“I need to piss so bad I’m gonna shit myself!” Hanna, Girls
TV used to bore me senseless. I’m not talking about when I was a kid in the 80s and early 90s, and children’ s TV was in its heyday with generation-defining shows like You Can’t Do That On Television, Full House, and The Wonder Years. I mean the TV I grew up on as a teenager and as a young adult. With Beverly Hills 90210 (the original series) as a possible exception (Brenda was pretty rad), shows like Melrose Place and Desperate Housewives were a total disappointment. And consequently, as a young aspiring actress, television — as opposed to film — just didn’t hold the same weight. Real actors are in films; TV actors are on TV, I always thought.
My, my, haven’t things changed…
Up until only a few years ago though, the prevailing mythical representation of “Woman” in the media and on TV was: white, slim, symmetrically pretty — unless, of course, the female character was fulfilling the token black girl, fat girl, mother, or bitch (but even the mother and bitch archetypes typically conformed to the media generated image of “white pretty perfection,” and mothers routinely looked only 10-15 years older than their pretty TV daughters), clean ’n’ tidy, and emotionally agreeable.
I’m sure I don’t need to explain why and how this (2D at best) female representation emerged. But to give some brief context, the “perfect women” was generated by a patriarchal society, which around the same time that the television entered post war, mainstream western family culture, the myth that told women that their place was in the kitchen — a popular advertising and media narrative whereby women were reduced to hair curlers, vacuum cleaners, and tupperware gatherings — prevailed. Thus, the 1950s housewife was born which eventually gave rise to the second wave feminist movement in the early 60s — a movement driven to liberate women from domesticity.
While feminism has achieved a great deal since then (although this is a larger conversation for another article), regressive images of women in the media have remained. And suffice to say, without really knowing why at the time, I now account my overall disregard for television (up until relatively recently) to the mostly limited displays of the female experience that were being portrayed in almost all shows at the time. And it’s no coincidence that every one of them was created by men.
Sure, it’s fun to watch perfect looking women doing bitchy things in a clean ’n tidy manner, to point. But not for eight seasons! It just becomes empty and boring. After a while, we real women can’t relate. The real, human, and complex issues that I was experiencing as I came of age seemed almost obsolete in the media and on TV.
A LOT has changed in the last 5 years on the silver screen and the development of content and production quality are just one aspect. (And I’m not talking Real Housewives!)
To give some context to my passionate views on this matter, in 2009 I was cast as a series regular on the Starz cable show, Spartacus. Having been plucked from Sydney, Australia’s independent theatre scene, the very new and emerging climate of risk taking cable television in the US was totally unchartered territory for me. Actually, as it turned out, it was unchartered for most people.
>At that time, only two seasons of Showtime’s The Tudors had been aired, one season of HBO’s True Blood, and one season of HBO’s Rome. And what was just becoming TV “vogue” was extreme violence and (arguably) gratuitous nudity and sex scenes. Cable was daring to tread where Network TV couldn’t.
The Spartacus creators ran with this “sensational” trend and literally out-did their competitors (sensationally speaking) with both violence and sex. And since audiences tend to have a greater appetite for female nudity and sexualization than they do for men (admittedly, penises can look a little weird), and since these shows were all created by men, whilst the iconic female characters that began emerging in these epic cable dramas (Game of Thrones would follow) were overtly strong and empowered (my character in Spartacus was no exception), the fact remained that women were still being employed for the male gaze and therefore often being represented in problematic ways.
Then, in 2012, Lena Dunham entered Hollywood from left stage and debuted Girls. Not only does Dunham create, executive produce, often write and direct, and star in her HBO hit series (talk about a Hollywood trailblazer!), in one fell swoop, she’s also redefined television’s expectations of “Woman.” Dunham is short and chubby, and her characters are weird, awkward, difficult, and complicated. And guess what? She gets naked, often, in spite of the critical male gaze. Dunham’s dialog is both strangely hilarious and moving, and for the first time, a bunch of us girls could relate.
Then came Orange Is The New Black, also created by a woman — Jenji Kohan. If Girls has been criticized for giving voice to only a privileged, middle class, white demographic, Netflix’s OITNB dared to go where no other show has. Not only do its female characters dwell in the bassist of all human habitats — a prison — blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, all shapes and sizes, all socio-demographics, and all sexual orientations (including transgender) are represented. In fact, the only one character in this female driven ensemble that conforms to patriarchal representations of “Woman” is Piper (Taylor Schilling). In a fascinating dialogue with feminist and author Bell Hooks at The New School in September this year, transgender actress Laverne Cox (Sofia in OITNB) revealed Kohan’s dilemma: If you go to networks and pitch “black women in jail” that show’s not going to get made. So she put a white, blonde, educated, middle class, young woman in the lead to play the “tour guide”—figuratively speaking.
But beyond the politics of OITNB, what I really love is how roar and “not pretty” its female characters are. Being inmates, they’re genuinely desperate, and so their real and often unpleasant human emotions are unleashed along with both extreme violent and sexual impulses. I really don’t think that mainstream western audiences have ever before been exposed to such a subversion of “Woman” in popular culture. And its results? WE LOVE IT! Both Girls and OINTB are two of the most prolific and popular shows on TV today. The proof is in the ratings. We (woman and men) have been starved of such candid portrayals of the female experience.
There are, of course, some other trailblazing series with complex female leads that are worth mentioning. Nurse Jacki, of which two of its creators are women; Homeland; and True Detective, to name a few. What I like about the latter two is that their creators have flipped the male ‘detective/investigator’ archetype and turned it into a woman. And in both shows, the female version of the archetype has become far more complex and multi-dimensioned.
But what I find really frustrating is that what most of us women relate to as real representations of ourselves, certain men in our society continue to parody or reject. For instance, when I wrote about Girls in a Thought Catalog article last month, this was one of the comments:
If by ‘real’ women you mean emotionally retarded, narcissistic, exhibitionist morons then yes, Girls is very representative of real women.
Because Girls has dared to reveal the inner operations (thoughts, fears, and desires) of real women, and because this portrayal of women is consequently complex, challenging, and often annoying (even unattractive) it gets shut down. But that’s who a lot of us are. A lot of the time. And, HELLO! This show was created by a woman so she should know!
And this is another comment that really annoyed me because it blatantly denies gender inequality and how, throughout the history of our civilization, women have often been unfairly represented in storytelling:
“First, they put pretty people on TV and in movies. Unless they’re a character actor, they’re pretty. Everyone except the main characters are 2D stereotypes, because that’s the way our brains work. Some are overly good, some overly bad. No, in general, women are not painted as rich, real characters, but neither are men. For the most part, real people are boring. It has nothing to do with the patriarchy.”
What about Shakespeare? And plays and movies in general up until only recently? Throughout history, women have taken a secondary role in storytelling, and plays, movies, and TV series have historically been written and controlled by men. In Shakespeare’s time, women weren’t even allowed to act on stage and so the female characters were played by men. This, it is believed, is the driving reason behind why he wrote fewer female characters in his plays. The result is that up until recently, female characters in film, TV, and theatre have been, generally speaking, less meaty than male characters. And certainly, more often than not, women would settle into support roles.
Thankfully, the tides are shifting and more women are taking the lead in creating, writing, producing, and directing television (I didn’t even get to Tina Fey!). And I believe that this movement, this power shift, is instrumental in our cultural embrace of what/who women really are. Which in turn helps liberate both women and men from harmful and archaic stereotypes. Onwards and upwards, my pop culture friends!