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Posts Tagged ‘Weight’

Weight Weight, Don’t Tell Me: Body Image in “The Mindy Project”

In Television on September 10, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Sarah T.

The first comment about weight in Mindy  Kaling’s new show comes at the six-minute mark. “My body mass index isn’t great,” Mindy Lahiri tells her well-coiffed BFF Gwen, “but I’m not like Precious or anything.”

Kaling’s comedic timing is impeccable, but the joke rests on unsteady territory. Sure, Mindy’s being self-deprecating — but the punchline is really about how big Precious is. It assumes that, like Mindy, the show’s target audience of college-educated, middle-class women in their twenties and thirties will laugh at Precious to make themselves feel better by comparison. Of course, there are plenty of viewers who are closer to Gabourey Sidibe’s weight than to Kaling’s — but the show doesn’t seem worried about alienating them.

“No, guys, a culture that tells women they always have more weight to lose is a culture that wants women to disappear,” is not what they are saying. Maybe next episode.

The Mindy Project, as Sarah S. wrote in a recent GLG post, is a funny show with a heroine who,  in the tradition of Bridget Jones, is both together (doctor!) and a lovable mess (drunk bicycle-pool incidents). And like Bridget Jones, Mindy L. is clearly a bit obsessed with her weight. “Do you know how hard it is for a chubby 31-year-old woman to go on a legit date with a guy who majored in economics at Duke?” she demands as a patient tries to drag her away from a promising restaurant rendezvous.

HOW HARD IS IT?” this late-twenties, probably roughly-Kaling-sized viewer thought in a panic. And then I thought, “Wait. ‘Chubby?’ Is this show calling me fat?”

The answer, I think, is: sort of. The pilot mentions Lahiri’s non-stick-figure-size an average of once every 7 minutes. I don’t think Kaling, or the show, is intentionally trying to make fun of bigger people or rile up the insecurities of its audience. But while Kaling is a talented comedian, her approach to the subject of weight sometimes makes me wince. In her book Is Everyone Hanging Out with Out Me, she writes about being a happy and confident size 8. Yet she seems stuck in the body binary she’s protesting:

“Since I am not model-skinny, but also not super-fat and fabulously owning my hugeness, I fall into that nebulous, “Normal American Woman Size” that legions of fashion stylists detest. For the record, I’m a size 8 (this week, anyway). Many stylists hate that size because, I think, to them, I lack the self-discipline to be an aesthetic, or the sassy confidence to be a total fatty hedonist. They’re like ‘Pick a lane.’

While the language isn’t super-clear, I think Kaling means that the stylists, not her, see larger women as “total fatty hedonists.” But there still seems to be stereotyping of plus-size women at work in this passage, as if bigger physical size necessarily corresponds with an outsized personality.

What’s most revealing, though, is that Kaling describes herself as “Normal American Woman Size.” This is key to Kaling’s image as the ultimate gal-pal, the kind of witty, sparkly friend who’s always up for sleepovers and juicy gossip. “She’s become the contemporary Everywoman,” Jada Yuan’s New York Magazine profile of Kaling reports, “both a Mary and a Rhoda.” The central conceit of Kaling’s public persona — as well as of The Mindy Project — is that Mindy is relatable. And unfortunately, in our culture, one of the things women can relate to most is being self-conscious about weight. Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Weekly Round-Up

In body politics, hip hop, race, social media, Weekly Round-Up on June 22, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Here are some super interesting reads from around the web this week. Enjoy!

An intriguing read on social media, viruses, and violence from A.J. Aronstein, “The Plague Years” at the New Inquiry.

Arturo Garcia provides provides coverage about Jonathan Wall’s racist and violent treatment at a North Carolina bar, on Racialicious: “Grad Student’s Story Leads To Protest Against North Carolina Bar.”

Cord Jefferson has a terrific essay exploring the capitalist underpinnings of “No Church In the Wild” and the Watch the Throne version of revolution.

The writers at XOJane are public personae. Does that mean they can (or should) write about each other? Tracie Egan Morrissey considers Cat Marnell at Jezebel.

A great piece from Dances With Fat, “Feeling Fat vs. Being Fat” in response to Daisy’s “I’m Fat and I’m Not Okay With It” piece at xoJane.

Rebound: Katniss & Body Snarking

In body politics, gender, girl culture, Hunger Games on March 27, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Phoebe B.

GLG contributor Brian Psiropoulos recently alerted me to the trend of body snarking Jennifer Lawrence. This Slate article takes on the New York Times and others’ truly destructive and sexist criticism of Lawrence’s body. But I find myself still unsettled even by the Slate response, which argues against the criticism of Lawrence’s body as not skinny enough to play Katniss by asserting that Lawrence is in fact skinny. This assertion, while true, is not the point. Rather, as the Slate article does note, this body snarking is exclusive to Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss and is not a kind of scrutiny the male actors undergo. Oddly enough, the film version of both Peeta and Gail’s characters did not align with the ways in which I imagined them. But this disjuncture is not reason enough to suggest that their bodies ought be different or would make them more believable. Given that the snarky criticisms about these male characters’ figures are conspicuously absent, it seems that the discussion of Lawrence’s body has everything to do with her being a woman.

Read the rest of this entry »

A link worth reading: women’s clothing

In gender on January 18, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Chelsea H.

Been shopping lately?  Feeling cranky about what’s available out there?  Are you (like me) still trying to vault the awkward distance between the junior section and the “missus” or whatever the “young semi-professional adult who isn’t petite, doesn’t want to be frumpy or provocative, and can’t afford designer labels” section is called?

This article from is a good read, I think, and addresses many of my cranky complaints.  I’m especially in agreement about #4: Arbitrary Clothing Sizes.  In pants alone, I wear a 10 in missus sizes from JC Penney’s, an 11 in juniors, a 6 at Ann Taylor, and at Old Navy, jeans advertised as the same size differ depending on the color.  What’s a girl to do?

Thoughts?  Similar issues?  Grievances to add?

GLG Weekly Round-Up

In Weekly Round-Up on November 12, 2011 at 8:26 am

This week, really interesting articles on Penn State riots (and Sandusky firing); two from Lesley Kinzel; a few responses to the really offensive Ashley Madison ads (including one amazing interview with Juicy Jaqui herself); one from Lynda Barry in the NYT; and one on race, beauty, and modeling; and a nicer take on the Kim Kardashian situation. Enjoy!

On Penn State (from Racialicious):

From the wonderful LESLEY KINZEL, “the impostor syndrome:” Read the rest of this entry »

The Many Roles of the Divine Melissa McCarthy

In gender on October 5, 2011 at 8:42 am

Sarah Todd

There are three things I have to say about Melissa McCarthy right off the bat. First, she is hilarious. Second, she is beautiful. Third, I am very glad that she is riding a huge wave of success, from critical raves for her Bridesmaids turn to an Emmy award for Mike and Molly (which by general consensus was really for her work in Bridesmaids, but fine, since it’s unlikely the stuffy old Oscars will toss a nod in Bridesmaids’ direction) to her recent gig as the host of Saturday Night Live. The more often McCarthy shows up on screens large and small, the more the world gets to bask in her charismatic, goofy presence—and that’s an excellent thing.

However, I also think it is important to take a close look at the types of roles that have thus far been available to McCarthy as a plus-size female comedian. Some people, with good reason, have raised concerns that these roles—in particular, her part in Bridesmaids as a tough, sexually aggressive, not-very-ladylike member of the wedding party—rely on fat jokes and stereotypes about overweight women. (On a sidenote, I use the word “fat” in this article either in the reclaimed sense or in order to convey cultural tropes and prejudices regarding overweight people; by no means is it meant as an insult.)

In order to take a close look at these concerns, let’s check out McCarthy in three screen appearances: as Sookie in Gilmore Girls, Megan in Bridesmaids, and in multiple sketches on last week’s SNL. (I haven’t seen Mike and Molly and I have a (perhaps unjust) bias against laugh-track sitcoms, but I’d love to hear from readers about how her role on that show fits into this analysis).

In retrospect, I wonder if Melissa McCarthy was a little bored in her seven seasons as Sookie on Gilmore Girls. As Sookie, she got to be cute and high-energy and quirky and neurotic. But the part didn’t really call for much of a wild side or for physical humor, and it’s now clear that these are two of McCarthy’s strengths. However, one great thing about the way the show depicted Sookie was that her weight was never an issue. I can’t recall a single episode that mentions anything about her body type, or that plays on any stereotypes related to overweight people. Sookie was supposed to be funny and pretty, a great chef, a loyal friend, and a devoted wife and mother, and she was indeed all of those things. Her weight never entered into the discussion of her abilities or happiness. Nor did the show suggest that her weight was a problem to be overcome or a personal failing. Read the rest of this entry »

Gender, Sexuality, and Coming-of-Age in ABC Family’s “Huge”

In gender, teen soaps on August 30, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Sarah Todd

ABC Family’s short-lived, much-loved teen drama Huge gets camp right. Watching the show, you can practically smell the rough-hewn pine cabins and feel the rising moisture from freshly washed cafeteria dishes on your skin. The difference between camp time and regular time comes flooding back: one camp afternoon was equal to eight or so off-season ones. You may remember waiting in line to call home and pick up care packages from your parents (socks and Kleenex and stuffed animals), how friendships forged in the fires of camp shone with devotion after just a few days, how camp crushes were always big and sweet and extra-heartbreaking. In a major coup for camp-accuracy, Huge even includes a clogged toilet in the boy’s cabin that everyone kind of surreptitiously pretends isn’t happening.

But the real secret to the show’s authentic feel is the way that it quietly and respectfully explores the complex emotions of its teenage characters. Huge is all about change. Most, though not all, campers are at the wellness camp at least in part to lose weight—but the show is really about kids going through less visible, deeper transformations.

Like most adolescents, Wil, Becca, Ian, Amber, Chloe, Alistair, Trent, Piz, and company are struggling to figure out who they are and who they want to be. Camp provides them with a place to try on new identities or affirm old ones. Often, they surprise themselves. Wil, the fighter and proud feminist who initially planned to wage war against all camp activities, discovers that she actually likes basketball. Trent, the good-hearted jock, longs to be in a band, and befriends bunkmates he might never have acknowledged in high school hallways. Chloe climbs the social ladder by leaving her frizzy-haired, giggly old self—and her former BFF Becca—behind.

Huge conveys these changes not with dramatic speeches or blowout fights, but through small, carefully observed moments. The camera lingers on a character’s face after her friends walk away, or follows an exchange of gazes without tacking on an explanation. Huge isn’t afraid to leave characters and scenes open to interpretation, and it extends that approach to its complex depictions of teenagers exploring gender roles and sexual orientations. Read the rest of this entry »

Update: Patti Stanger is “Toxic” on Drop Dead Diva 

In gender, Lifetime on August 29, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Phoebe Bronstein

Last night I turned on the television (okay so actually it was the DVR, as I watched Leverage pre Drop Dead Diva) and lo and behold there was Patti Stanger on one of my favorite shows, Drop Dead Diva. Given that last week I wrote about Patti and her matchmaking for millionaires and that I have also recently written on Drop Dead Diva (DDD), I thought an update was in order after I watched my TV worlds collide.

Patti Stanger as Marcie on Drop Dead Diva

On DDD there have been a parade of famous female guests, from Rosie O’Donnell and Paula Abdul in Season 1, to Wanda Sykes in Season 2, and last week Kathy Griffin (which was hilarious). Thus, I suppose Patti’s appearance should not come as such a shock to the system, but for some reason (to be fleshed out shortly) it did. On DDD last night’s “Toxic” episode, Patti played Marcie LaRose, a rather snarky mean girl and Terri’s (Margaret Cho) high school and present day nemesis. Marcie is very much a Patti Stanger type character and we meet her as she asserts to a crowd of single ladies that women should not just give it away. Otherwise, you’ll never get married or so she says.

The major action comes in the midst of Marcie’s lunchtime talk (which Terri’s mother has insisted she and Jane (Brooke Elliot) attend), when Terri and Jane get in a bit of a verbal brawl. Marcie shouts at Terri, Jane defends Terri, Marcie sues Terri for “defamation, per se.” That is, Marcie sues her for slandering her chastity, a suit Marcie ultimately loses at the hands of Kim, Jane’s rival and another firm attorney.

For me the most interesting thing about this episode is that for a show like Drop Dead Diva that most certainly passes the Bechdel Test, and is also, on its best days, about smart, capable, and driven women, Patti Stanger seems an odd fit. So in a show where episodes rarely seem off, this one did and I think it was because of Patti Stanger’s ethic does not quite fit on DDD. For example, Patti is all about women losing weight to get the guy (as indicated by her recent break-up and subsequent weight loss), where DDD seems definitively anti-this line of thought. Instead DDD insists on many different kinds of beauty and that there is no one size fits all way of looking or model for dating. So as the script tried to make fun of Marcie (Patti Stanger) and did paint her as unsympathetic (for example, she ultimately loses her lawsuit against Terri), it also seemed to tread lightly around her.

Patti Stanger on DDD seemed to me like putting a square peg into a round hole: awkward, forceful, and mostly strange. If the show made too much fun of Marcie/Patti and their requisite but similar businesses, then DDD might risk offending the real Millionaire Matchmaker. But if DDD didn’t present some problem with her character on the show, then DDD would have also have felt even odd. So the show toed the middle line and it was weird.

However, the name of the episode is “Toxic,” which at once refers to a case involving toxic dirt and a school (the other storyline from last night), so could be read as having nothing to do with Patti Stanger. But here is where I think the show is quite smart: I choose to read the episode’s title as reflecting the show’s take on Patti (perhaps I’m projecting a little bit). By pairing a toxic dirt story-line and the danger it poses to a group of people, with a story-line about Patti Stanger as a mean girl signals to me a parallel between the two. Thus, the saving grace of last night’s episode and my take away from “Toxic,” is that the show subtly signals that Patti and her dating philosophies are indeed toxic and harmful, just like the bad toxic dirt.

A Mostly Gleeful Project: Oxygen’s Glee Project & Cheering for Hannah

In girl culture on August 5, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Phoebe Bronstein

Most of the time when I watch Glee I rather wish the dialogue would stop, and instead they would just sing awesome songs all the time. This is also mostly how I feel about Oxygen’s newest reality TV drama, The Glee Project. I feel odd about this particular feeling given that I am generally a total sucker for narrative, but Glee’s dialogue is often not as compelling as its songs. However, on The Glee Project there is something oddly absorbing and intriguing about seeing Ryan Murphy on every episode just being Ryan Murphy (also, responsible for the dark and creepy Nip/Tuck).

The premise of the show is a bunch of awkward, nerdy, but charming kids compete for a story arc on Glee. Everyone is super talented, and the drama includes people competing to hit a higher note, somebody’s feelings getting hurt, and somebody telling on another cast member to Ryan Murphy (for example, when Damien told Ryan that Alex was picking on Mathias). Oh yeah, they also all live together. Drama, drama, drama. Also, each episode ends as the final three go to see if their names are on the call-back list for next week’s episode. For extra melodrama, their journey is accompanied by awesomely dramatic music. Oh melodrama, you are so reliably grand.

Hannah from The Glee Project

So of the contestants left on The Glee Project, Hannah is by far my favorite. She is a perky, goofy, cute red head from North Carolina. A few weeks ago she got her confidence, and realized she was sexy and great. She would be awesome on Glee. Plus she can rap; in the “Ice Ice Baby/Under Pressure” mash-up she gave Vanilla Ice a run for his money. I would totally watch her on Glee. And so it seems would Ryan Murphy; last week he told Hannah and her partner Alex that they were what Glee was about. That is, neither of them should be a star, per Murphy’s logic, because of their looks. Put another way, what Murphy informs them of is that they are not Hollywood or TV good looking, but rather they are both self described “fat kids.”

At once, Glee is about making stars of those that might not otherwise be—it is a show about misfits (even though many of them are HOT and at least were once popular, ie Finn, Quinn, etc.). And so too is The Glee Project. This is among the many lessons we learn about Glee from the show’s creator Ryan Murphy. Other lessons include that the show is very much about teamwork (no divas allowed), and you don’t want to be the guy or gal that we have to do extra takes for. The show is filled with little gems about the what Glee is about. The small lessons for the contestants let them know what they’re getting into while promoting the show. And Glee, per Ryan Murphy, is a highly ethical, teamwork oriented, friends forever set.

But to briefly return to this notion of misfits and Glee as the happy television home for said misfits. One of my issues with Glee is that many of the misfits wind up functioning to showcase the main couple, Finn and Rachel, and support their on and off again romantic coupling (click here for more on this). Further, by looking for misfits, it seems The Glee Project and Glee are redefining and reiterating what it means to be a misfit, not to mention what it looks like (although we learn that even football stars can be misfits). On the plus side, maybe Glee/The Glee Project are working to make the nerdy misfit cool. But perhaps that’s why I like Hannah on The Glee Project: she seems like a 19 year old (which she is), she is super talented and when she performs my eye goes to her, and she equates her sexuality to a Koala bear. Awesome. However, she doesn’t play up her potential misfit-ness. And in this way she reminds me of Glee superstars Lauren Zizes (Ashley Fink) and Mercedes (Amber Riley), who on the show are perhaps two of strongest personalities, and two of the most comfortable in their own skin (Kurt might also be in this category). Or at least as comfortable as teenagers potentially can be …

Ashley Fink who plays Lauren Zizes on Glee

Amber Riley aka Mercedes on Glee

By way of a conclusion, I am not really sure how I feel about The Glee Project. Truth be told, I often fast forward through the dialogue. However, it is an interesting show to think about and I am rooting for Hannah big time. In part, I think why I like her, Zizes, and Mercedes as potential Glee and current Glee characters respectively is their characters insist on beauty in so many different forms; for example, Puck is attracted to Zizes because she is stronger than him and does not put up with his shit. In fact, Puck + Zizes is my favorite Glee couple by far. In the best of all possible worlds, Glee is about making stars out of people who do not, for Murphy, fit the Hollywood mold, even if his leads most certainly do (ie Finn and Rachel). And perhaps his acknowledgement of this is rather savvy, albeit depressing. However, I am waiting for the day where a Hannah, Lauren Zizes, or Amber Riley are the leaders of a Gleeful pack.

Interlude: Brownies, Diets, and the Women who eat them.

In gender on July 28, 2011 at 9:10 am

Chelsea Narr Henson

Hi, GLG!  Sarah kindly allowed me a spot to write a guest post, so let me introduce myself.  Like these other awesome ladies, I’m a PhD student in English lit.  I also write about food and recipes elsewhere on the internets.  I don’t usually write about television.  I prefer to yell at it.  Unless there is food on it.  And then I’m typically more interested in the food than in the medium from which it is displayed.

But here’s the thing: unless I’m watching FoodNetwork, the place where food shows up more often than not is in commercials.  And that means, as I tell my students all the time, that there are going to be biases associated with it.  Sometimes it will flat-out be representing the food as more eat-able than it really is.  But sometimes, as in this case, it involves the way the commercial is written and shot.  I couldn’t find the commercial posted online, so we’ll have to work from my memory of it.

(Nota bene: I’m not a film scholar chick, so forgive my lack of appropriate vocabulary for particularly film-y things…)

The ad begins with a determined-looking, pretty blonde woman, probably early 30s, walking quickly and purposefully through a grocery store.  She’s wearing a pencil skirt and heels, and doesn’t stop to take anything off any shelves.  She heads straight for the end of an aisle where a beefy looking guy – a bouncer, of sorts – stands with his arms crossed in front of a ceiling-to-floor red curtain.  He seems as though he will stop her, but she waves him aside and goes through.

While this scene of what seems to be female empowerment is going on, the voiceover for the ad announces that now, something formerly off-limits, something that could never be thought about before, has become approved for consumption for people on diets.  As the woman pushes her way through the curtain, the voiceover reveals this secret taboo, this wondrous, mysterious no-no, is a brownie.  A 90-calorie brownie.  The shelves on the other side of the curtain are stacked with boxes containing these snacks, and we can see them pictured on the boxes: tiny squares that look more like foam rubber or molded plastic than delectable fudgy chocolate treats.

Once within the curtain, we see a club scene: people dressed up, jumping around and dancing, multi-colored lights flashing and disco balls hanging from the ceiling.  There is at least one tray full of the brownie treats being held up and passed around.  The woman we’ve been following happily joins the dance party, and the voiceover tells us encouragingly, no, joyfully, that brownies are back on the dieter’s can eat list, and they can be found in your local supermarket in the granola bar aisle.

Does this seem innocuous?  The first time I saw it I thought nothing of it.  The second time I saw it I started noticing some things that bother me a little.

As far as I can see, there is one man in the dancing scene of the ad.  One.  Everyone else rejoicing over this product is a woman.  Further, they are all relatively young and dressed to the nines.  Does this mean only women like brownies and would therefore care about them being available in a low calorie incarnation?  Not true, I say: my husband loves a big, chewy brownie.  Does it mean only women go on diets?  The very next commercial might be for Hydroxycut or similar, which would disprove this one as well.  Here’s where I think it gets more insidious.  Does it mean only women have to restrict themselves to certain types of food?  Or does it mean that if you’re a woman who enjoys an occasional brownie, you ought to start thinking of yourself as doing something wrong?  Really, the commercial seems to urge, if you’re taking good care of your body and keeping it thin and trim, brownies should have been off limits to you until now.  The man in the party scene, incidentally, is about as far in appearance and habit from the uber-masculine bouncer as you could get.  He might be a hipster, he might be metrosexual, but more likely (I think), he’s styled to look somewhat effeminate, so it turns out it’s a “girls’ night” complete with a token gay guy – and lord knows he hasn’t had a brownie in ages either… until now, that is!

Further, let’s consider the big bouncer that the woman steps casually past at the beginning of the commercial.  Sure, he plays into the club vibe the ad wants to invoke.  It makes sense for him to be there, guarding the red curtain, but what does that mean from an over-analytical perspective?  This woman wants to do something taboo.  She wants to eat this delectable snack hidden away.  He is there to prevent her from indulging, even though, as the commercial so helpfully reveals, what she’s after is only 90 measly little calories.  So here, it would seem, even though we now know this dessert is not so bad for the woman in search of a trim figure, this guy still doesn’t want our girl to have any.  He would rather block the door than allow her this small indulgence.

Finally, there’s the issue of placement.  The voiceover tells us not only how fantastic it is that these brownies are 90 calories a piece; it also tells us where we can find them in the grocery store.  They are shelved with the granola bars.  It’s like that final wink: even if you’re a woman, and you’ve not eaten a brownie in 3 years because you’re trying to stay trim for your next upcoming high school reunion, so that Joe Quarterback will finally, finally notice you after all these years, but now you feel like it might be okay to indulge by picking up a pack of these 90 – just 90! – calorie brownies, they don’t get shelved with the cookies or the baking mixes.  No, they hang with the granola bars.  Now, on top of being delicious and formerly forbidden and reserved for those women who can’t resist partying over chocolate, they are also a health food.  Don’t worry, girls, they aren’t really even brownies!  They’re just like granola bars.  They must be good for you, because stuff with low calorie counts is good for you, since it helps you be thin.  And thin is good.

To sum up, what this commercial teaches us is as follows:

1.) most young attractive women either are, or should be, on diets.

2.) indulgence is a bad thing, because it means you won’t be following your diet.

3.) men wouldn’t want you to indulge, because then you wouldn’t be as attractive as you could be, since you’d probably gain weight.

4.) men don’t need diet brownies, unless they are those kind of men (by extension, perhaps, men don’t go on diets?  And why not?  Surely they, too, feel the pressure from society/people they want to seem attractive to?).

5.) even if you are going to indulge in this new godsend, no one will judge you, because in addition to being low calorie, it’s actually a healthy snack.

Girls!  Can’t we just feel beautiful and accepted AND enjoy some good old dessert if we want to?  Come over.  I’ll make brownies.  And they won’t come from a 90 calorie box.

Now you know why I yell at the TV set.


Addendum:  Just saw this commercial again and noticed something I forgot to mention.  As the dance party progresses, the curtain is moved aside slightly and who peeks through?  Two teenage boys dressed as supermarket janitorial staff.  They look in voyeurs to the scene, seeming both slightly shocked and a bit bashful about their actions.  Are they turned on by these dancing, brownie-eating women?  Are they horrified at the taboo being broken?  What does it mean that they are staff members with somewhat undesirable jobs?  I can’t decide what effect this additional moment has on the message of the commercial.  How would this be different (or would it?) if the voyeurs were attractive male grocery store customers instead of janitor kids?

Benevolent but Fierce: The Glamorous Ethics of Top Model

In gender, girl culture, race on July 25, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Melissa Sexton

I’m currently teaching a summer section of Writing 122, the second of two freshman composition classes required at my university.  Our discussion today centered around a great article by Steven Johnson called “Watching TV Makes You Smarter,” which argues that recent years have seen growing narrative complexity in fictional television shows.  Similarly, Johnson argues that even “bad TV” (think: reality shows) have gotten smarter, since reality shows are often more sophisticated and morally complex versions of game shows.  I expected this article to elicit tons of discussion from my students, but what I discovered was a surprising program snobbery.  My students were already doing what Johnson suggests: they were foregoing simpler reality television fare in favor of “multi-threaded drama” that features moral ambiguity, season-spanning plotlines, and complex structures: think Lost, The Wire, 24, The Sopranos.  When it came time to talk about reality TV, I was the only one that was willing to admit outright love.  For the good of the class, I exposed myself as a long-time ANTM fan.

My outing led to a number of interesting questions about narrative complexity and television morality.  If, as Johnson argues, our dramas are moving away from morally motivated yet formulaic sitcoms in favor of multithread, morally ambiguous, “realist” dramas, is reality television the last bastion of overt TV sermonizing?  If so, what is it that I, a fairly intelligent person despite my students’ censure, love so deeply about reality television?  And is it a redeemable love, I ask myself, taking ANTM as a case study.

Read the rest of this entry »

Drop Dead Diva & Lifetime’s Modern Makeover

In Lifetime on July 11, 2011 at 8:02 am

Phoebe Bronstein

I have always thought Lifetime was for the older ladies, but these days something is afoot in their programming with shows like summer hit Drop Dead Diva, the sexy women of Army Wives, Project Runway, and the premier of a new show with Ally Walker, The Protector. I must admit I have never seen Army Wives as it never appealed to me and I haven’t seen Project Runaway since it moved to Lifetime. However, I just watched the first two episodes of The Protector, and it isn’t too bad thus far; then again I am a total sucker for any and all crime oriented television shows.

But my favorite Lifetime show and one my favorite summer shows is Drop Dead Diva. Not only am I a big Drop Dead Diva fan, but I feel like it is a show particularly necessary for the current television landscape. Last summer ABC Family canceled Huge (which made me really sad) and then Marie Claire published Maura Kelly’s upsetting and disrespectful response to Mike & Molly on their blog (read here). That is, the current TV climate is not one that welcomes weight differences and is at times downright cruel. Enter Drop Dead Diva, a show that features and celebrates a brilliant, sexy, and plus size woman as its central character. The show is now in its third season and going strong.

Jane (Brooke Elliott)

So here’s the basic plot: Deb, a skinny model in love with a lawyer, Grayson, dies in a car accident. Deb goes to heaven, presses the return button, and comes back in the body of Jane (Brooke Elliott), a plus size, workaholic lawyer with Margaret Cho as her secretary (Margaret Cho is so awesome). Deb, now Jane, goes to work at the law firm where her now grieving fiancé, Grayson works. Drama ensues as Jane/Deb tries to win back Grayson’s heart, balance her new life in her new body, and all the while rocking her lawyer socks—a feat she accomplishes amongst a myriad of celebrity cameos from Paula Abdul and Wendy Williams to Wanda Sykes. And just in case you thought the show couldn’t get better, the show is sprinkled with fantasy song and dance sequences which showcase Brooke Elliott’s incredible voice and talent. So good!

But here is the thing, in a climate where most of the women of television and particularly those that have their own shows are somewhere in, around, and under a size 2, Jane is an awesome anomaly. She is sexy and the show believes she is sexy. But the show and Jane also struggle (particularly in the first season) with the social pressures surrounding her body although the show is definitely not about weight. It is interesting to note here too, that the last time Margaret Cho was on television she was forced to undertake some serious weight loss, which we all know is really bad for your health. Now Cho is on Drop Dead Diva, a show that celebrates her curvy body.

Margaret Cho as Terry, Jane's awesome assistant

While this is all true and awesome, Lifetime’s own homepage features diet tips for women and the network also airs a show on weight loss geared at women: Cook Yourself Thin. And while roaming around Lifetime’s site, I came across pictures of celebrities who have lost weight, some healthier than others. This photo essay does not appear critical of the Hollywood super skinny aesthetic or interested in weight loss for health purposes. And it seems odd to me that something like this photo essay can coexist on Lifetime with Drop Dead Diva’s emphasis on beauty in all different shapes and sizes. But I guess it all makes sense given the bodies that are front and center on Lifetime’s other shows, such as Army Wives, Project Runway, and The Protector (ie some very thin and fit women).

So yes, Lifetime has definitely gotten a face lift of epic proportions—from made for TV women’s films, which they still show, to snazzy new programming like Drop Dead Diva and Army Wives. The promo picture for Army Wives clearly seems to be looking for sex appeal—something I never thought I would see on Lifetime. As an aside, if Lifetime is a network targeted at women and they are selling the sex appeal of the Army Wives (in their marketing at least), might they in fact be targeting women who love women? As that would be cool. But if not, who are they appealing to? And why doesn’t a network that markets itself towards women have more appealing and strong women like Jane? Also note: the Lifetime website has astrology tabs. Interesting and perhaps a little odd.

This is all to say that Drop Dead Diva is a serious breath of fresh air in a TV and larger media landscape that does not embrace weight differences. Jane is a hardworking and bad ass lawyer, but she also happens to be sexy, sassy, and flirty and sometimes struggles with her confidence (be honest, we all do at times). And she is even, unlike the women of many crime shows, pretty decent at dating and has friends (seriously, lots of friends). So clearly I am a fan and perhaps not as critical as I could be here, but this girl would love to see more shows like Drop Dead Diva. And I will probably now watch anything with Brooke Elliott as she is awesome.