Tag Archives: television

Moms on the Tube

“I don’t really watch TV.”

THIS BAFFLES ME. I mean, obviously, to each his or her own, but I just love television so much that when I hear this declaration (less and less frequently, according to my unscientific and entirely anecdotal experience) I’m as shocked as I’d be if someone said, “I don’t really eat cheese.”

Wait, what? Some people don’t eat cheese?

I kid. But in all seriousness, deciding to give up cheese or TV would be a fucking heartbreaker of a Sophie’s Choice in my world. But in the end, the cheese would have to go, because the satisfaction of a hunk of brie is temporary,  but the joy of a ten-year relationship with my shows (or 8-episode relationship for these new miniseries deals) gives me stuff to chew over for weeks and months to come.

This week for Role/Reboot, in honor of Mother’s Day, I wrote about the range and variety of TV moms. June Cleaver is out, Cersei Lannister is in. Is that a good thing? Read on!

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Related Post: Moms and body image, from Mika Brzezinski to Jennifer Weiner

Related Post: True Detective and the male gaze.

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True Detective and the Male Gaze (Alternate Title: It’s No Fun to Be a Killjoy)

true-detective1This is a post about True Detective. There will be no spoilers.

You know…when I finished the final episode of True Detective, HBO’s bromance about a pair of mismatched Louisiana cops investigating the ritualistic cult killings that have long been buried by Bayou water and Spanish moss, I didn’t know what I thought. I knew that Matthew McConaughey acted the shit out of that part, and so did his ponytail. I knew that I admired the show’s gorgeous cinematography, great soundtrack, and brilliant pacing. I appreciated the creative timelines and complex, layered storytelling of the editing team. I know that this show was well made.

But the more I tried to articulate to other people what I liked and disliked, the more I realized that everything I liked was shiny surface crap, and everything I disliked was meaty substance. I read a lot of internet commentary, some that declared it a masterpiece, and some, like Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker essay, that pointed out how shallow these eight episodes really were.

Let’s start with the “woman question.” Why? Because this is a blog about feminism and gender and media. Duh. Don’t like it? Leave.

The ratio of real female characters with feelings/opinions/emotions to naked prostitutes/strippers/floozies with no feelings/opinions/emotions is 1 to about a billion. Even the director, Cary Fukunaga, answered the woman question similarly in a NYMag:

“I mean, it’s true: the show wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test. That’s not necessarily a factor by which we should measure everything. It’s a story about two guys and that’s what it focuses on. It certainly does not focus on the women characters other than what it needs to to service the Hart story line.”

[As a reminder; the Bechdel Test isn’t a test of quality (good movies fail it, bad movies pass it). It is merely a test to see whether there are women of substance in a piece of media who exist as three-dimensional, autonomous characters who act with agency.]

Now, does everything have to pass the Bechdel Test? No. There is a place for bromances and buddy comedies and bachelor party narratives and war stories and sports tales and all of the other types of male-centric content. Those are good stories to tell. Remember Rescue Me? I loved that show. Ender’s Game barely passes it and that’s one of my favorite pieces of writing ever.

The problem is most of the stories that get told fail the Bechdel test, especially the “prestige” stories, the well-funded stories, and the oft-cited-as-art stories. So yes, it’s okay that True Detective, specificallydoesn’t pass Bechdel, but no, it’s not okay that so much of what is viewed as quality misses this most basic of thresholds.

Moving on. So, if I’m okay with the lack of substantive female characters on TD, where does that leave us? Male gaze. Sigh. Man, do I hate this one.

As a refresher, when we refer to “the male gaze,” we mean media that is created from a uniquely male point of view that typically uses aesthetic strategies that objectify women, reducing them to body parts and/or exaggerating sexuality, beauty, and femininity over a comprehensive set of human traits. It can be as simple as a camera shot that lingers on the breasts of an actress. It can be the ratio of male to female nudity (ahem, Game of Thrones). It can be anything that stylistically indicates that this content was made by men, for men, to the detriment of women.

Think about how we meet Maggie, Marty’s wife (played by Michelle Monaghan) in the very first episode of TD. She’s lying in bed on her side, facing away from the camera, butt exposed. We literally see her semi-naked body before we see her face, hear her voice, or know her name. Similarly, the first dead victim we meet is naked, which is crucial to the plot,  but the camera lingers on her ass, panning up and down her body. It is gratuitous as hell, unless you enjoy seeing naked female butts.

As Emily Nussbaum puts it, “TD was about the evil of men who treat women as lurid props, but the show treated women as lurid props.” Or, as I put it to a friend via gchat today, “it’s like… you don’t get props for being like RAPISTS ARE EVIL if in your very structure and dialogue and character, you are contributing to the culture that objectifies women and enables rape culture.”

You are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem. There is no neutrality, no “I’m just making a bromance cop show! This has nothing to do with gender politics!” I mark that position invalid; if you think you are contributing to the TV canon of greatness, then you don’t get to opt out of this conversation.  You will be judged on how you portray women and girls, as you should be. We are half of the goddamn population. That doesn’t mean you need to portray us as saints or angels, only that a show that visually treats women like objects doesn’t get to play the anti-rape culture card. Even if you catch the “bad guys” in the end.

Related Post: The Game of Thrones rape scene

Related Post: Strong female characters? No thanks.

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Game of Thrones and “Sex” on TV

cerseiIf you are all up in the guts of the Internet where TV and commentary collide, you have already read a novel and a half of haterade about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones. For long, articulate, backed-by-evidence arguments, see Margaret Lyons at NYMag and Sonia Soraiya at AV Club

Before I tell you why I’m pissed, let’s back up:

Mother daughter conversations about sex can are awkward enough even if one of them, ahem, doesn’t write about it on the Internet. My mom and I are what you might describe as a classic second wave/third wave duo. We agree about 85% of the time, and usually differ, if only slightly, on sex-related topics like pornography and prostitution. In short, I usually err on the side of who-am-I-to-tell-her-what-to-do-with-her-body? and my mother usually errs on the side of contributes-to-a-culture-of-oppression-and-objectification. We’re both right, obviously, and one day we’ll find the middle ground.

So anyway, last week, my mom emails to complain about “sex on TV.” She lists House of Cards and House of Lies as two prime examples of shows that only feature what she describes as “I don’t even know what to call it, but sex from what I call a degrading position.” I often approach other people’s sex lives–even fictional other people–from a to-each-her-own, doesn’t-look-fun-to-me-but-who-am-I, anything-goes-between-consenting-adults angle, wary of condemning someone else’s good time lest someone try to rain on mine.

The problem as I see it is not that this specific type of sex is what we see on TV, it’s that this is the only type of sex we see on TV. Specifically, it is the only type of sex men see on TV. They aren’t watching Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife, or Nashville, where sex is sometimes “animalistic” to use my mother’s word, but is also sometimes gentle, sometimes kind, sometimes romantic, sometimes spontaneous, sometimes between strangers, sometimes between lovers, and sometimes even features sex acts that most women enjoy.

But that is not what we get on TV that men watch. We get mostly rough sex. We get mostly condom-less sex. We get very little cunnilingus, very little foreplay, very few indications that female characters are enjoying themselves in the least. And while I do not in any way want to shit on the the specific kind of sex that any particular person is consensually enjoying (if that is your thing, knock yourself the fuuuuuck out), I do find it highly problematic that we get such a narrow sliver delivered to us with our HBO Go accounts and “prestige” TV.

[Spoiler Alert]

So. Game of Thrones.  In last night’s episode, after Joffrey’s gruesome wedding death, Cersei’s private moment of mourning was interrupted by Jaime, who, angry that she’d been cold-shouldering him, raped her on the floor of the temple where their dead son was displayed. As many others have said, I’m not outraged that a rape was depicted, if that’s what was intended for legitimate storytelling purposes, but I am very much outraged that some people, director included, don’t seem to think this was a rape scene.

What the fucking fuck do you think is a rape scene? To these not-a-rape-scene advocates, was that supposed to look like sex? Because it didn’t; it looked like rape. Kicking. Crying. Begging. Verbal “Nos”. Requests to stop…. Clue me in to which part of that looks like consensual sex…

And therein lies the problem. When depicted “sex” looks too much like rape, it makes some people–young people, dumb people, angry people–think that rape looks like sex. It makes them think that an initial “no” or “stop” or “I don’t want to,” will, with enough pressure, become a “fine, okay, I guess this is happening.” But that is not a yes, that is not consent. Are there non-verbal ways of giving consent? Absolutely. But “No, stop, stop, it’s not right,” as Cersei said, is not one of them.

This shit is all related. The American University Epsilon Iota emails that were released this week. Darren Sharp’s admission of “non-consensual sex”. The joke of a process that female soldiers have to endure to report assault. The fact that teenaged girls think that unwanted groping is just part of dating. The abhorrent Mixology joke about finding girls drunk enough to “smash out.”

It’s not all Game of Thrones’ fault, obviously, but as of 24 hours ago they are the latest guilty party. Rough sex and rape are not part of some gray area where we throw our hands in the air and yell “IT’S JUST SO HARD TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE.” Rough sex is something adults agree to and reinforce with positive words like “yes,” and “I like that.” Or they agree on safe words. Or they have conversations prior to getting busy about what they like and dislike. Though the play might be physically rough, they approach with a mutual respect.

Rape is where one person has sex with another person who does not want them to.

Why is this so hard?

Which is all to say, sometimes my mom is right.

Related PostGame of Thrones vs. The Wire

Related Post: Strong Female Characters? No thanks.

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10 Years Too Late: Views on Veronica (pt. 1)

veronicaYou guys, I’m finally doing it. The kickstarter funded Veronica Mars movie was the extra little push I needed to finally, ten years later, take up with that girl-detective everyone loves so much. I’m about a week behind the Vulture training schedule (and yes, this is 2014 and yes, I am a millennial content-addict, so yes, there is a training schedule to watch a now-defunct show in anticipation for its crowd-sourced feature debut). I just finished season 1 and I’m crashing hard towards the finish line, loving every minute of it.

What follows may contain some spoilers, but it ended ten years ago and I will not apologize if you are similarly behind the times as I am.
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What is Veronica Mars? It was created by author Rob Thomas, who wrote a fomative and entirely forgettable book about a struggling teen called Rats Saw God. I don’t remember anything about it except that for a brief period of time, it was very important to me.
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VM stars everyone’s favorite sloth-lover, Kristen Bell, as a 17-year-old high schooler who moonlights as a private investigator. In the first forty minute segment, we learn that Veronica’s best friend was murdered, her sheriff father ID’d the wrong guy and lost his job, her mother took off, and her boyfriend dumped her with nary a word. Oh, also, at a party she was roofied and raped but she doesn’t know by whom. It’s a lot, and the ongoing mysteries of the murder, the disappearance, the date rape, and the dumping unravel over the next 22 episodes.
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riversI just saw a picture of two rivers outside of Manaus, Brazil, that collide without intermingling for three miles. Coffee colored water runs up against milky tea and never the twain shaill mix; It is as freaky and beautiful as anything I’ve seen in a while, and that’s kind of how I feel about Veronica Mars.
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On one side of the divide is dark, heavy shit, where the stakes are high as hell. A manipulative teacher seduces a student and she ends up pregnant and ostracized. The class asshole’s father, a movie star, beats him with a belt behind closed doors. A slew of co-eds from the local university turn up dead, strangled by a guitar cord.
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On the other side, a perky blonde teen finds lost dogs for classmates, investigates falsified drug tests for athletes, and rescues the nerds from the bullies with nothing but her wits and a giant camera. All the while, she navigates the normal pitfalls of adolescence, awkward ex-boyfriends, catty girls in bathrooms, the ever-churning rumor mill, and the tension between the haves and the have-nots. It’s in that fluctuating line where  dark and light crash into each other that Veronica Mars comes out smarter, funnier, and edgier than everybody else.
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It’s a little bit Rori-Gilmore-at-Chilton meets baby-Sydney-Bristow meets Harriet-the-spy with the guest star roster of your dreams. Adam Scott, Leighton Meester, Max Greenfield, Krysten Ritter, Aaron Paul.
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I’ve got 17 days to watch about 30 more episodes, think I can do it?
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Hot Dudes + Big Girls

Inspired partially by an encounter with a cologne-model looking dude at a train station and the most recent episode of Shameless (in which Lip hooks up with a very sexy woman much larger than him), I wrote this week for Role/Reboot about what happens when “guys like that” like “girls like me.”

I’ve written about this before (as did everybody else) after the infamous Girls episode with Patrick Wilson.

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Related Post: Lena Dunham + Patrick Wilson

Related Post: Female figures are, by definition, “feminine.”

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Sasheer Zamata and “Preferential Casting”

As you’ve probably heard, Saturday Night Live hired a black female comedian this week, Sasheer Zamata, 6 years after their last black female performer (Maya Rudoph) left the show. You may not have heard that, in addition to Zamata, SNL announced that they had hired two new black female writers, LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones.

After the Zamata announcement, I went and watched a trillion of her youtube clips of her stand-up and sketch work. This is my favorite:

Why do I think it’s important for cultural touchstones (which, whether you like it or not, SNL is) have diverse writers and casts? Because a straight white dude would never do a bit like that. Ever. And it is brilliant, and insightful, and kind of uncomfortable, and funny as hell. We need this kind of comedy to be part of the mainstream. That’s not to say that straight white dudes can’t contribute (Louie CK’s rape joke remains one of my favorites), only that a diversity of experience (like for example, having different colored skin, growing up in a different neighborhood, having immigrant parents, etc) creates a diversity of content, and that diversity of content is what eventually leads to empathy with people who are, on the surface, not like us.

This week for Role/Reboot I wrote more about Sasheer Zamata’s casting, with a nod to Cindy Gallop and Mitt Romney’s “Binders full of women”:

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Related Post: My favorite two minutes of TV about oral sex and reciprocity

Related Post: I think Amy Poehler may have served me steak fries

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The most dramatic thing to happen on Grey’s Anatomy. Ever.

More dramatic than the bomb in the guy’s chest? Than the house made of candles on the hillside? Than the plane crash that killed Lexi and Mark? Than the shooter who roamed the halls of Seattle Grace? More dramatic than the time that Meredith died? I know, right? That show is craaaaay.

Screenshot_10_28_13_11_10_PM-4Yes, what happened on Grey’s Anatomy two weeks ago was true drama (skip to 34:00). For those of you who quit this bad boy when it jumped the shark half a decade ago, Meredith and Christina are still best friends, but much else has changed [SPOILER ALERT. Ha, as if anyone waits with bated breath for Grey’s spoilers]. Meredith married Derek and they have two adorable children, Zola and baby Bailey. Christina got married and then divorced when her husband Owen couldn’t abide by her consistent refusal to have children (I mean, come on…. she told him that when they got together, but that’s not the point…) They are both still surgeons at Seattle Grace (renamed Sloane Grey Memorial).

What drama could this mundane divergence of paths produce? There were no bones protruding from skin, no organs spilling on to slick linoleum floors. Nope, no guts and gore here, just good old fashioned human drama. Christina and Meredith had planned an elaborate surgery. Meredith’s day took a turn with kiddie emergencies left and right. Christina boxed her out of the surgery and replaced her with a more prepared doctor, Dr. Bailey. And then this:

Meredith: You stole that surgery from me. 

Christina: I am sorry. I really wish you could have been in there with me. 

Meredith: I worked my ass off to do that surgery with you and you stole it from me. That was low.

Christina: Meredith, you were unprepared, you were unfocused, and you were late. I didn’t steal that surgery from you. I rescued that surgery from you, because you couldn’t do it.

Meredith: I understand that you believe you are god’s gift to medicine, but I am every bit as talented and competent a surgeon as you are.

Christina: No, you’re not. I’m sorry, but you’re not. And that’s, that’s okay. You have different priorities now. You’ve cut back on your clinical hours. You log less time in the OR, I mean, you don’t do research. And I get it, I mean, you have Zola, and baby Bailey, and you want to be a good mom.

Meredith: I don’t believe you! You are saying that I can’t be a good surgeon and a mom.

Christina: Of course not! Dr. Bailey’s a mom, and she was fantastic in there! 

Meredith: Then what are you saying? 

Christina: I’m saying, I’m saying… Bailey never let up. She lives here. Callie? Never let up. Ellis Grey [Meredith’s mother] never let up. And I know you don’t want to be your mother. I’m saying, you and I started running down the same road at the same time, and at a certain point, you let up. You slowed down. And don’t say that I don’t support that, because I do. You made your choices, and they are valid choices, but don’t pretend they don’t affect your skills. You are a very good surgeon, but we’re in different places now. And that’s okay.

Ahhhhh, oh Grey’s, I love you so. For all the deserved flack it gets for melodrama and oversimplified dialogue (whenever Shonda wants you to get an emotional point all she knows how to do is repeat it three times with different inflection. I need you. I need you. I need you. Check it, she does it on Scandal too), she does tap into the political side of female friendship with some serious know-how.

I would rather have conversations like this than landslides and biker brawl mayhem in the emergency room any day. These conversations are hard, way harder than corralling sexting interns or sobbing family members, and they feel real. Your friends will make different decisions than you would make for yourself, or than you would make for them. It’s hard, because you love them, and you trust them, but you’re scared for them, and you’re scared for yourself. You don’t know what’s right or what will happen and when someone who has been running the same race as you for a long time suddenly veers left or slows down or speeds up, it’s hard not to wonder if you should be following suit. Trying to read your own motives and values in the shadows cast by people you love and trust… that shit is complicated and lovely and challenging.

Take notes, Shonda, and keep it up.

Related Post: How Grey’s got gay marriage right. 

Related Post: How The Good Wife gets the second wave vs. third wave tension right

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