Category Archives: mainstream media

Daddy’s Little Girls

TV has located the perfect family structure: apparently, it’s an accomplished, sexy father, and a pert, cute tween or teenage girl.  Ex-wives/mothers can be occasional guest stars, but the focus is on the Dad, who is both virile and understanding, and the daughter, who still needs guidance, but can also help dear old Dad understand the softer side of life by explaining things like emotions to him.   I found this model instantly annoying when I encountered it recently in a show I can’t remember the name of–it was billed as House with lawyers, and focused on a star criminal attorney who decided to become one of the good guys, but it’s much more recent than The Guaridan (if you know the name, please comment!). But I began to get more seriously annoyed when I found it repeated in other up-and-coming money-maker shows, Castle and Lie to Me.  In fact, the tween daughters of Castle (Alexis) and Lie to Me (Emily) look quite a bit alike, except for the striking red hair of Castle’s daughter: they are both notably elfin, with big round anime eyes.


Emily in Lie to Me

Alexis in Castle

Alexis in Castle

Why does this pattern give me the willies?  First of all, it relies on one of my most hated of cultural tropes, The Enlightened Dad.  I’ve got nothing against dads changing diapers; what I hate is how they are lavished with praise for being even minor participants in child rearing.  A man tenderly dandling a baby makes everyone smile and sigh; a woman doing the same thing is just par for the course.  Both Lie to Me and Castle show their heroes’ softer sides through this sort of nonsense: they can be tough and arrogant, but don’t worry, they will be redeemed through their status as Good Dads!

What’s more troubling, though, is the kind of fantasy family these shows create. In effect, father and daughter replace husband and wife, offering a new couple that gets rids of the sort of things that make trouble in a real heterosexual marriage, particularly in the wake of feminism   Without a female authority figure at home (Mom), we get a family that boils down to the big sexy in-control male figure and amusingly willful yet ultimately sweet subordinate female figure.  No need to worry about who works, since the daughter doesn’t need to earn money; in fact, no need to worry about equality at all, since the roles are polarized by age and family position.  In other words, the father-daughter model recreates the sort of husband-wife family we imagine we used to have before women got all uppity.

Part of the satisfactions of this model are purely Freudian: getting rid of Mom so Dad and Daughter can pursue their own family romance is one of those omnipresent, barely masked cultural fantasies; it’s not for nothing that our fairy tales are filled with evil step mothers who try to keep worthy daughters from marrying the prince.  And certainly this model has a history on TV beyond Disney fairytales (anyone old enough to remember Family Affair?).

But I think the reinvigoration of the Dad-Daughter pattern now has more to tell us about the cultural fantasies of post-feminism than the Freudian fantasies of the family romance.  For one thing, both Lie to Me and Castle belong to a larger pattern of shows that pair men who possess almost supernatural powers with feisty, street-smart professional women who are never quite able to best them.  In Castle, it’s the tough female cop who supervises a team of male detectives.  In Lie to Me it’s the ‘uneducated’ Latina with a raw talent for recognizing micro-expressions.  In Life it’s the Persian-American cop with a history of substance abuse, and the African-American lawyer/ex-Olympian runner.  In Burn Notice, it’s the Irish mercenary with a penchant for violence.

In every case, the women in question are clearly figures of the post-feminist present–that is, they belong to a cultural landscape that assimilated certain palatable aspects of feminism, and jettisoned the rest.   These characters are all  tough professionals who expect equality and have  a kind of sexy swagger that borders on the butch.  And, in every case, they are either overtly mentored by or consistently bested by their borderline-omnipotent male counter part.  In cases like Castle and Lie to Me, proving the woman wrong becomes a key plot point in many episodes. What’s palatable, apparently, is the sexy, savvy woman who can almost beat a man at his own game.  What got jettisoned was the whole equality thing.

That three of these characters are women of color (two in Life, and one in Lie to Me) gives the whole process a sick twist: both shows suggest that their heroes are somehow progressive in pursuing this close relationship with a woman of color, at the same time that they consistently show them up.   That Life gave its hero another tough woman-of-color partner when its lead actress went on maternity leave suggests this pattern is no coincidence.

Once upon a time–I think it was the ’80s–having women characters like this in books and TV shows seemed to mean something was shifting.  Women who were tough, who carried guns, who kicked ass, were certainly a breath of fresh air, a little gust that seemed poised to blow away some elements of the status quo.  But, as it so often does, popular culture found a way to have its cake and eat it too: as shows like Lie to Me, Castle and Life make clear, we can now enjoy the sight of an ass-kicking woman (it helps if she’s beautiful, of course) without there being any real threat to male supremacy.

It makes sense, then, that the father-daughter family occurs in the some of the same shows that feature the tough female mentored and/or topped by the brilliant man: in both cases, we can have all the smarts and savvy we want provided we stay daddy’s little girls.




Filed under feminism, girls, mainstream media, TV, Uncategorized, work

Sotomayor ‘unflappable’? Quelle suprise.

I’ve been feeling for a while that I was going to have to blog about the whole Sotomayor debacle, but I was really hoping I could avoid it. It’s kind of like feeling like you might have to throw up; you know you’ll feel better afterward, but you still would prefer not to. Even thinking about the “She’s not a white man and therefore she can’t be ‘impartial'” line of Republican argument as applied to Sotomayor makes me so furious that I can’t stand to contemplate it for more than about 12 seconds. News flash: white men are still the unchallenged universal, and since they stand for the whole world, there is of course nothing they can do that isn’t “impartial”! Even their most bigoted and wing-nut actions and theories get to stand in as logical assessments for the good of the universe, while Sotomayor’s judgments are the “passionate” acts of a fiery Latina who can only see from her “narrow” perspective (which consists of the desire to punish white men). Coming from money and going to Harvard like your grand-dad apparently gives you unparalleled and uninflected access to all views of all issues–because the view from the projects doesn’t count anyway.

Even the most seemingly positive accounts of Sotomayor’s conduct seem unable to escape falling into this sort of (non)thinking. The New York Times today marveled that Sotomayor left behind her “passion” and remained “unflappable” in the face of small-minded badgering by Republican senators. That she was able to do so seems to be put down to appropriate “coaching”, as if it never would have occurred to her to act this way on her own. Does the NYT seriously think that this is the first time Sotomayor’s had to face this kind of reaction to her accomplishments and ambitions? I would guess that the journey of a Latina from the Bronx to Supreme Court confirmation hearings has been littered with these sorts of slurs–and that she wouldn’t have made it as far as she has had she not found a way not to react “passionately” to everyone who treated her like an undeserving interloper. The audience this time is bigger, but I would bet money that the comments aren’t the worst she’s heard.

If Sotomayor is confirmed, her place on the Court will be celebrated as a sign of the continuing progress of American race, class and gender relations–as if this whole sick drama surrounding her ability to think rather than feel, reason rather than react, didn’t happen. But the real story of American race, class and gender relations is in the drama, the seemingly unavoidable need everyone from the senators to the press has to air their unconscious (or conscious) and abhorrent fantasies about people who deviate from the white-male universal standard and still expect to play a leading role in the government of this country. If anyone ever thought that Obama’s election said anything promising about the decline of that standard–I’m pretty sure I did, for about twenty minutes on election night–this spectacle provides an inescapable corrective.


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Filed under mainstream media, Supreme Court, Uncategorized, women, work

HBO’s cliched attempt at making pimping cool

Equal opportunity pimpin'?

Equal opportunity pimpin'?

With women being lured to foreign countries for a life of prostitution, children abducted for both sex & labor, and men trafficked for profit, are we really supposed to be buy into HBO’s new show about a white guy who becomes a gigolo?

This latest attempt to use the unlikely-candidate-for-life-of-crime narrative, to me, signals this particular genre jumping the shark. From Breaking Bad to Weeds to Nurse Jackie (Edie Falco is always worth watching, I must admit), this idea that there are some people we don’t expect to commit crimes, but it’s cool when they do, is seriously played out. Double X reviews: I concur.

But to then ask viewers, or web cruisers, to participate in pimping the main character of the HBO show HUNG merely continues the sad recuperation of pimping (i.e. the exploitation of another person for financial gain) evident in pop culture artefacts, such as Pimp My Ride or the hipster valorization of Iceberg Slim novels.

And don’t try to give me that, “Pimping doesn’t mean pimping. Pimping is a way of life.” I barely buy Katt Williams’ definition of pimping and I like him, so don’t even try it. But enjoy a little edumacation from Katt anyway…

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Filed under feminism, mainstream media, TV, work

Note to Liberal Media: STFU about Sarah Palin Already

Joan Walsh has yet another article on Salon today about the many lies Sarah Palin has been telling lately, and Rachel Maddow spent a good part of her broadcast on Tuesday deconstructing the bizarre illogic Palin has used to defend her actions this time around. It’s nice to see someone else express the teeth-grinding frustration I feel when listening to Palin say things that are patently untrue to the applause of her countless fans.

But at this point, I wonder if we’re playing a losing game when we subject Palin’s nonsense to the sort of rigorous analysis one might use on genuine political discourse. I’m not suggesting that if we ignore her, she’ll go away. But I am starting to think that picking apart her language as if anyone expected it to actually make sense raises her statements to the level of thoughtful contributions to an informed discussion, when that’s neither what they are nor what they are intended to be–nor why they have the power to move her constituency. It’s not they’re stooping to her level, more that they’re raising her to the level liberals tend to associate with democratic discourse. The more the policy wonks dissect the minutiae of her statements, the more weight is given to the idea that she is making a reasoned or thoughtful contribution to political debate.

Perhaps more crucially, not one of these critiques will make a bit of difference to her many supporters, since any attack on her untruthfulness or illogic will simply be put down as ‘elitism’ anyway. Of course, this view of her as an ignoramus is part of how she presents herself as a victim: ‘Poor me, the liberal media will never give me any credit.’ But the fact is, she doesn’t need the media to give her credit, just airtime, and that’s exactly what even the most disparaging accounts of her behavior continue to do.

If liberals must discuss and deconstruct Palin–and given that she apparently garners viewers/readers at the moment, the media is probably not going to stop following her every move–they would do better to show up as propaganda the things that Palin actually depends on for her support, which seem to have nothing to do with logic and everything to do with identification. What I have heard from Palin supporters is mostly celebrations of her likeness to them, particularly those class, region and religion markers that made her so ‘different’ and ‘surprising’ as a candidate to the mainstream: her folksy accent, her motherhood of a giant brood, her supposed Christian sense of service, her state-college degree, her waders. (And to be fair, progressive supporters of Obama did the same thing, announcing that he was ‘one of us’ even as his centrist tendencies and compulsive need to compromise were always evident to anyone looking closely.)

Part of the reason this persona is so powerful is that it isn’t one we see on the national stage very often–despite W’s attempts to seem like just one of the born-again folks rather than a silver-spooned Yalie whose daddy got him a job. And metropolitan and class elitism does play a foundational and highly problematic role in our government. So if it’s Palin’s persona rather than her plans or promises that is the major draw, the best attack is not on the persona–which would simply underscore the very elitist assumptions she relies on for her victim status–but the fact that she sullies and travesties that persona, using regional, rural, working-class associations cynically for her own advancement, in a way that does a disservice to everyone who identifies with her.



Filed under mainstream media, Sarah Palin

Hen Fights at the XX Corral

I tried to like Slate’s new Double X site. For one thing, they got some genuine feminists to write for their inaugural postings, including Latoya Peterson and Linda Hirschmann, and they seemed poised to acknowledge a difference between the sorts of issues that fill up the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal and actual feminist content, a distinction frequently overlooked by those responsible for Salon’s Broadsheet. But alas, this was not to be, and actually the signs were there from the first. The same inaugural post roundup, which asked a group of women writers what is the new ‘problem that has no name’ for feminism, also included the noxious avowed anti-feminist Christina Hoff Sommers and the increasingly inexplicable Terry Castle. (Who is listening to her? Why are they doing so??) Under the guise of earnest debate (What do you really think of late term abortions?), the site strives to stir up cheap controversy, trying to up its hit rates through the spectacle of supposed feminists excoriating each other.

Yes, debate over feminist issues is necessary, particularly among those committed to the cause. But the point of such debate is to locate and/or generate points of consensus around which to organize and plan actions that will meet shared goals. As five minutes spent at Double X makes clear, the site has absolutely no investment in creating that sort of consensus–quite the opposite. If women didn’t get furious with each other and post vengeful screeds in the comments section, there would be no drama, and hence no clicking. A bunch of women agreeing with each other and getting down to business doesn’t sell ad space. Don’t get me wrong–I think the commentators on the site whining ‘Why can’t we all get along?’ are living in a dream world. A feminism worth anything is going to piss people off, even other feminists. But when we get to the point where debates about the status of race politics in feminism are being used to make money for the media giant that owns Newsweek, we’ve definitely made a wrong turn somewhere.

jke, with props to htg for insights about capitalism and the third wave (shared off line).

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Filed under feminism, mainstream media, race, Uncategorized

Feminist books you’ve lied about reading

Ha! I found Farai Chideya. Okay, she wasn’t lost, but since wack-ass NPR cancelled the only show featuring black folks, the former host is doing her thing hither and yon. She was guest host for WYNC’s Takeaway and had an interesting discussion on books that people lie about reading.

Tolstoy’s War & Peace came up a lot. Why? Because it’s the thicketst book people can think of? Is the advent of the e-reader going to change the terms of the books we lie about reading if we don’t have a physical text as our prop?

More importantly to this blog: hit us up in the comments with the feminist book you’ve lied about reading. Go on, you naughty mix, fess up!

4everuppity: Is it a lie if everyone just assumes you’ve read it? Or if you can’t remember reading it, but swear you must have because you had to take qualifying exams on it? Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.


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Filed under Books, feminism, fiction, mainstream media

Did female action heroes matter?

I saw the Star Trek movie last night. Don’t worry–I’m not planning on disclosing any spoilers, unless you count the information that there are two women in a cast of about 20 central characters, and neither of them does anything even slightly beyond the bounds of gender-stereotyped behavior: in the high-tech future as imaged by Star Trek, girls are good at nurturing and languages and boys are good at fighting and science, and while men are captaining space ships, women are usually having babies. Actually, that did pretty much spoil the movie for me, all the glowing reviews out there notwithstanding. Sure, I realize the movie has to work with the template of the original series, which was hardly feminist. But isn’t that part of the point of nostalgia trips like Mad Men and Swingtown? They make it safe again to represent a world where men go to work and women chat as they push their carts around the grocery store.

The retrograde gender politics of Star Trek, combined with the equally retrograde (and totally terrible) Wolverine, which I saw last weekend, started me wondering, what happened to the female action hero in the last decade? The 1980s and 1990s brought us Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Trinity–not to mention Xena and Buffy. Now, from the Bourne series to Spiderman to Batman, we seem to have gone right back to the realm of Big Strong Men and the Little Women Who Love Them–women whose role is roughly indistinguishable from that of Fay Wray: squeal, get rescued and/or die. Although the ass-kicking female hero survives on TV, particularly in SF vehicles like Battlestar Gallactica, her presence in the movies seems to have reached almost zero.

I could write an entire post about how sad this is, and how much I miss the rough-and-ready women of the 1990s, but, the fact of the matter is, the all-too-easy erasure of these women has lead me to wonder, did they really make a difference in the first place? Did the presence of female action heroes signal anything beyond an increased ability on the part of feminists to enjoy a mainstream Hollywood movie? Obviously, it’s better to have empowered rather than disempowered female heroes; I would never argue otherwise. But the total prominence of the female action hero in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by her total erasure in the last ten years, makes her look like just another fad–something that was fun in the 1990s, like grunge, raves and Seinfeld. And if we could just consume her and then throw her away, like every other female type in the media, maybe she wasn’t all that tough in the first place.

When I was thinking about this blog post, I kept being reminded of a passage from The Feminist Memoir Project collection, in which Barbara Smith critiques a feminism that protests a film about Larry Flint but remains silent about the real-life torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima by the NYPD. The connection is the overvaluing of the media as a source of either uplift (Yay, Buffy!) or oppression (Boo, Star Trek!). So much of feminism, particularly in the blogosphere, is media critique–and on this blog, I am probably the biggest offender. I’m not saying thinking and writing about culture is pointless; if it is, I’ve wasted the last twelve years of my life, not to mention $74,000 in student loans. But the erasure of the female action hero without so much as a blip is a good reminder that changes in culture are meaningless if they’re not accompanied by changes in our material status–and that both can be undone in a heartbeat.



Filed under feminism, film, mainstream media, sexism, TV