thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

House of Cards, The Bachelor, and the Villainesses of TV

In reality TV, The Bachelor on March 9, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Melissa Sexton

On the surface, the two shows I have been watching this month don’t have much in common with each other. The Bachelor and House of Cards seem pitched to very different audiences and to engage in very different kinds of story-telling. House of Cards is a surprise innovation, the product of the new age of media that goes straight to viewers through Netflix’s online streaming platform. The Bachelor represents all the excesses of big studio television plus the excesses of reality television: expensive mansions, helicopter rides to exotic locations, and petty in-fighting highlighted by studio editing. House of Cards seems pitched to savvy viewers, male and female alike, with a longing for complex motivations and a streak of skepticism towards “the establishment.” The Bachelor, on the other hand, is a show unabashedly aimed at a certain imagined type of women. It simultaneously mocks and exults in drunk, emotional engagement, hosting live viewing parties and even crashing some viewing parties in LA.

Given all these differences, I would never have thought to draw any connections between these shows if not for the overlap in their airing: Season 19 of The Bachelor just wrapped up last week, while Season 3 of House of Cards was released [for real, this time] during the last week of February. And yet, watching these shows back to back, I noticed a striking similarity in how these narratives depict women. In both shows, women’s power is ultimately equated with emotional manipulation. But even when such manipulation gets the women what they want, the audience is encouraged to condemn these characters as villains. Such a morality tale is unsurprising in the world of The Bachelor. But in the shadowy, cruel world of House of Cards, Claire Underwood’s oscillation between a will to power and self-doubt is a striking contrast to the unrepentant manipulation of her husband Frank. Why, I asked myself, in such a dark world, is our central female character still under a kind of narrative pressure to be genuine – or, more particularly, why is she still pressured to be truly “nice” to the women who stand in the way of her goals?

***

This double-bind of female friendship and female competition is pretty much a staple of reality television programming. Think of all the cold, aspiring models, season after season, who announced their entrance into America’s Next Top Model by insisting, “I’m not here to make friends.” Long-time fans of the show can guess with some certainty that the editorial inclusion of such footage signals a young woman’s villainization; such ambition, even within a competition, inevitably suggests a woman who will become a “drama queen” or a “bitch” and find herself cut from the running.

Girls’ Progressive Portrait of Women’s Right to Choose

In reproductive health, Television on February 26, 2015 at 1:34 pm

Sarah Todd

The HBO series Girls dodged its first abortion plot line, rendering a character’s appointment at the clinic unnecessary when she started bleeding unexpectedly (whether this was a miscarriage or a belated period was left unclear). Sunday’s episode “Close Up,” on the other hand, addresses the subject head-on.

At the outset of the episode, Adam (Adam Driver) and his new girlfriend Mimi-Rose Howard (Gillian Jacobs) are slumbering in their airy, light-filled Brooklyn loft. Adam wakes up first and easing out of bed gingerly, tucking in Mimi-Rose and kissing her on the cheek. When she descends the stairs to the spacious patio, Adam is waiting for her with a breakfast of crusty bread, a cheese plate and some kind of grilled meat. Clearly they have fallen into some kind of alternate-dimension Anthropologie catalogue. Regardless, Adam gallantly dusts off the chair for Mimi-Rose and scoops her into his arms.

This kind of seven-week-old relationship bliss can’t last for long. Sure enough, when Adam tries to persuade Mimi-Rose to go for a run later that morning, she tells him she can’t because she’s just had an abortion.

What follows is one of the more progressive abortion storylines in recent memory, with Jenny Slate’s wonderful Obvious Child achieving another high-water mark. The episode makes clear that a woman’s right to choose is inherently bound up with her right to be an independent human being.

Mimi-Rose’s abortion happens on her own terms. She chooses to end her pregnancy without talking to Adam first—not because she wants to lie to him, but because she already knows what she wants to do. Then she decides to tell Adam about it after she’s had the procedure, since she wants to be open with him. And when Adam reacts angrily, she gives him space to process his feelings without letting him make her feel guilty or ashamed.

Each of these decisions is in keeping with what the audience knows of Mimi-Rose’s character. As we learned in the previous episode, this is a woman who dumped her childhood sweetheart at age nine because she realized their relationship was interfering with her creativity. She has both the confidence and the self-knowledge to make independent decisions about her life. And it is this independence, rather than the fact of the abortion itself, with which Adam struggles.

How to be Awesome like Lane Kim (from “Gilmore Girls”)

In Uncategorized on January 22, 2015 at 11:13 am

Phoebe B.

Unknown

Since Gilmore Girls’ revival on Netflix a few months ago, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Stars Hollow, the virtually all-white small New England town in which the show is set. There are many things about Gilmore Girls that I find refreshing and delightful, quick and witty dialogue and the focus on friendships between women being among my top two favorite things. Gilmore Girls undoubtedly passes the Bechdel Test, as women talk with one another about everything from love to work to friendships and well beyond. But it is also a show about whiteness and class conflict, despite the fact that it frequently seems to attempt to skirt these issues.

Lane Kim stands out as one of two recurring character of color (the other being Michele at the inn), replete with a stereotypical Asian Tiger mom. Her mother’s strict rules contrast with Lorelai Gilmore’s free-spirited parenting style, seemingly evoking a sensibility along raced lines.

But while Lane rebels against her restrictive Korean, Christian mother, she is also a fully-fledged, fully badass character in her own right. In a sea of whiteness—both on Gilmore Girls and on television more generally—Lane’s greatness ought to be appreciated.

So, here is how to be awesome like Lane Kim:

  • Be a major music buff, but, not just in one genre. You’ve got to love all kinds of music, from Coltrane to Broadway show tunes, Belle and Sebastian and Metallica. In order to do this, you need to hide all your CDs under secret floorboards in your bedroom. After immersing yourself in music for years, you’ll be able to identify any song or artist based on the faintest sound streaming through the phone line.
  • Once you know all there is to know about music, convince the local music instrument store owner to let you practice super softly on a borrowed drum kit. Then, once you’ve mastered the drums, place a hilarious ad in the newspaper wherein you list ALL of your major influences. Given the breadth of your music knowledge and that you’ll likely have to pay per word, prepare for this ad to be costly.

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