15 May 2011
According to Maureen Dowd’s NY Times column today, the fall TV lineup ricochets back and forth between a group of shows featuring strong women (because female viewers flock to these shows) and a bunch of shows that learned only one thing from Mad Men: that it must’ve been awesome in the 1960s before feminism. No fewer than three new shows are set in those glorious earlier times — including one called Playboy Club (gawd) and another about stewardesses in 1960 (because we’ve never seen that before). Dowd quotes a top producer who calls it “Hendricks Syndrome”:
“All the big, corporate men saw Christina Hendricks play the bombshell secretary on Mad Men and fell in love. It’s a hot fudge sundae for men: a time when women were not allowed to get uppity or make demands. If the woman got pregnant, she had to drive to a back-alley abortionist in New Jersey. If you got tired of women, they had to go away. Women today don’t go away.”
That’s not all the 60s had going on. So, attention, HBO/AMC/Showtime/TNT: have I got a pitch for you! It’s about the 60s, and it’s the most original show idea in years featuring two perennially popular female stars! It’s a mashup of Nine to Five and Glee and Mad Men! It has Broadway and show tunes and history and workplace conflict, and I’ll entertain all offers for the rights to this fantastic plot!
My dramedyical will star Dolly Parton and Kristin Chenoweth (the musical theater star of Wicked; how has Hollywood missed these women’s striking resemblance, considering their shared singing talents?). They are mother and daughter, both divorced, living in New York in 1965 in a small rent-controlled apartment. More precisely, they live in Chelsea in a neighborhood full of gay men before Stonewall made it popular to talk about gay rights, and both women have large circles of gay male friends spanning several generations.
Chenoweth is trying to make it as a singer like her mother used to be, but Broadway finds her too blonde and too 1950s for the moment. The biggest play that year is the multiple award-winning Fiddler on the Roof; despite her cringe-making attempts, Chenoweth has not persuaded anyone she can “play Jewish.” Moreover, Broadway producers already have their favorite daughter-of-a-star: Liza Minnelli, the 19-year-old daughter of Judy Garland, who has just won a best-actress Tony for Flora the Red Menace (sparking just a little jealousy from our heroines). To make it worse, her gay friends have no sympathy for her kvetching about Minnelli, as many of them have adopted Garland as an idol.
With rent monies dwindling, mother and daughter both take nine-to-five jobs as secretaries — but these wannabe divas have a hard time with the easy sexism of the office workplace. Unlike the character she played in Nine to Five (1980), Parton is no sweetie-pie pushover with a sugary accent; she’s pissed off that she’s 65 years old and working in a demeaning job. She’s accustomed to receiving unquestioning adoration from men instead of this “take my hat and get me a cup of coffee” bullshit.
In addition, after years in musical theater, Parton has never spent much time around straight men — she assumes all men are gay until proven straight. This offers innumerable opportunities to tell her boss that “your ‘wife’ is on the phone.” Moreover, even two years after the Equal Pay Act of 1963, secretaries’ wages are lame, noticed especially by our two stars who make multiple references to how much Minnelli is making for a not-so-successful play. Their paychecks give them the opportunity for a little righteous indignation … and perhaps proto-feminist collective anger.
This isn’t just a story about women — it’s also a story about gays and lesbians. Parton and Chenoweth get locked up by the cops one night after belting out show tunes with their friends at their favorite bar because the bar owner had missed a “protection” payment to the local precinct. Parton has former lover, Elizabeth Peña (who’s so beautiful I don’t understand why she doesn’t get more parts), who now works with Cuban immigrants and gets a little bored with the esoteric musical theater mindset of Parton’s Chelsea world. One of Chenoweth’s best friends, Sal (Bryan Batt, above, who played Salvatore Romano in Mad Men) is trying to balance a closeted office identity with an increasingly confident role in a neighborhood “homophile” group, a splinter of the defunct Mattachine Society. The real-life figure of Harvey Milk appears in several episodes before he moves to San Francisco.
I don’t know about you, but I’d watch every episode of this show. Looking at the world of the 1960s through the eyes of women who didn’t accept the ugliest effects of sexism is an awesome idea. Contact me today with your offers and lucrative contracts!
13 March 2011
“A rising tide raises all boats,” the expression goes, except none of us believes it in this economic recession. Nor do I believe it in Glee, the infectiously appealing school glee club TV show that has become so profoundly eloquent about the experience of its openly gay student, Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) at the same time that it leaves its female characters to flounder in a sea of stereotypes and cat fights. Is this where we’ve come? Feeling deeply for that sweet, angel-voiced white guy whose sexual orientation makes him a target of bullies, while mocking all the girls around him?
It took me a while to like Glee — but it was on TV constantly when I did research overseas last summer and I got hooked. And its treatment of Kurt is amazing, especially scenes with his regular-Joe, baseball cap-wearing father (Mike O’Malley) who doesn’t quite know what to do with a gay son but makes do. This material makes me cry and makes my jaw drop for its sensitivity and confirms why my straight college students are so comfortable with their LGBTQ peers; I really think it articulates things about being gay in high school that appear nowhere else. But what does the show do with all those great female characters? Maneuvers them from one romance to another. Will Quinn go out with Sam or Finn? Will the pretty school counselor ever date Will, the glee club adviser? or even, will the cheerleaders Brittany and Santana ever develop a relationship beyond their secret “girl kiss” makeout sessions? The show doesn’t care about women except as comic relief and plot devices. The show addresses fat phobia, but only by having its mohawk-wearing, football-player stud Puck start up a comically-tinged flirtation with the glee club’s wrestling star/fat girl. It’s utterly depressing.
I know a show can’t do everything. When I saw last year’s special feminism episode with all those Madonna songs I argued that we shouldn’t ask more than fluffy entertainment value. But now that I’m a fan of the show I have to hold my nose during the parts about the girls, who are so one-dimensional that I rolled my eyes during a trumped-up special sharing moment between secret lovers Santana and Brittany. I guess we got our feminism episode last year; in the meantime we just need to hope that Brittany doesn’t break Artie’s heart, that Tina doesn’t break Mike’s heart, that Quinn doesn’t break Finn’s heart, and that at some point the token African American, Mercedes, gets to date anyone at all. The show’s emphasis on sexuality (hey, it sells commercials) means that the female characters remain undeveloped but have elaborate sex/relationship lives on the show. In short: that rising tide for white gay men is drowning feminism on this show.
24 April 2010
I’d never seen “Glee” before — and let me say, it’s utterly delightful — but stumbled across its “The Power of Madonna,” that is, its very special episode on feminism. And then I found hundreds of posts online, treating it as if it were an important intervention on feminism because the words misogyny, sexist, and objectification were used on a mainstream TV show.
I’m tempted to suggest that a perky TV comedy can treat the topic of women’s feminist anger BECAUSE it’s perky comedy. I’m tempted to trot out Susan Douglas’s notion of enlightened sexism again (Susan, perhaps I should receive commission?); point out that “girl power” is a fundamentally hobbled form of feminism; and remind us that Madonna is hardly an ideal feminist. All of this is true. But frankly, it’s just a pleasure to see a storyline in which high school girls get mad and seek a way to articulate a feminist identity (and then sing!). At this point, us brow-beaten feminists will be thrilled with anything.
The show starts with the girls in the glee club having a powwow about dating, a conversation that can be summed up by one character’s resigned assessment that “we have to accept that guys just don’t care about our feelings.” When a well-meaning male teacher tries to intervene, an even more resigned girl pushes him back. “The fact is that women still earn 70 cents to every dollar that a man does for doing the same job. That attitude starts in high school.” (Wow. Count me happy on hearing this in prime time.) Slowly the girls start to fight back and express themselves verbally as well as in song. My favorite is when the “they just don’t care about our feelings” Asian girl takes a sexist boy’s head off: “My growing feminism will cut you in half like a righteous blade of equality!”
They build up tension and resolve it by singing a lot of Madonna songs and gradually convincing the reluctant boys that this music shouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable. There are some tedious side stories about various women asserting themselves sexually (to say no or otherwise). (JEEZUS, people, does feminism always have to be exactly equivalent to sex?) Best of all is a transfixing number with the cheerleaders doing a routine on stilts to “Ray of Light.” Throughout, Jane Lynch is great as the unhinged director of the “cheerios” who idolizes Madonna.
Please, let’s just stop calling this feminism. I enjoyed this show perfectly well without having to engage it on those terms. Feminism can’t be made palatable to a reluctant public by dressing it in a Madonna pop song for one episode; nor is it reducible to The Power of Madonna. Let’s get happy about some feminist stuff coming up, and some women with powerful lungs belting out terrific Madonna covers. But let’s just call this what it is: “Glee” is just its own thing. We can all be happy that these girls articulate a version of anger and empowerment, and hope that more TV shows engage with those subjects — hope, indeed, that more actual girls get angry and empowered. Hell, at this point I’d take the Spice Girls’ version of girl power again.