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Saturday, May 29, 2004

Television history

I was watching Bravo earlier today and they had documentary about different groups and their evolving representation on TV. When I tuned in, one hour about women was beginning. After that was one hour about racial minorities (my guess from the title) and the last hour was about gays and lesbians. I wanted to watch all three, but I had an appointment, so I could only watch the one about women.
Well, I laughed out loud at least three times, which is more than most TV shows can do for me, so that was a good thing. I laughed when they showed a "I Love Lucy" clip where Lucy opens the oven and the bread, which apparently is like half yeast, bursts out and pins her to the wall. I laughed at a clip of Bea Arthur on "Maude", where her daughter suggests than an abortion is no scarier than going to the dentist and she says, "Oh, I'm really scared now." And I laughed at a "Sex and the City" clip that shows the foursome at a wedding drinking martinis, and the bride throws the bouquet at their feet. They all watch it fall and then one of them says, "Wanna 'nother drink?" or something like that and they all wander away.
That last joke cracked me up--I have actually hidden in the bathroom at weddings rather than be subjected to people nudging me and pressuring me into participating in the bouquet-throwing.
Anyway, I thought it was okay, considering they had to shove 50 years of women's roles into one hour of television. I got annoyed when they credited the media with dressing up feminism and making it palatable with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" after showing a clip of women protesting the 1968 Miss America pagent. For fuck's sake, the only reason feminists had such a poor reputation as strident ball-busters was because that's how the media decided to portray them. Even in the brief clip they showed of the 1968 protest, you could see how the cameras were doing their best to focus only on women who were shouting or doing other unattractive things. But it was hard for them to do, even then, because no matter how tight the focus on a woman showing anger, you could see women cutting up and laughing in the back. No matter how hard they tried to keep conventionally attractive women offscreen, there they were in the background.
Anyway, I digress. There were good things for sure. I liked how they pointed out that while the amount of sexism on "Lucy" is amazing by modern standards, it was a weirdly subversive show in its own way. After all, we the audience love Lucy because we empathize with her desire to break free. At the end of the show, her "rightful" place in the home was supposedly affirmed, to placate the network standards. But in reality, the audience knew she would just try again next week. And they also loved the real-life Lucy, a woman with a successful career. My guess is that 50's audiences, like today's audiences, watched their programs with a a grain of salt, poo-poohing the tedious "Father Knows Best" type messages that conflicted with the reality of their own lives.
The part that I found most interesting was their take on the show "Dynasty", and the Alexis vs Crystal catfight. They had the writer Susan Douglas on, who articulated the nature of the catfight, but they cut her off before she could criticize it. I've read a couple of her books; my guess is that she next pointed out that real feminists didn't have any desire to engage in catfights with stay-at-home mothers, but in fact many of them were stay-at-home mothers and most of the rest fought and are still fighting for housewives to have more rights.
But what I thought was interesting is that the creators of the show seemed to be totally blindsided by the fact that Alexis quickly became the favorite character, as did the Joan Collins, who played her. They kind of chalked it up to a bit of villian-infatuation, but there is more to it than that. Again, they had Douglas on the show to point out that Alexis embodied alot of character traits women have but can't express, as did Erica Kane on "All My Children". Too bad they gave Douglas less time than a couple nimrod actresses, as she actually had interesting things to say.
But it was a good transistion to the show "Rosanne", which was wildly popular. And that's when I knew they were doing what alot of shows do when covering feminism, which is they admit that in the past feminists had a point but blah blah things are different now and women want less choices because their little brains just can't take having almost as many choices as men. Back to that in a sec....
Nearly everyone I know likes that show "Rosanne". Oh, many won't admit it, but they do. When I was in college, a couple friends of mine and I used to sit around and watch reruns of that show and laugh our asses off, and then we would watch "Golden Girls" and laugh our asses off at that, too. And those friends were guys, so it just goes to show that funny is funny if you'll give it a chance. Most of the segment was dedicated to tracing how a minority of people jumped all over Rosanne Barr, the person. They neglected to mention it didn't hurt her ratings at all.
Of course, the ended up defended "Ally McBeal", claiming that it was important for women to have characters that showed that working women aren't perfect, aren't heroes, and that it's natural to be torn between career ambitions and family ambitions. That would make sense if working women had been shown as superwomen heroes in the past, but they weren't. Or if there were a multitude of shows pointing out how hard it is for men to choose between career and family, or how hard it is for a successful man to get a good woman. I started watching "Ally McBeal" with my mom, but we both got tired of it pretty quickly. They would set up a character we liked and then they would tear her down and "show her a lesson" or whatever. Like we really liked the character played by Portia di Rossi, because she insisted on being treated like an equal by men; then you find out she's a lonely little girl with daddy issues. Barf. We faded away from the show.
They ended up talking about "Sex and the City" as if it was in the same league of backlash as "Ally McBeal". The show is hardly a feminist parable, but it's not retrograde slop either. While they acknowledge the high pressure put on women to abandon their own selves and submit to simpering, boring, "True Womanhood", they also consistently showed how that pressure is a load of crap. On "Ally McBeal", the only reason that the writers could conceive that a woman might be single in her 30's was because she's crazy, cold, or emotionally damaged. But on "Sex and the City" they all had good reasons to be single. In fact, 3 of the 4 characters were pretty much single because they didn't want to get married at all and that was fine.
One thing that is plain obvious to me is that are not enough programs that even attempt to address women's lives as they really are, not fantasy versions of such. And they didn't point out really that when a show gets close, it often shoots straight up to top of the ratings. Who'd thunk it? Good programs with good writing that has realistic characters that speak to the audience? Why would they think that works?


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