Saturday, May 19, 2012

Beyond Miss Kitty--Women in Modern TV Drama

 Since my return from the castle a month ago, i haven't blogged a lot.  First there was the decompression from the castle life and environment. then there was and remains the sheer delight of laziness, after pushing myself for the semester.  the laziness remains, alas: there is nothing i enjoy more than lying in bed or on my couch, watching the airy antics of the trees outside my windows.  they're a worse distraction than television, these trees;  like infants they are astounding in their very ordinariness; each detail, seen in so many of them over the years, remains intricate beyond belief  [i've never seen an infant whose fingernails i haven't fallen in love with].  i love the slow dignity with which each large branch waves in the wind, while its individual leaves flap frenziedly, as though they can't quite figure out what's happening.

i do, however, have one work project, self-imposed but with a deadline.  A few years ago, as textbook prices continued to rise and permission to use articles for reading packets grew pricier and more time-consuming,  i took the first half of summer-break to construct my own quasi-textbook for my TV in American Life class, tailoring it to precisely what i need  the for the class, and copiously quoting and paraphrasing, carefully under legal limits, from the articles i found most useful, gluing them together with my own transitions and, inevitably, my own opinions and observations.  this has worked pretty well, and when the textbook i have used for Women in Media went out of print, i decided to do the same for this class,  borrowing a bit from the already written tv thing.  ['thing' seems to be the only word i can find from this more-than-a-handout-less-than-a-textbook work.]

so it seems that a handy blog piece would be commentary on women in tv, and images thereof.  it's an old cry, and  likely to be reiterated for years to come, since tv is unlikely to change it.  Much as the medium has grown with the changes inspired by the influence of feminism on american culture, it has remained stuck in one inevitable groove, nourished by the omnipresence of advertising and the apparent willingness of audiences to collaborate with it. female characters on tv can now be featured in, even stars of, tv melodramas--primarily police procedurals and doctor-dramas.  women can be heads of police departments, private investigators, district attorneys, fabulously successful defense attorneys, spies, brain surgeons.  you name the job, there's a female tv character who has it.  Gone are the days in the '50s and '60s when the only regular female on a crime drama was the one who looked admiringly at the hero, exclaiming, 'but, perry, how did you know he wasn't really the killer?'

sadly, however, the  1970s days of 'charlie's angels' and 'policewoman' are not gone, only modernized.  channel surf for an hour or two, and you will soon realize that the major qualification for any woman in any field of endeavor--from district attorney to space ship commander--is beauty.  thin beauty. [is there any other kind?] . glance at an evening's worth of TV, looking for the major networks,  Fox, ION, TNT and USA, and their shows. (obviously, even with those restrictions, there are too many shows to be all-encompassing, but  a few should show what I mean.) At the moment, I'm using the TV Guide for  Monday May14. {I had originally planned to do a week's worth, but it would be, alas, way too long.  Mind you, these aren't necessarily bad shows, or oppressive in any other way, and several are among my personal favorites.)

Bones--the hero is a woman, a brilliant young forensic anthropologist working for the FBI.  Her boss is also a woman, as are her best friend and colleague.  None of them is over 30, and all absolutely beautiful. All are comfortable climbing into gross hiding spots and picking over half-decayed corpses--always dressed in designer clothes and high heels.  {You may take that last line and apply it to almost all the characters I'll be mentioning.  Apparently they don't design flats for the active career woman.)

House--male hero played  by the brilliant Hugh Laurie.  Laurie is pleasant looking, but by no means "handsome." Yet he is played as a sexy man, pursued by beautiful women, including his boss and two young doctors on his staff. This is also important in general: TV dramas male heroes are almost all attractive, but they don't have to be gorgeous.

Cold Case--Recently cancelled after a long, successful run.  The hero is dedicated to solving cold-case murders. Slim, blond, breathtakingly beautiful, young.  Among her colleagues is a young, beautiful, light-skinned black woman. (Note here: black may be beautiful, but not for tv female characters, who are almost all very light skinned.  The aforementioned boss in 'Bones" is also light skinned)  Her other colleagues are male, and include a 60-ish heavy set and fairly dark-skinned black man and a younger, heavier-set white man.

Law and Order--recently cancelled, after nearly 20 years.  Divided between the cops who solve the crime and the DA's who bring them to trial. It's changed over the years, but essentially the cops are male; the chief is a black woman of perhaps 50, who is attractive but not stunning; not fat but certainly not thin. Sadly, she is more behind-the-scenes than the cops on the street.  The DA is a man and has been throughout; his assistant, since the early days, is always a beautiful-thin-young woman--a series of them.  The  frequent change makes dramatic sense: it would be a good job for an ambitious lawyer who wanted to work her way up the ladder.   But surely there must be some young, ambitious female lawyers in New York City who weigh more than 100 pounds, whose noses are snub or long or slightly bent.  His long nose and lack of classical handsomeness (or hunkiness) have never hampered the marvelous Sam Waterston in his nearly 20 years as the major DA.

NCIS--a team of investigators who solve crimes involving the US Navy or Marines.  For a time, the head honcho was a pretty, slim, 30th woman whose character was eventually killed off and replaced by a man. As with "Law and Order,'' this boss wasn't a really major figure.  The head of the unit we deal with is a 50ish man, played by handsome but aging Mark Harmon.  His colleagues are mostly male and of various ages, but two are women.  Both are beautiful, but Abby is played as an eccentric--part punk, part goth, multiply tattooed vegetarian--who is a brilliant forensic specialist.  It's a relief to have a female character who doesn't look as if she just walked off the cover of a fashion magazine.

This is one random evening's programs, and it doesn't even include TNT, whose schedules weren't announced in that week's TV Guide.  Both "Law and Order" and NCIS have had spinoffs: "Special Victims" stars a gorgeous woman, handsome man duo of mega-competent cops, and offers a light-skinned black female medical examiner who is, yes, thin and beautiful, as are the two women who have played the DA at different times. "NCIS Las Vegas" actually does offer us an absolutely non-glamorous boss, the amazing Linda Hunt.  Hunt is homely enough to be considered almost ugly, and she is one of America's best actors, and she is reason enough to watch the show. She is a very rare exception.  Even the show whose name gave us some hope--"Ugly Betty"--hired for the part a very pretty woman they homelied-up with braces, bad clothes and worse posture; indeed, by the show's final episode in 2010, betty had dumped the braces, stood up straight, and bought a new wardrobe, and the closing scene showed us the title with a giant X through the first word.  The fact is that in real life, homely (and betty was never more than homely, not ugly)  women don't turn gorgeous with a wardrobe change unless it's accompanied by some serious plastic surgery. ( The show was based on a wildly successful soap opera in Columbia; a friend who lived there at the time says the original Betty was ugly, though she too got prettied up in the last episode. )

The frustrating thing is that all the American-beauty characters are in every other way a huge step up from the old days. They don't take crap from men.  Some are married, some single; and with some we simply don't know because the focus is away from the characters' personal lives and on their work.  The cops all shoot perfectly and do so when required; if they kill a villain they become upset the way the male characters do at the fact of killing, but they don't get little-girl-mushy about it.  The doctors do life and death surgery; the coroners make wisecracks while digging maggots out of the eyes of rotting corpses. They are too often token females in a male world, but then that's probably still the case in most of their real-life equivalents.

The shows, predictably, vary in quality, and sometimes vary over time (I gave up on the once excellent 'Grey's Anatomy'' and even the admirable presence of a lesbian couple hasn't been enough to bring me back to what had become an increasingly maudlin and melodramatic show, but i should give them credit where due.  There is a lesbian couple, who actually got married, in white gowns, on one episode. And despite the focus on gorgeous female and male doc's, they have had one of the best and most realistic female characters on TV--Dr. Bailey, the surgeon in charge of residents.  Given the rest of the cast, it's always surprised me that they created, and kept, a short, squat, pretty enough but not at all gorgeous, black character who was an early version of the hero of "House."  Unlike House, Bailey mellowed a bit over the years, and her friendship with one of the young male interns allowed her loving core to emerge. She even created a briefly popular American buzz word: one episode had this intern, George, alone with her when her baby arrived prematurely, and delivered the baby as Bailey expressed physical pain and emotional horror at the idea that this man was seeing her 'va-gi-gi''.)  TNT and USA, the popular low-tier cable channels, have given us some wonderful female heroes in the past few years.   "The Closer," alas, is indeed closing, and the show could have used another female character or two, but who could not love the steel-magnolia-and-then-some portrayal of a 40-sh department head of an originally hostile male crew.  The very daring and spiritually challenging series "Saving Grace" starred Holly Hunter as a tough, earthy, hard-drinking, promiscuous cop who is confronted with her rambunctious guardian angel.  Though most of her colleagues (and her angel) are male, her closest friend and colleague is a woman, tough but deeply religious. It was possibly too multi-dimensional in its exploration of spiritual redemption and randy sexuality,  but in its brief season-and-a half was wonderful, though the last few episodes, written, i imagine, with the knowledge that the show was being canceled, were sloppy and silly.

Like several of the USA and TNT shows, "Saving Grace" was a summer replacement series, and helped save viewers from the land of rewrites.  These shows have often gone beyond what the major networks offer, but they're not always great, and one of them i find both boring and obnoxious. ''Rizzoli and Isles''  has been very popular, for good reasons--or, actually, for bad reasons.  They attempt to be the latest incarnation of ''Cagney and Lacy,'' while being much closer to "Charlie's Angels."  One is a cop, the other a medical examiner, and they are best friends, but oh-so opposite.  Except that they aren't.  Rizzoli is supposedly a grown-up  working class tomboy, though she wears stiletto heels and tight jeans all the time; Isles is supposedly more upscale and flirts while dissecting bodies.  Possibly better actors could pull it off, or possibly better scriptwriters,  directors, or producers could create more believable characters. As it is, we get a lot of sophomoric cutesiness and no depth.  Though both are presented as clearly heterosexual, there are constant jokes, by the two women themselves and other characters, about how they are "in bed together." the joke being that they are just sleeping. On occasion they will pretend to be lesbians to brush off would be suitors.  Using lesbianism as a way to titillate viewers is cheap and crass, and there is no suggestion that the show will take it any further than this.

However, let me end this on a positive note--''Harry's Law'' is ending its second season on prime time TV, and i'm crossing my fingers for a third and fourth.  Harry is played by the splendid Kathy Bates, who has managed a Hollywood career without being a sexpot, and who is now 60ish. Harry is not unattractive, but she has a real body and gray hair.  As her nickname suggests, she's a tough, no-nonsense defense attorney, and she takes on difficult cases because they are difficult.  She's conservative (presumably left over from the days of "compassionate conservatism,")  and she takes on controversial cases, offering jurors and viewers a chance to explore different and often competing moral parameters.  Sometimes the show slips into sloppy rhetoric, but not often.

Okay, since this is my blog and I can do what I want in it, I'll end on an irrelevant note about two of my current favorite shows: "Unforgettable" is about a ...beautiful/thin... cop with  hyperthymesia, a rare, real- life condition in which one remembers in exact detail everything they have ever experienced. (As of this writing, CBS has cancelled the show, but both TNT and USA are considering picking it up.)
The other is about two unlikely allies fighting to save lives via a computer program one of them has invented for the government, and then stolen from them when he realizes he can use it to prevent murders from happening.  He essentially blackmails the other man into working for him.  Part of its charm is that the men pretty much dislike each other, but not in the cutesy, wise-cracking way that rivals in tv shows often manifest, but because they are fundamentally different.  Through the season, they have come to have some grudging concern and respect for each other, and they share a moral value (easy enough, since few people approve of murder)  but their personalities are radically and unchangeably different.  The tension between them is real and, one imagines, permanent.  And while the muscle-man is hunky gorgeous and very good at knocking out groups of armed men single- and empty-handedly, the main hero is homely, nerdy, physically weak, and awkward.   As this is about women in media, I should point out that a major secondary character is a black policewoman who is ambivalently supportive of the two lawbreaking heroes.  In the last few episodes, they seem to be expanding her character.

And last but not least, the summer season will bring  us a return to another of my favorites, the quirky, often comic, ''Leverage," in which three differently gorgeous men and two differently gorgeous women comprise a robin-hoodish team with some of the improbable charm of the old "Avengers"  and much of the mechanical skills coordinated into hurried and mysterious multitasking  of  the old "Mission Impossible," minus that show's ponderous self-seriousness, One of the "Leverage" women is  hyper-thin, but she has a reason for her slimness--she's a brilliant cat burglar.  even i can't fault the very real advantage of  a slight frame  for that particular occupation...


Jim said...

One will note similarities with many music genres. For example, it has long been evident that physical beauty is apparently a requirement for a woman to be able to sing a country song. Except how am I going to believe her lament over lost love when she has the looks that allow her to replace it within ten minutes of leaving her house?

I haven't watched TV (broadcast or cable) for a dozen years, so I can't comment on the main gist of the article, other than to note that it is lacking much consideration of sitcoms. While such shows may not APPEAR to allow serious treatment of issues (or people), in our society comedy has long been used to ease some "delicate" issues into the public discourse. And their treatment of women has in some ways been much more interesting that the dramas.

For all its escapist silliness, there is the subversiveness of "Bewitched," wherein almost all the female characters are (much) smarter than almost all the male characters. The outright positive equality message of MTM - who could possibly believe Mary Richards isn't an equal? Or the in-your-faceness of Roseanne, who's going to take her equality whether you give it to her or not (and who bucked the "beauty is a requirement for stardom" message as well).

How do you fit sitcoms into your class? I would be interested in a follow-up post on that!

karen lindsey said...

hi jim---actually i have taught more re sitcoms in both classes than drama, b/c that is where the most subersive material quietly shows up. there have been great analyses in early women's studies, e.g. about both lucy and gracie, and i've written on women's freindships in sitcoms. 1970 is especially interesting , or rather early early 70s, with mtm--so brilliantly understated that i think many people still don't see how comparatively radical it was. that, plus the 2 very sexist but otherwise subversive shows, all in the family and mash, really changed the sitcom genre. mash is interesting to watch f or its evolution, in which 'hotlips' became margaret, and both pj and colonal potter were faithfully married men.....youre right re the smarter women in 'bewitched,' --several articles have pointed out of the years that darren was so dill many viewers didn't notice when they changed actors. at the same time, i think it was a very reactionary show: here's a woman with supernatural powers, who cheerfully agrees to give them up for her man [of course she always does end up using them.] so she vaccuums and washes dishes etc instead of wiggling her nose to get them done---women's work is so wonderful they'd do it even if they didn't have to! a perfect p arallel to the much dumber 'i dream of jeannie;. yet once mtm has been on, we get a lot of more complex women in sitcoms---kate and alleyt, of yes, that's another article, both here and for the textbook, though in the text i'll make it shorter than this.

unlike you, i have a great love for the medium of television, though much anger to go with it....