handed at times, and became known (and parodied) for its very special episodes, but it was also extremely open about issues affecting teens in a way it's hard to imagine happening today.