Category Archives: TV

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.

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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.

jke

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Filed under feminism, girls, mainstream media, TV, Uncategorized, 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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Why I Love Black Women

Two words: Wanda Sykes.

If you haven’t seen Wanda Sykes at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner take a moment and check it out. The only disappointment: no riffs on Obama’s weak public stance on gay marriage.

blfmstprof

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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.

jke

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Giddy with Excitement: Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse

dollhouse1I’ve been having some “whither feminism?” blues lately. An anti-Capitalist, feminist conference left me heartened to see young women embracing a resurgence in feminist politics across a range of issues , but witnessing and hearing the same ol’ white privilege claptrap was tiresome (post forthcoming).

So, perhaps I’m drinkin’ the Kool-Aid, but am psyched to see the first episode of Joss Whedon’s new show Dollhouse.

The basic set up: irrationally attractive, young women and men are “Actives” who take on the persona and characteristics required by the clients who hire them. Very much like the geishas alluded to in the first episode, they become what their clients need them to be, but as one character commented, their success is dependent on their flaws. I suspect we’re in for losts of crossed wires and all the malfunctioning that comes along with that pesky thing called human consciousness.  All of the Actives reside in the Dollhouse (think residence hall for Angel’s Wolfram & Hart) and, in addition to a standard British ice-woman, are overseen by Handlers/Watchers. The show features a number of TV faves: Eliza Dushku (Buffy), Harry Lennix (in a lotta stuff all the time), Amy Acker (Angel), Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica).

Will Whedon’s new creation bring back some degree of feminism to primetime television? I miss Buffy something fierce and have faith that Joss’ women’s studies background will turn, seemingly, Stepford Wives Revisited into some kickass feminist commentary on human subjectivity, trafficking, consciousness, and destiny to name a few topics that jump out on first viewing. The Dollhouse promo…

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Did you Know the New Deal Sucked?

Because that was news to me, and yesterday, I was sitting around in a Percocet-induced haze, with a hurt back, bored out of my mind, and able to do little but read short things. So I decided to check into this recent, odd right-wing theory that the New Deal was a failure. I don’t know why this seemed like a good idea when I was lying in bed slightly nauseous with one functional arm. Yesterday, like I mentioned, was hazy.

But do remember that I did find a few very interesting posts over on The Huffington Post explaining the basis of the new critique of the New Deal as a failure. Hale Stewart takes Amity Shlaes to task for her misleading statements in The Forgotten Man (2007), the book where she charges that The New Deal prolonged the Great Depression because government spending plans discouraged private investment. Here is Shlaes discussing her New Deal theories with a bemused Jonathan Alter on Talk of the Nation.

According to Stewart, the new talk about the failure of government intervention from the Right Wing is justified by the arguments of Shlaes’ book, as well as a few papers by right wing economists who work at UCLA.

Here is Paul Krugman debunking Shales’ theory as mouthed by George Will.

And, in slightly unrelated economic news, here is the best plan for economic recovery I’ve heard so far, from none other than Jon Stewart.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

htg03

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Why I’m over Tina Fey

No, it’s not the now-infamous Vanity Fair article that attributes her success to her weight loss. Give the article anything more than cursory attention and it becomes clear that it owes a lot more to Maureen Dowd’s narcissism and anti-feminism than it does to any desire on Fey’s part to steer the article toward her looks. It’s pretty clear that Fey simply answered the questions that Dowd, being Dowd, thought were the most important to ask. And is it really surprising that the small-minded and self-involved Dowd, when faced with a woman more attractive, more famous and more intelligent (and younger!) than she is, decided to focus the whole article on how this woman used to be fat and unattractive?

So I don’t blame Fey for the Vanity Fair article, or for losing weight when she was about to become a network TV star. I blame her for 30 Rock. I missed the first two seasons when they were on but caught up in a massive 30-rock onslaught over the holidays, and I was shocked. Yes, it’s well written, and yes, there are clever and critical plots about the war in Iraq and the environment and the politics of product placement. But the gender politics are positively retrograde. Liz Lemon, Tina Fey’s character, is so worried about her biological clock that she steals a baby. She so wants to get married that she buys a wedding dress even though she’s not dating anyone. When she stands up for herself and tells her (male) writers that she can’t always be nice to them, the brief moment of empowerment ends with her bursting in to tears and being swept into the arms of a man and carried, like a bride over the threshold, from the room. Sex and the City never stooped this low.

Even the things about Tina/Liz that are supposed to register as enlightened and post-patriarchal–she’s a bit of a dork and doesn’t have many feminine wiles, despite wearing a lot of Ally-McBeal-length skirts–are played in a typical chick-lit fashion: they invite female solidarity through our failure to meet gender norms, but they place the emphasis on failure. We’re supposed to rue our collective inability to be the proper girly girl we see in the magazines, but we aren’t supposed to actually challenge the standards or celebrate what we are good at. We can come together as women, but only through the vehicle of self-loathing and defeat. It’s a sneaky strategy, because it acknowledges our anger at gender standards, thereby seeming feminist and progressive, when it in fact turns most of that anger at ourselves. In short, this is the same mindset that inspired a thousand Cathy cartoons.

This is today's actual cartoon.

And then there’s the whole Jack thing. Sure, he’s played for humor too, but there’s no doubt that, for the great majority of the time, he is the one offering tutelage and transformation to Liz, rather than the other way around. In fact, a lot of the time the show reads to me like a thinly veiled allegory: How Neoliberalism Turned Postfeminism into a Capitalist Tool. And, frankly, that’s a story I have lived through for most of my adult life; I didn’t really need to see it encapsulated in a network TV show. As Zoe said sarcastically to Mal in an episode of Firefly, ‘Thanks for the re-enactment, sir.’

Finally, I resent the hell out of the fact that I’m supposed to love and cheer for any woman whose sole reason for fame isn’t her looks–all the while being asked to marvel at the fact that she can be smart and pretty at the same time! That last one, of course, isn’t Fey’s fault–which is why I was prepared to like her until the 30 Rock marathon re-educated me. She may not have signed on to her popularization through cleavage, but as far as the rest of post-feminism goes, she’s right on message.

jke

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