thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Posts Tagged ‘gender roles’

“Get Older!” Women, Aging, and Adventure

In Aging, detectives, feminism, TV on May 30, 2014 at 5:42 am

Jessica FletcherPhoebe B.

“You silly old woman,” a murderer mutters as Miss Marple reveals him to be a killer. His dismissive words signal his assumption that because of Miss Marple’s age and gender, she should not be taken seriously.

This prejudice is not unique to freshly unmasked murderers. Men of many stripes frequently insult and dismiss women they perceive as threats in much the same way–particularly when age is added to the equation. As women age, at least in the U.S., our power and visibility in pop culture decreases, even as men’s status grows: older women are often constructed and perceived as useless; men only become more distinguished in the eyes of our culture.

My grandma Elsa spent part of her retirement volunteering at a wildlife habitat on Long Island, where she handled snakes and other seemingly scary reptiles. During the summer, she’d walk with me down dirt roads in rural Massachusetts pointing out beaver dams and teaching me to make plaster casts of deer hooves. After she and my grandfather moved to the West Coast, she took jewelry-making classes and dance lessons. A crossword wiz, she was unbeatable at all word games from Scrabble to Boggle.

Both of my grandparents made aging look active, interesting, and engaging. They also had pensions from the New York school system, so that helped. Growing up, this was what getting older looked like to me. She was fun, silly, always smart, and for her, being old seemed nothing more than a circumstance of aging. Certainly, aging was nothing to be ashamed of or hidden away. As I got older, however, I realized that this image was not one often reflected in pop culture.

But women don’t always age out of the pop culture imagination. There are a few wonderful exceptions within the murder mystery genre that feature elderly lady detectives: Murder She Wrote and Miss Marple (both available on Netflix).

missmarple-1

Against prevailing notions that women become less socially useful as we age, these shows model an active and exciting version of older women. Jane Marple and Jessica Fletcher are not bitter spinsters, old maids, or caregivers (in fact, neither has children). Rather, they are heroines who use their brains to solve problems that no one else can.

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Quiet Times: Ladies, Friendship, and “The Good Wife”

In CBS, gender, The Good Wife on September 18, 2013 at 5:42 am

Phoebe B.

On The Good Wife, female friendships–especially Alicia and Kalinda’s–and relationships between women are, I think, the driving force of the show. Yet, these relationships are inevitably strained, often silent, and above all else complicated. Near the middle of the show’s fourth season, Alicia and Kalinda sit quietly in a hotel room, drinking red wine. Each woman is atop a separate bed, so that they face out toward the camera. When they speak, their conversations are stilted–filled with one-word answers, long pauses, and minimal eye contact. Adding to the strangeness of the scene is the hunting-themed wood lodge where they’re spending the night, a setting where they are both–with their very nice clothes and red wine–out of place.

Watching Alicia and Kalinda interact this way is an uncomfortable experience for me as a viewer. In fact, seemingly strained silences often make me uncomfortable. Yet the discomfort is wholly my own. The characters themselves are actually quite comfortable; this image of the two of them–together yet distinctly separate–perhaps defines their friendship. And that’s one of the things I love most about The Good Wife: the show challenges my expectations of how female characters are supposed to behave and interact with one another on television.

kalinda-and-alicia

***

The first time I watched Pretty Little Liars was on Super Bowl Sunday about three years ago. At the time, I was living in a cute, though small, house in Eugene, Oregon, which conveniently had a lofted attic. While my boyfriend and two of his guy friends gathered downstairs to watch the football festivities, I holed myself away in the attic with an air mattress, a space heater, and some blankets.

I wandered downstairs midway through binge-watching the show, hungry and hoping to catch the Super Bowl halftime show—truly the only part I ever want to watch. (One word: Beyonce). Sitting on the couch, watching television together but barely speaking or making eye contact, were the three guys. On instinct, I began to talk to fill the space. Their silence made me nervous. The Jewish grandmother in me worried that they weren’t happy, or that they were hungry, or needed more beer. The list, as any goes on. Mostly, I just worried that their silence indicated they were having no fun at all.

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Olivia Newton John, Carly Rae Jepsen, and the Slapstickiness of Female Desire

In music videos on July 23, 2012 at 9:43 am

Guest Contributor Paul Bindel

He won’t be calling.

Some may click through blogs or Songza for the musical scoop of the hour; others trick to summer festivals to hear the best new band. This summer, my primary source of new music happens to be junior-high girls—vanloads of them, giggles and whispers, as I shuttle them on outdoor National Park tours. iPhone after iPhone comes trickling from four rows of backseats, mixed with exultant, usually off-key sopranos. We dance, we crank it, we sing, mixing the right soundtrack for sights of bears and bison and rock formations.

I haven’t decided if I’m in the trenches of new music (particularly when it comes to country tunes) or caught in the Adele-an or Taylor Swift-ean eddies from last year. But I’m not sure trendiness is more important than pleasure, and these girls enjoy their music. Sure, “I Gotta Feeling” may play five times before 2:00 p.m., but once the snare hits, the irony drifts out the van window: we’re all in 7th grade again, and it’s summer.

This week, I was fascinated to hear how my passengers relate to Carly Rae Jepsen’s ubiquitous single “Call Me Maybe.”  Few audiences are better than teenage girls for a song about female desire, vulnerable angst dripping even from the title. The song has mostly come up as our vans imitate the Harvard Baseball team’s van dance cover. (Yes, we posted our version on Youtube. Yes, “the boys’ van totally copied us.”)

I wasn’t exactly curious about the song until a girl mentioned it over dinner: “Did you see the ending of her music video? It is so crazy.” At the prospect of more than fist pumps, I asked for more details. “Well, this girl is in love with a guy, and he’s so cute. But when she gives him her number, he’s actually gay and wants to date her band member. Can you believe that?”

I could and couldn’t, but was struck that the plot so resembled Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” another viral video with a gay twist. The songs’ similarities made me wonder about female desire. With more than 30 years between the two videos, why do women whose songs directly express desire become exaggerated objects of desire in their videos? And why do the video’s desirable men end up desiring other men? Read the rest of this entry »

Replay: “Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen

In girl culture, music videos, Replay on May 9, 2012 at 4:13 pm

What do you think of when you think about Canada? Maple syrup? Scott Pilgrim? A moose? Universal health care? A Place To Which One Might Abscond Should the U.S. Magnify Its Aura of Impending Doom?

From here on out, perhaps the irresistible bubblegum chords of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” will come to mind too. The  singer-songwriter hails from British Columbia and rose to fame on Canadian Idol. The U.S. has embraced her pop export with open arms, partly because “Call Me Maybe” is an earworm of a single, impossible to shake, and partly because of her music video’s campy charm. The video both captures the breathless excitement of a newborn crush and winkingly acknowledges that swooning over a hot somebody you know nothing about is a little ridiculous — which doesn’t make it any less fun. Read on as Girls Like Giants tries to peg down Jepsen’s number.

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Rebound: Being Unique on “Glee”

In gender, girl culture, Glee on April 25, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Phoebe B.

Lena Dunham’s hotly anticipated Girls is still the topic of the week, with bad and good reviews in every major and minor news outlet. In all the hubbub, I worry that we might have missed what was (for me at least) the most exciting moment of television in some time. Last week, Glee addressed being gender non-conforming through high school student and Vocal Adrenaline member Wade/Unique. Wade feels more at home when expressing his gender as feminine and the amazing Unique is definitely not the kind of girl who gets included in Girls.

Unique is played by Alex Newell, from last year’s Glee Project. Alex regularly performed in drag during the show. For example, he once wowed Ryan Murphy by singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls as Effie White, which may or may not have brought me to tears (I love that song!). He is truly talented and I loved him on the Glee Project (and on Glee for that matter). Sadly, he didn’t win the Glee Project, but I am grateful that Ryan Murphy saw his talent and cast him anyway—and I would LOVE to see more of him.

So here’s what happened on Glee last week: Wade asked Kurt and Mercedes whether he should perform as Unique in a Vocal Adrenaline show. The duo dissuades him from doing so, then persuades him (per Sue’s evil-ish influence), and then attempts to dissuade him again. The final dissuading, however, is unsuccessful, and Wade goes on to perform as Unique and wow the crowd. She sings, following the Disco themed episode, “Put on My Boogie Shoes.”

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The Politics of “30 Rock” and “Parks and Rec”: Macho Men and Powerful Women

In Television on April 20, 2012 at 8:18 am

Sarah T.

“Bitches get stuff done,” Tina Fey proclaimed in a 2008 SNL Update, defending Hillary Clinton against sexist naysayers. A jubilant Amy Poehler grinned and threw signs at her side. The women’s allegiance to one another, and to Clinton, was palpable. Together they formed a triangle of  smart, powerful ladies, ready to catch whatever insults got hurled their way and eat them for lunch.

Four years later, Clinton is a Tumblr-inspiring Secretary of State and Poehler and Fey head renowned comedies on NBC’s Thursday lineup. Like Clinton, their characters Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon make their livings getting stuff done. Both are professional single women in their thirties who keep their workplaces afloat—Leslie through five-alarm enthusiastic productivity at all hours of the day; Liz by harriedly shepherding her coworkers over and around the obstacles they create for themselves.

But it’s their bosses Jack Donaghy and Ron Swanson who are truly brothers from another mother. Jack and Ron like their governments small, their Scotches fine, and their red meat cooked so rare it’s practically bleeding. Their trim haircuts hold effortless swoops. They’re manly, confident, all-American, irresistible to ladies, and politically rightward of their female counterparts.

While Fey and Poehler are the heart of the shows as flawed, lovable protagonists, Jack and Ron are meme-generating myths. Onscreen, they’re universally admired by their coworkers and treated as heartthrobs, their aura of manliness serving as catnip for straight women and gay men (bears!). As “real” men, they’re meant to be a dying breed; therefore Jack always has a video vixen or Fox money bunny on his arm, while Ron makes his friends’ ex-wives swoon. (Offscreen, they tend to elicit the same response—a recent article by LA Times critic  Mary McNamara confessed her undying love for Ron Swanson.) And on comedies that are quick to identify characters’ weak spots—whether lovingly (Parks and Rec) or cynically (30 Rock)—Jack and Ron are rarely the butt of a joke. The character-driven jokes about their personalities and preferences tend to come from their own mouths, not from other characters; their fortress of masculine invulnerability protects them from cutting zingers. Read the rest of this entry »

Gender/Play: The Problems, Promise, and Pleasures of Video Game Crossplaying (part 2)

In body politics, gender, race, technology on April 17, 2012 at 6:56 am

brian psi

Earlier, we looked at some of the problems with ‘crossplaying’ gender, or taking on an identity that is not yours in video games. Next, we will look at some of its promise.

 Play

One of the more beautiful aspects of games is that since their worlds are created from scratch, they need not follow the rules and conventions of the non-virtual world–its culture or even its physical laws. In Dragon Age 2, anyone’s Hawke, regardless of gender, can romance any of the game’s four romanceable npc’s, regardless of their gender. Specific categories of sexual identity, therefore, are not necessary in the game’s fictional universe and may not even exist within it: sexuality is in fact just the performance of sex, which can and does occur between any two willing participants. Comments made to your character about your romance(s) are mostly limited to your partner’s perceived fit based on their personality and backstory. At one point, my lady Hawke engaged in a casual three way encounter with Isabella, a female human pirate, and Zevran, an elven male assassin. Note the other npc’s reactions: bemused, but really pretty muted (video shows male Hawke, sorry!):

In terms of gameplay mechanics, male and female bodies are equal. Game developers do not code differing baseline statistics (for physical strength, or the ability to take hits, for example), so a female warrior is just as effective as a male one. Games therefore already realize the potential for a fundamental equality–and more importantly I think for us, the acceptance of equality as an idea–in ways that the nonvirtual world does not. Samus Aran is the great bounty hunter, and FemShep saves the universe. By creating worlds that espouse this vision, and allowing us to explore them and consider their implications, games are usefully utopian.

Of course, realizing this vision in ways that make for useful change in the nonvirtual world will require more and better visual and written representations, especially of female, LGBTQ and nonwhite characters. It is too early to be too optimistic, but in some very small ways, this is already happening. Recently, a couple of sports games, officially licensed properties of male professional leagues, have begun to allow the creation of female players to compete in them. These changes were driven by female fans of the sport and games, who, forced to crossplay as men, asked the companies (who had to ask the leagues) to allow for the creation of female athletes. As a result, you can now make female rinkwarriors in EA’s NHL 12  and golfers to play The Masters in their Tiger Woods PGA Tour.  Hopefully, baseball and the other sports will jump on board, too.

Performance

Gamespace, that virtual universe that can be entered and exited at will, can serve as a safe space to try on identities one is unable to in the nonvirtual world. Take this widely disseminated post from earlier this year, by blogger and Gamespot manager Kristen Wolfe. In it, she recounts an experience at her store in which a teenager buys a game and controller for his younger brother. The younger boy insists on getting a game with a female protagonist (Wolfe helps him choose 2008’s sci-fi/urban traversal title Mirror’s Edge), and a new “girl color” controller. The boy’s father is incensed, and tells his son get a zombie survival game instead. Eventually, older brother stands up to dad, explaining that it is his money and present, and that little brother can get whatever he wants. Read the rest of this entry »

Mad Men’s Terrifying “Mystery Date”

In gender, Mad Men, race, Television, violence on April 12, 2012 at 8:39 am

Sarah S.

This most recent episode of Mad Men initially stumped me. It linked its many plots with a theme of sexual violence against women that, at first, seemed heavy-handed and obvious. Yet after contemplation I think it might represent one of the smartest episodes to date. Mad Men makes a lot of hay out of gender relations in the 1960s, leading to a lot of smug pearl clutching over how far we’ve come; “Mystery Date” (season 5, episode 3), however, resonates because it reveals how far we have not come in certain respects, and the way that threats of sexual violence still keep women in check.

The episode begins with Peggy’s (Elisabeth Moss) friend Joyce (Zosia Mamet) sashaying into the office with pictures of the recent nurse murders in Chicago, “unsuitable for publication.” The responses range from horrified fascination from most of the team to revolted contempt from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s newest hire, the marketing prodigy Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman). Ginsberg, however, takes his disgust and translates it into an ad pitch for Topaz pantyhose that involves a single-shoed Cinderella running in a panic from a dark, looming castle while a stranger chases her. When he finally grabs her, he’s handsome, but it doesn’t matter because her face indicates that she wants to be caught. Topaz eats it up, and Don (Jon Hamm) is annoyed at Ginsberg for going rogue with his vision, but everybody thinks it’s a great idea for a commercial. The nurse murders remain a theme throughout the episode, coloring every interaction we see. But the linkage between the “Cinderella” commercial and the violent rape and murder of nine nurses highlights the disturbing relationship that America has to controlling women. (Note: I’m breaking this up mostly by sub-plots rather than chronologically to get at the main themes and points.)

The theme continues after Don, sick with a bad flu, runs into an ex-lover on the elevator (much to Megan’s [Jessica Paré] annoyance). He goes home sick for the day but the woman, Andrea (Mädchen Amick), shows up at his apartment. Don hustles her out but she returns and, Don being Don, they have hot sex. Afterward, Don tells her this is the last time but she sasses him back, pointing out that he’s too twisted to say no. In a rage, he throws her to ground and strangles her, finally shoving her body under the bed before passing out. We discover, of course, that he hallucinated the whole thing in his fevered state. This twist stands out as particularly heavy-handed and opaque. Are we meant to view it as a Freudian peek into Don’s psyche, the legacy of a violent father, or, rather, to contrast “bad girl/slut” Andrea against “good girl/wife” Megan and see that Don believes entirely in such dichotomies? He certainly has a history of mistreating “bad” women (i.e. every meeting of his affair with Bobbie Barrett [Melinda McGraw]) although his track record with “good” ones isn’t very impressive either. Read the rest of this entry »

The Care-taking Women of “50/50″

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2012 at 4:54 am

Sarah T.

All the characters in 50/50 are defined by their relationships with Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a  crinkly-eyed 27-year-old diagnosed with spinal cancer.  Adam’s mom Diane, his increasingly unreliable girlfriend Rachel, his therapist Katherine, and his best friend Kyle orbit him like concerned planets, only rarely coming into contact with each other or anyone else.

The care-taking methods of Diane, Rachel, Katherine, and Kyle are all intertwined with their gender roles: the mom, the bad girlfriend, the love interest-as-therapist, the best buddy. It’s no surprise that Kyle (Seth Rogen) emerges as Adam’s MVP. The women must contend with such a host of expectations about care-taking that they’re bound to pale by comparison.

As a failed caretaker and bad girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) is easily the most reviled character in the film. First of all, she’s an abstract painter (we know how Hollywood feels about people who like abstract painting!), so she’s supposed to be pretentious and untalented. She won’t go down on Adam, which is a big strike against her. More seriously, she flakes out more and more after he gets sick, arriving an hour late to pick him up from chemo and refusing to accompany him inside the hospital. When Adam explains that she’s scared of hospitals, his fellow chemo patients reasonably point out that nobody actually wants to pad around among IV drips and paper-thin gowns–family and friends suck it up out of love. Finally, when Kyle catches Rachel cheating on Adam with another guy, the film lets loose its fury. Kyle calls her a whore, and later he and Adam destroy one of her paintings with much fire and brimstone.

The audience is supposed to find this revenge as cathartic as Adam and Kyle do — the shrew gets what she deserves! But perhaps thanks to Howard’s complex acting, I had some sympathy for Rachel. Yes, she was a bad care-taker and a sub-par girlfriend. Yet it’s possible to understand how she got so overwhelmed. Read the rest of this entry »

Defending Deschanel

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Sarah T.

Sometimes we don’t get to choose who we relate to.

As a nine-year-old tearing through The Babysitter’s Club series, I understood that Claudia and Stacey were objectively the coolest characters. (Claudia’s neon-green leotards worn under purple hammer pants! Stacey’s glamorous city slicker past!) But I couldn’t help but love Mary Anne Spier—a shy, big-hearted girl who loved animals and cried at the drop of a hat—the most. It was kind of embarrassing, but there was nothing I could do about it.

When I started getting into music from the 1960s in middle school, I understood that picking your favorite Beatle said a lot about you. A John person was smart and sensitive and revolutionary. A George enthusiast was mysterious and spiritual. Even a Ringo fan was fun-loving and unique. But I liked Paul best despite myself, knowing that it marked me as hopelessly cheerful, daffy lightweight.

Today, I find myself in a similarly uncool, wide-blue-eyed boat with Zooey Deschanel, the star of Fox’s The New Girl. Of course, plenty of people like Zooey—after all, she’s a sunny, funny, beautiful actress who has a hit sitcom on a major network. But she has a powerful band of detractors too. GLG’s own Melissa S. wrote a very eloquent, well-reasoned, non-attacky post on her problems with Deschanel’s character Jess in The New Girl. Many others make their points less diplomatically.

Deschanel critics tend to organize around several arguments. First, they claim, she is cloyingly twee. This is a problem not only because her critics are experiencing cute overload akin to The Berenstein Bears and Too Much Birthday, but because they see her adorkability as retrograde and unfeminist. Her girliness, they argue, places too much emphasis on singing and kittens and other childlike, harmless preoccupations, and not enough on adult, serious-minded matters.

While I understand these concerns about Deschanel, I can’t help but bristle at them. And a big part of that is because I know that I am in possession of many of the traits with which Deschanel-detractors take issue. Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Weekly Round-up

In gender, race, reproductive health, Uncategorized, Weekly Round-Up, Women's health on March 9, 2012 at 6:56 am

This week, we have a variety of good reads from around the web including, but not limited to, reactions to the stop Kony campaign, Tim Wise on race & white resentment, and an article on masculinity and The Hunger Games (go Peeta!). Have a great weekend!

Tim Wise on his new book and white resentment: http://www.truth-out.org/dear-white-america-letter-new-minority/1330718926

Arturo Garcia on the problems with Invisible Children’s Stop Kony campaign, at Racialicious: http://www.racialicious.com/2012/03/08/stopkony-activism-or-exploitation/#more-20984

Jessica Winter at Time Magazine and “Are women people?:” http://ideas.time.com/2012/03/07/subject-for-debate-are-women-people/

Two fun articles from Bitch Magazine … One on Cynthia Nixon and the politics of labels:
http://bitchmagazine.org/post/visibility-cynthia-nixon-and-the-politics-of-labels-bisexuality-feminism

And one on The Hunger Games and masculinity:
http://bitchmagazine.org/post/the-rebel-warrior-and-the-boy-with-the-bread-gale-peeta-and-masculinity-in-the-hunger-games

Lastly, a super-cool interview with Jennifer Egan about the days before she made it as a writer:
http://www.thedaysofyore.com/jennifer-egan/

Engaging Television: An Interview with Writer Jacob Clifton

In gender, girl culture, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars on March 7, 2012 at 9:59 am

Sarah Todd

“Why bother watching the show when the recaps are so amazing?” my friend Ali emailed me in 2008. We were talking about the Television Without Pity recaps of Gossip Girl, a show then in its headband-wearing, Met-steps-lunching glory days. The in-depth recaps, written by Jacob Clifton with a killer combination of fiery passion, arch humor, and wide-ranging cultural references, were an essential part of the Gossip Girl experience.

Jacob’s recaps didn’t just help us see things about the show that we might not have spotted otherwise. They also influenced the way we thought about friendships and power dynamics and teenagers and surveillance—and, of course, how we thought about television.

I’ve looked forward to Jacob’s weekly Gossip Girl recaps ever since, along with his writing on True Blood and Pretty Little Liars. He’s one of the few writers I’ve followed quite so faithfully. The author of novels The Urges and Mondegreen, he currently recaps American IdolThe Good Wife, and more for Television Without Pity.

Jacob graciously agreed to talk with Girls Like Giants about recapping, teen dramas, feminism, the power of stories, and why Elena from The Vampire Diaries is way under-rated. Come join the conversation in the comments.

How did you start writing for Television Without Pity?

The internet, in 2001, was a very different place! TWoP (MightyBigTV, back then) was a small enough concern that I was able to lobby for some small, one-off assignments that, over a few years, turned into regular assignments. It was a very empowering, very encouraging chance to be given, and I’m still very grateful to the editors at that time for giving me a shot.

You have a very distinctive and dynamic recapping style. A recap of Pretty Little Liars might have made-up dialogue that highlights Aria’s crazy pants (and the fact that she is crazypants), followed by a Jungian analysis of how the four main characters’ personalities complement each other, followed by a mini-treatise on bullying. How do you approach writing your recaps? What do you want them to be, and how has that developed over the course of your career?

I think that, for me, it’s about capturing the sort of tangents and thoughts and jokes that you might go through on the couch, just watching anything. For shows like PLL, that obviously brings up a lot of stuff and thoughts that I feel like are worth representing on the page: This is what it was like for me watching this show, what was it like for you?

I mean, obviously I have my preoccupations — critical, philosophical, political, feminist — and I don’t really hesitate to bring those to bear on whatever’s actually happening on the show, but I trust myself to know the line as far as what’s worth saying and what’s just blabber or personal axe-grinding. (I also cross it regularly, of course.) But that’s what it means to me: A sort of taking shorthand minutes on where the show takes me as a particular person.

However, I do think there’s a certain amount of workshopping that goes on when you’re forced to pay such close attention to a show over such a long period of time. I don’t know if my writing has improved, but I definitely understand television and storytelling a lot more than I did ten years ago — and part of my mission is to bring that into it as well. The opportunity to turn our brains off, or to reject a show or episode for false reasons, is always there. So by bringing out the storytelling qualities, or the writing tricks, or the production values, the hope is that readers can find new ways to enjoy their television shows in a more interactive way. Read the rest of this entry »

Rebound: Shall we receive GCB?

In GCB, gender, Rebound on March 6, 2012 at 7:58 am

Rebound is a new short-form GLG column that seeks to respond to, critique, and ask questions about current media events and affairs. –Phoebe & Sarah T.

Phoebe B.

On Sunday night, GCB premiered on ABC following the network’s self-proclaimed original “it girls,” the desperate housewives. GCB is one of two new shows that invoke, but do not proclaim, the word “bitch” in their title. The other show being, Don’t Trust the B— in apartment 23.

the ladies of GCB

GCB is all about post-high school mean girls in Dallas, TX and the grudges these ladies carry.* GCB seemingly revels in and produces humor via women being cruel to other women and reliving the icky cliques of high school. And, it is all about women competing for, and being paranoid about losing, their men—a narrative that always pits women against each other and blames women for the choices men make. The use of “B” as a stand-in for “bitch” in the title seems to suggest that the show revels in, and glamorizes, this mean behavior. Indeed, behaving like a “bitch” is seemingly the bread and butter of GCB.

However, the title’s juxtaposition of “Good Christian” with “bitches” suggests the underlying, and humorous, tension of the show. Indeed, the pilot pokes fun at the not-so-Christian undercurrents of this church community. For example, one of the most pious characters secretly owns a Hooters style bar, but she chastises one of the other ladies for working there (before her ownership is publicly revealed that is). And in this way, the show is quite funny and aptly timed—given Christian groups self-proclaimed righteousness and current attacks, in the name of Jesus, on women’s health and LGBTQQI teens. So, I see the point of the title and I like the juxtaposition of good and bad within it. But, I worry and I wonder about the invocation and use of the word “bitch.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Angelica Huston Rises Above Smash

In Angelica Huston, gender, musicals, Smash on February 27, 2012 at 9:06 am

Phoebe B.

Grand moments in NBC’s new show Smash have been few and far between. After seeing many previews for it, I felt assured that the show would be full of big dance numbers, great songs (including some Marilyn favorites), and flashy costumes. The premiere had its moments like anytime Angelica Huston was onscreen, but not including Katherine McPhee’s (Karen) version of “Beautiful,” which was anti-climactic and quite frankly seemed an odd choice. But since then, there has been very little grand about Smash. Indeed, NY Mag’s TV recapper takes the show to task in the most hilarious way possible, while this reviewer wishes for something more like A Chorus Line—which was definitely what I was expecting and hoping for. However, there is one thing that is seriously grand and awesome about Smash, and that is Angelica Huston on network television. In fact, I think they really should have put her on top of the pyramid in the publicity shot (and not Katherine McPhee).

Aside from Angelica Huston, there is another relatedly redeeming thing about Smash: the show, as NY Mag’s recapper Rachel Shukert remarked, truly takes women’s ambition seriously. We see this in Ivy and Karen’s desire to be on Broadway; in Julia’s (Debra Messing) career taking precedence over her husband’s; and in Eileen’s (Huston) desire to go out on her own in the theater production world. In fact, in Julia’s marriage, she is the career-oriented one in the relationship and seemingly the major breadwinner. What makes these women lovable and remarkable is that they have ambition and work hard, rather than just the usual things like body, sex appeal, etc. Although, we also see how other men and women see them: an early shot of Ivy stays on and revels in her tush as do the series of people at the casting table. But, as Shukert says in her NY Mag recap,

“One of the things I genuinely like about this show is that so far, it has generally treated the career ambitions of its female characters seriously, as opposed to something of which they have to be disabused in order to be “lovable.” Smash, for all its flaws, shows us women who are lovable because of their talent, not in spite of it, and that’s why it’s so disappointing to see Karen be such a pushover about this.”

But the show’s push towards valuing smart and amazing women appears oddly conflicted. For example, when Karen travels back to Iowa for her best friend’s baby shower, another friend casually remarks, “Feminism is dead.” It appears that in Iowa everyone over 21 is married and/or with child, per Karen’s friend’s remarks. Because of this, Karen’s friend argues, Karen should let her boyfriend, Dev, take up the slack while she does this Marilyn, the Musical workshop. Granted this logic is fairly terrible, but it is seemingly the logic of the show in this particularly moment. And Dev’s proposal, which comes earlier in the episode, mind you, is something he suggests after he interrupts Karen’s drink with the director via an obnoxious performance of his manhood. At that moment too, he seemingly marks her as his territory through a uncomfortable performance of PDA. No wonder Karen is not too thrilled about accepting his offer. At once, the show celebrates Karen’s drive but undermines it by strange and anti-feminist moments like these. Smash does something similar with Ivy in showcasing her drive, but also figuring her as desperate for attention and thus falling prey to the dangers of the casting couch (she sleeps with the director).

And, this conflicted sense of women in Smash is mirrored in the ways in which Marilyn is imagined and produced for the musical. She is the powerhouse that inspires the show, but the musical they write within the show figures Marilyn somewhat meekly, and always in terms of the men she married. Smash’s Marilyn is far less complicated than–and has got nothing on–Michelle Williams’ version of the icon in My Week With Marilyn. That said, I do like Ivy, and am pleased she got the part.

Marilyn (Ivy) vs. Marilyn (Karen)

It is amidst this landscape of conflicted and waffling representations of women that Angelica Huston emerges as the magnificent Eileen. And she is divine. We encounter Eileen mid-divorce with her seriously slimy and cheating ex-husband, Jerry, with whom she is trying to negotiate a reasonable settlement. Rather than settle on an unfair compromise, she puts all their holdings in escrow, including but not limited to their co-production of My Fair Lady. But as My Fair Lady goes into escrow, so too does Marilyn, the character, emerge somewhat oddly as Eileen’s new American Eliza Doolittle. Just as both Marilyn and Eliza Doolittle make themselves over, so too it seems is that Eileen’s plan. But unlike, these characters, Eileen intends to do it on her own instead of relying on a man.

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Chuck Bass, Chris Brown, and Un-Forgiving Violent Men

In gender, race, teen soaps, violence on February 12, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Phoebe B.

The controversy surrounding Chris Brown’s upcoming appearance at the Grammy’s has had me thinking about my favorite Gossip Girl character, Chuck Bass. Chuck, his smoldering eyes, and his bad boy-gone-good situation consistently woo me (at least once a week on Monday nights that is). But the thing about Chuck, which I have a hard time reconciling with his position as my favorite GG character, is his past behavior: in the pilot he attempts to force himself on Serena; later in season one he does the same to 14-year old Jenny (Dan’s little sister); later in the series he trades the beautiful and amazing Blair for a hotel; and ultimately when he finds out Blair is engaged he punches through a window.

Chuck Bass

The narrative drive of the show, at least in part, is about Chuck’s redemption—he becomes a seriously swoon-worthy character by this season (and GG’s 100th episode!). For viewers, that violent history, which is often blamed on his absent and fairly mean father and lack of a mother, is erased throughout the narrative of the show. Indeed, my love for Chuck is possible because the show makes me forget Chuck’s darker deeds—which are most often acts of violence against women. Read the rest of this entry »

Two All-too-Similar Tales of White Womanhood in Once Upon a TimeGrimm

In gender, race on November 6, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Phoebe Bronstein

A few weeks ago, I watched the pilot episode of Once Upon a Time (ABC), one of the two new fall fairytale shows (the other Grimm (NBC), premiered on Friday of the same week). The basic plot goes like this: Snow White and Prince Charming and all of their fantastical kingdom replete with a myriad of magical characters—from Rumplestiltskin and the Seven Dwarves to Red Riding Hood and her gran—are cursed by the Evil Queen. The terrible curse sends the whole magical world to Storybrook, Maine on the very day that Snow White and the Prince’s child is born. But not to worry, the child is saved! Which is a good thing, as she (named Emma) seems to be the only cure for the terrible curse. In present day Storybrook (dubbed by the Evil Queen to be the worst place on earth, which seems a little unfair to Maine), the residents of the fairytale world forget who they are while remaining trapped in a world and town with no happy endings.

Once Upon a Time Cast (Snow White in White, Emma in Red, and Henry in the front)

Then on Friday of that same week, I came home from happy hour with high hopes (that I was fairly sure would be dashed) and turned on the new fairytale mystery Grimm, set in Portland, OR. This show maps Grimm’s fairtyales like “Red Riding Hood” (the topic of the pilot) and “Goldilocks” onto modern day Portland, with a crime drama twist. The main character, Nick, is the last of the “Grimms,” an ancient bloodline it seems bread to hunt down the evil creatures of the Grimm’s fairytales. So it turns out, that in this fantastical world, all the gruesome Grimm’s tales are true. Eek!

The Grimm Detective Duo

Okay so they are both modern day TV adaptations of fairytales, but what are they doing in the same post? Fair question. But here is why: They both participate in the cultural politics of elevating the white female body as both victim and martyr. Both shows, at least in their early episodes, rely on the presumed power of the white female body to enact sympathy, but also as the last hope of civilization. Put another way, she is the body that is most in need of protection, as she is the most productive body and thereby the hope of the future.

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Whose Sookie: Love and Possession in True Blood

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Sarah Todd

“You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.

His face grew a little white, “What do you mean?” he asked.

- Kate Chopin, The Awakening

Love and sex are a dangerous game on True Blood. Relationships on the show tend to end in blood of either the sticky red or metaphorical variety–sometimes both. This is largely due to the fact that people on the show have mad issues. If you’re a vampire who’s been around long enough, you’re always working an angle. If you’re a new vampire, you’re tortured by desire; all you see is throbbing jugulars everywhere you look. If you’re a shapeshifter, you can’t trust anybody, so you’ll always be hiding what you really are. If you’re a werewolf, you are superhot but you probably have some issues with self-control. If you’re human, you are screwed and I’m sorry.  If you’re witches (warlocks?) like Lafayette and Jesus, I am rooting for you two but with this show’s track record I’m not holding my breath. If you’re a faerie, like Sookie Stackhouse, the whole world wants you/wants to kill you, and the two motives are often hard to distinguish.

On True Blood, to love is to bury. When you love someone, the threat of loss hangs over you. True Blood makes this fear concrete by having its characters lose the people they love all the time, to serial killers with fake accents and pagan sacrifices and revenge plots and even regular heartbreak. To love is to bury: loving someone won’t stave off your demons, or theirs (Tara and Eggs). To love is to bury: you harm the person you say you love when you force them to take on roles you should never expect anyone to fill (Mrs. Fortenberry, Franklin). You can try to bury parts of yourself and your past in the name of love, but when those parts come to light the lies will hurt more than the truth ever would have (Bill, a million times over).

Possessive love is a form of burial; it attempts to suppress the independence of others, the right people have to make their own choices and chart their own paths. When Bill and Eric say Sookie is mine, they reveal just how fundamentally they misunderstand the way life actually works. As Edna Pontellier knew, you can give of yourself, but nobody gets to lay claim to you. The vampires on the show are roughly a hundred years behind the times, feminism-wise,which makes sense because they are totally old. They probably don’t understand smart phones, either.

For a while, Sookie was Bill’s, though she never consented to the title. This meant that other vampires kept their distance and he came running whenever she was in danger. Sookie seemed marginally safer than she would have otherwise been at the time, but as it turned out Bill was also using her for her magic sunshine-blood and keeping information about her own past from her and getting other people to beat her to a pulp so that she would fall in love with him. Bill may have believed he loved Sookie; certainly he regarded her with affection. But because he saw her as his, he believed he had the right to control her life–which wasn’t love at all.

This season, Eric is operating under the same patriarchal-vampiric ideology as Bill, more or less. Naturally he believes that buying Sookie’s house means that he owns her too. His understanding of property rights is somewhat shaky, as Sookie promptly informs him.

Pam, ever the voice of deadpan practicality, tells Sookie that she has to be someone’s if she wants to stay alive, given the hail of bullets she’s constantly dodging. But this is one case where Pam isn’t speaking on the show’s behalf. The past few seasons, Sookie’s been discovering her powers. It’s happening slowly, which isn’t surprising given that until now the entire timespan of the show has taken place within just a few weeks. When she shot light at Marianne in Season Two, no one was more surprised than Sookie herself. She still doesn’t know quite what she’s capable of. I think (hope) that this is the summer we’re going to find out. She’s shaking off the people who thought they owned her; Eric doesn’t even remember who he is anymore, let alone the claims on her he hoped to make.

In the last episode of True Blood, Eric said that there were two Sookies: a human Sookie and a faerie one. In fact, there are even more than that. There’s Sookie the telepath, who was an outcast because she knew what everyone was thinking. There’s Sookie the spunky waitress, Sookie the good granddaughter, Sookie the trusted yet flaky friend. To Bill, she was both a human drug and a damsel permanently in distress. There’s the Sookie some viewers rightly see as “a consummate Mary Sue,” as Molly Lambert explains. There’s the Sookie I keep hoping will emerge, who’s stronger and more powerful than any version we’ve seen just yet.

Pam’s right that Sookie probably does need protection: Bon Temps is one scary place. But what if Sookie turns out to be her own best protector, the most valiant, the most trusted? Given that trouble has a way of finding Sookie, it seems likely that the only lasting peace she’ll ever get is the kind she makes for herself.

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