thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

“Hart of Dixie”: Professional Women, the South, and Friendly Alligators

In gender on September 26, 2011 at 10:39 pm

Sarah Todd

Hart of Dixie has a few good things going for it. Rachel Bilson’s eye makeup looks amazing, and her wardrobe makes a strong case for formal shorts. Jason Street is in it! There’s a fun scene where Bilson’s character, Zoe, walks down a country road at night holding boxed wine in one hand and pouring herself drinks in a Dixie cup with the other: she’s a one-woman bar. Unfortunately, the pilot episode of Hart suggests that it is going to be a one-note show.

formal shorts.

The show’s premise is more or less Everwood crossed with Sweet Home Alabama–although sadly, it’s not nearly as funny or heartfelt as Everwood. Zoe, a career-minded, Chanel-loving future heart surgeon, is forced by circumstance to uproot herself from the Big Apple and work as a GP in Bluebell, Alabama.

Going by Zoe’s reactions to her new town, Bluebell might as well be Mars. Unfortunately, the same could be said of the show’s vision of Bluebell and the South as a whole. There are a few region-specific references to Katrina and the BP oil spill, but for the most part the Bluebell of the pilot is full of folksy, down-home, stuck-in-the-past charm. Southern belles waltz around the town square wearing Antebellum-era hoop dresses, the mayor has a pet alligator named Burt Reynolds, one character’s car horn plays “Dixieland,” and apparently nobody ever wears black or orders a latte. Even their HBO references (The Sopranos, Sex and the City) are outdated. These groan-worthy details aren’t just generic and highly improbable. They perpetuate stereotypes about a backwards-facing South that’s also the manic pixie dream girl of the U.S. imagination, delightfully quirky and at once in need of saving (in this case, by the big-city doctor who’s there to make a difference) and acting as an antidote for cynicism, jadedness, and other contemporary urban ills.

Speaking of manic pixie dream girls, Hart relies on another romantic comedy staple: the professional woman who’s so caught up in her career that she can’t sustain a relationship (Zoe’s med school boyfriend dumps her because she “liked talking about surgery more than talking about his day”) or even maintain basic people skills (her bedside manner, or lack thereof, is the primary thing she’s supposed to work on in Bluebell). This character type is ridiculously played out. I’m all for driven female characters with demanding careers and sharp edges. But it would be nice if their plotlines didn’t so often center around compromising those careers and softening the edges–usually by having the career woman in question brought down a peg or two by the humbling love of a good man (in this case, most likely, the attorney George Tucker, played by Scott Porter). What about a show where love can happen without pegs and with edges intact?

Another issue relates not to the show itself but to its reviews. A general theme among some critics seems to be that Bilson’s looks are at odds with the role—in other words, that she’s too pretty, or too pretty in a particular manicured, glossy way, to be believable as a doctor. A Variety review opens with, “People on television are more beautiful, we’re told, explaining away all the runway models playing cops and prosecutors. Still, it’s hard to remember a wider gap between actor and role than Rachel Bilson as an aspiring thoracic surgeon.” The review later adds of Bilson, “A white lab coat just makes her look like a resident in Barbie’s medical dream house.” This kind of criticism seems popular this fall. Critics have lobbed similar accusations at the casting of Zooey Deschanel in The New Girl, stating or implying that she is too pretty to be plausible as an awkward, dorky (but still lovable) woman with romantic problems.

While I definitely think that Hollywood should be far more diverse in its beauty standards and casting practices, that’s not really the issue here. I see several problems with the line of reasoning that an actress’s looks alone mitigate her credibility in a role. Suggesting that appearance determines how much we’re willing to believe a person graduated from medical school or has problems in romantic relationships seems hugely misguided. A person’s intelligence has nothing to do with his or her appearance, and people are susceptible to broken hearts regardless of their looks. Jennifer Aniston got dumped by Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt got dumped by Gwyneth Paltrow. Sandra Bullock was cheated on by Jesse James. And so on in a beautiful, chiseled circle of romantic misery.

Furthermore, conventionally attractive people are perfectly capable of being socially awkward—ask anyone who’s ever had a crush on a smokin’ hipster who couldn’t make eye contact or finish a sentence. The whole basis of mumblecore is good-looking young people staring at their shoes, dying of embarrassment! I’m with Lesley at xoJane, who writes of the critical response to New Girl, “The expectation that the socially inept must also be painfully unattractive is a stereotype that this series does not feel compelled to heed, and that is downright refreshing.” Critiquing an actor or actress’s believability in a particular role is completely fair game; I just wish those critiques wouldn’t rely on a false correlation between appearance and presumed capabilities or life experiences.

But back to Hart of Dixie, where all the wine is boxed and the speaking roles are disproportionately dominated by white people. The show has this latter quality in common with most other TV shows in the new fall line-up, and and with most shows on television generally for that matter. (More on this lack of diversity in the new TV line-up coming soon from both Phoebe and me, and perhaps others.)

There’s still time to turn the show around, and I have a long-standing affection for Bilson (thanks to her O.C. days) and show creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (for giving the world the O.C. and Gossip Girl). If Hart relies less on stereotypes and lazy humor, and more on real characterization–plus CW-style drama, of course–the show could get somewhere. If not, perhaps viewers can echo George Tucker’s command to the mayor’s alligator: “Beat it, Burt.” Although that would really only work if the show was named Burt, I guess. Shoot. Who else has a plan?

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  1. “beautiful, chiseled circle of romantic misery” – awesome!

  2. [...] Bilson plays a doctor on Hart of Dixie. Some critics have a hard time buying it.  Last week, Bilson shot back with a Funny or Die video that features her throwing down by… [...]

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