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!

I really hoped this one would go away, but of course Lisa Belkin had to join in with a New York Times Magazine piece this week, which in turn seemed to cue Maureen Dowd, who was already all over the gay question.  Sometimes it just makes my head hurt really bad.

If we pay attention to the news, there’s lots of things wrong with Elena Kagan, and the media is looking for more every day.  So imagine their delight when some journalists started suggesting it’s her lack of children.  It’s the perfect argument, for it seems to have no clear partisan, anti-Semitic, or homophobic bent (like most of the others), AND we get to trash her life choices!  Anti-feminism activated!

It started with Peter Beinart at the Daily Beast explaining there are two reasons we should appoint women to the Supreme Court (oh, the desire to call this mansplaining): 1) “female justices, on average, will be more sensitive to the problems women face” and possibly those faced by other disadvantaged groups; and 2) they can help alleviate gender bias by being role models.  Is that it?  I wonder why we need so darn many if those are the only reasons.

His main point was to note that a majority of the women appointed to cabinet positions during the last three presidential administrations were childless; only six of the sixteen women in those positions have had children.  If Kagan is appointed, only two of the four female Supreme Court justices in American history will have been mothers — and that’s just not fair.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with appointing childless women (or men, for that matter) to high office. But our government is actually doing a pretty good job of providing role models for the 20 percent of American women who don’t want kids. Where it’s failing is in providing role models for the 80 percent that do.

If we want to talk about “failing,” maybe it would help if we remember that of the 111 justices in US history, 106 have been white men, 2 African American, 2 white women, and 1 Latina.  Maybe it would help if we had more than 4 women in Obama’s 15-person cabinet.  Maybe it would help if people like Beinart, Belkin, and others remembered that simply having more women in positions of power is inspiring to women; not everyone asks first & foremost whether a woman is a mother.  A quick note: only 4 of the Supreme Court justices in American history were bachelors, and I can’t find any information on how many were fathers.  But we do know that all of the men currently sitting on the Court are fathers.  (And look how that’s worked out, sensitivity-wise.  Apparently women have special feeling powers!)  To complain that Kagan isn’t a mother is to draw attention away from the fact that even now, the Supreme Court really looks nothing like the rest of America.  Yes, more women on the Court is a small step in the right direction for women; but let’s not be reductionist about the complicated issues presidents weigh as they make their choices.  Obama may have wanted to find a woman this time, but that probably wasn’t the only thing on his mind.

Beinart argues that Obama should have chosen mom Diane Wood instead, and although he probably wouldn’t go as far as Hilary Shenfeld at iVillage that Wood would have brought “some unique ‘mom-spertise’ to the Supreme Court,” he probably should have guessed that this was whither his argument was tending:

With the addition of Wood, a jurist with a mama bear lurking inside, the Supreme Court would have a member who’s lived through the toughest job on earth and came out better for it. She’s wiped away dirt and tears, helped with homework and heartache, made as many decisions as dinners, really listened and really heard. She’s had years of experience settling squabbles and determining who’s right and who’s wrong. She would have come to the job not only with legal smarts, but also the real-world wisdom picked up from the day-in, day-out joys, frustrations and plain hard work of being a mother and raising a family.

Um, what are we talking about again?  Oh yeah, whether we should appoint mothers to the court because then the Court will look more like America and inspire women to be mothers and jurists.  Lisa Belkin in the New York Times quotes Shenfeld, but avoids the maudlin in order to reiterate Beinart’s argument:  we’re sending the wrong message to women by appointing so many childless women to positions of high power.  Women learn from these choices that bearing children is risky for career-minded women:

Expectation brings obligation, and Sotomayór and Kagan were of the generation facing new tradeoffs. Pursue the career and sacrifice the family. Have the family and ratchet back the career. True, the stigma of not marrying or having children waned for this younger generation, making it more of a deliberate choice for some. But still, roads had to be chosen. There would be no taking five years off to stay home with your children if you hoped for a seat on the Supreme Court.

That’s just how we childless women operate, you see.  We sit down when we’re 10 years old and “choose” to study and work so hard that we will have no lives, ever, because we’re plotting out our paths to seats on the Supreme Court; the people we’ve got to knock out of our way are those super-feeling mommies.  When Belkin lays out these “new tradeoffs,” she makes enormous assumptions not just about Sotomayór’s and Kagan’s “choices” (not everyone “chooses” to be childless, stay unmarried, or get divorced, as in Sotomayór’s case), but also about what most Americans admire about female leaders.  (And excuse me, but who exactly gets to choose to take “five years off to stay home with your children,” anyway?)  This, of course, led to Maureen Dowd’s piece today on the difference between being “single” and “unmarried.”

But my real gripe here is the constant parsing the lives of exceptional women for details that are irrelevant to their nomination — thereby permitting, yet again, women to be treated differently than male candidates for the same job.  She’s the wrong kind of woman, these comments tell us.  Some women make the wrong kinds of choices, they imply; we should feel sorry for her because she’s unmarried and childless.  And it allows everyone to get distracted by the illusion that this is a zero-sum game in which women are fighting it out amongst themselves.