• Mon, Oct 10 2011

Are The Best Shows On Television Always About Masculinity?

There’s an interesting essay Chuck Klosterman wrote (it’s really very good, read the whole thing here) where he postulates:

There doesn’t seem to be much debate over what have been the four best television shows of the past 10 years. It seems like an easy question to answer, particularly since it’s become increasingly difficult to write about the state of TV (or even the state of popular culture) without tangentially mentioning one of the following four programs — The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and/or Breaking Bad.

And that’s not just a Chuck Klosterman opinion. A commenter on a Vulture Recap of Breaking Bad remarks:

“This past season Breaking Bad passed The Sopranos as the best show ever on television (followed by Deadwood and Mad Men).”

Well, if you say so.

If I was asked to describe what any of those shows were about in one word I’d say “masculinity.” That’s not to say that those shows don’t all have well drawn, fantastic female characters. It seems obvious that, for example, Mad Men would be much less appealing without the presence of Peggy Olsen or Joan Holloway. Still, at the end of the day, the show revolves around Don Draper trying to figure out what it means to be a man in a changing world. All of those shows revolve around men being men. Why would Walt rather deal meth than accept charity? Because he’s a man. I’m hard pressed to find a comperable “serious” show in the past ten years which has revolved around what it means to be female.

Of course, you could say Sex and the City was a very, very popular show about women, and, honestly, Sex and the City has probably made more of a difference in people’s day to day actions than any of the others. People do not watch Breaking Bad and think “I’ve got to take some chemistry courses so I can become a meth dealer.” Nor do they watch “The Wire” and become drug lords (though it does mean they’ll speak authoritatively about the inner city at Westchester PTA meetings).

However, an entire flock of young women watched Sex and the City and decided to strap on some slingbacks and move to New York to drink unnaturally colorful cocktails. If you listen closely, outside some of the Meatpacking district haunts, you can still hear people debating whether they are a Carrie, or a Charlotte, or a Samantha, or the other one, who no one wants to be (if you are ever asked I find replying “I’m a Natasha” works really well).

But Sex and the City will never be on that list of  good shows, depsite the fact that it had a cultural impact Deadwood will never came close to having. Perhaps because it wasn’t really wonderfully well written or nuanced – it was, fundamentally, a show about women talking about their male friends, seen in a way that was supposed to feel as though you were watching a particularly voyeuristic newspaper column unfold. That was the point of the show. It would have more accurately been entitled “Ladies making jokes about their love lives while wearing fancy outfits and sometimes having sex so they can discuss it later.” But “the City” worked, too.

However, imagining a version of Sex and the City where the protagonist is treated in the manner of a character on Mad Men is almost inconceivable. If we were subjected to long silent shots of this privileged, well dressed, attractive woman drinking martinis and being sad and authoritatively saying things like “I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one” or “I hate to break it to you but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent” we would a) likely not take her seriously and b) say “who the hell does she think she is? Doesn’t she realize there are people with real problems out there?” Viewers who feel that Don Draper is speaking right to them would be infinitely less receptive if those lines came out of Carrie Bradshaw’s mouth, despite the fact that they’re characters with comparable privileges (dressing well, sleeping with whoever they want, having a “job” that enables them to drink martinis at lunch).

But then, nearly identical topics being treated differently if they’re told from the perspective of a man or a woman. I recently came upon this memoir called The Rules of the Tunnel which, a blurb on the back assures me, more or less encapsulates what it is to be a man in society today. It has very positive blurbs from very notable authors. Well and good. The book is about a Vanity Fair writer who finds it very hard to meet deadlines and deal with the pressure of girlfriends who seem to expect to have their calls returned, so he checks himself into a mental asylum for electroshock therapy.

This is obviously very sad, and perhaps it is a great struggle to be a man in America with bitches always calling and wanting to go “out” and Graydon Carter sort of expecting you to turn an article around in 6 weeks, after flying your around the world on the magazine’s dime, but I couldn’t help but feel that if a woman had written this novel people would have dismissed her as being an utterly entitled, ungrateful, unlikable bitch. A woman whose problem was not being able to meet the very reasonable demands of her very glamorous job and deal with all the attractive men who wanted to date her? Really? People read I Don’t Know How She Does It or The Devil Wears Prada and dismiss the characters as totally entitled bitches when they seem to make an effort to deal with 1) work and 2) relationships without deciding to erase their entire memories because the pressure is too much. Of course, were the memoir to be written by a woman I imagine they could have spruced her up to make her more likable. Play up the fact that she was “clumsy” maybe? Always knocking over things on her way to ECT? I know – we could have had a cover where a high heel (Louboutin?) was cracked.

It’s a shame to say that there isn’t a truly “great” show about what it means to be female and deal with issues surrounding being feminine. That’s not to say that well written shows about female leads don’t exist – Weeds, The Big C, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Uniter States of Tara – but it does seem telling that every show about masculinity is a drama that you are supposed to take very seriously while every show about femininity is about giggling, isn’t it? Giggling over lady issues? Which is odd, because according to so many sources women aren’t funny and barely even have senses of humor.  You’d think we’d respond better to women sitting in shadowy rooms saying “we’re out of strawberry jam” which, naturally, means “I’m having an affair.”

But, as far as I can tell, no such shows exist. Or do they? Please tell me if you’ve found any.

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  • Jamie Peck

    I also wonder when we will have a female Walter White or Don Draper! It’s a little bit funny to me that the best comedies seem to be dominated by women (30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Office to some degree), but the dramas are dominated by men. I will say that I don’t think any of the male characters you’re writing about are terribly likeable, so the “likeability” problem would (or should) be about the same. Then again, this is TV we’re talking about, so perhaps not.

    And the “white whine” issue you touch on is certainly in operation in all of these shows, to varying degrees. Don Draper has everything a man is supposed to want, and he’s still not happy! Let’s interrogate the American dream! But it’s true that women are culturally perceived to be more frivolous than men. I would really like to see a fully drawn female character of this description. Nancy Botwin is not it, because she was never really a relatable person to begin with, but this sort of amoral, selfish, popular girl she-demon. (Whom I love.)

    • Jamie Peck

      Oh, and a black Don Draper, a poor Don Draper, a trans Don Draper, a queer Don Draper, etc. I’m sick of the white cisgender monied hetero male being held up as the default template for all of human existence.

  • Jamie Peck

    Also, looking at this part:

    “Viewers who feel that Don Draper is speaking right to them would be infinitely less receptive if those lines came out of Carrie Bradshaw’s mouth, despite the fact that they’re characters with comparable privileges (dressing well, sleeping with whoever they want, having a “job” that enables them to drink martinis at lunch).”

    Which viewers are you talking about here? You are talking about middle to upper class male viewers, I think. I have never felt like Don Draper was speaking right to me. I’ve pitied him, hated him, felt jealous of him, and even felt empathy for him, but as a woman, I know that he can’t fully speak to my experience. I think he functions as a critique of masculinity as much as anything else.

    Maybe part of the reason we haven’t had a similar critique of femininity is because “femininity” was created and thrust upon women by the same patriarchal culture that created “masculinity” for its own benefit. Hence, it might be a lot trickier to critique femininity by critiquing a flawed female character, because so much of that femininity was forced on her by a misogynistic culture and it might seem cruel. (See also: the public evisceration of Betty Draper.) A man destroyed by masculinity is complicit in his own self-destruction, while a woman destroyed by femininity might be seen as more of a passive victim. That’s just how it’s set up; the tropes of “masculinity” are aggressive and destructive, while the tropes of “femininity” are passive and internal. Aaaah there is so much more I want to say about this but I’ll stop now.

  • Eve

    You know, I saw an episode of How I Met Your Mother last night where Robin (SPOILERS AHEAD MAYBE) calls her ex-boyfriend and leaves him threatening voice mail messages, saying she’s going to stab him to death. Her friends react to her embarrassing herself, but nobody seems to acknowledge that she’s MAKING DEATH THREATS. If a man were to leave his ex-girlfriend voice mails saying “I’m going to kill you with a knife,” it would be treated totally differently. This illustrates a double-edged problem– female characters get away with completely unacceptable behavior, but it also shows that the female characters aren’t taken seriously for even a moment.

  • Malia Doren

    I love that you commented on how shows that feature strong female leads are often comedies, while the other generality is that “women aren’t funny.”
    hm.

  • Maggie

    I think part of it is because a lot of the shows geared at women have very little though put into them. (E.g. 90210, Whitney, Gossip Girl) they mostly just try to put together a soap opera with little ambition behind it beyond selling ad space. I can’t really think of any dramas geared at women, what comes to mind is really ‘Greys Anatomy’ which isn’t necessarily for women, and ’30 Rock’ which is a comedy and appeals to men and women equally (even if Liz Lemon is awesome & deals with women issues, its done from a tomboyish perspective and for comedic purposes only). They made such a fuss about so many women-centered shows on tv this fall, but there is nothing even worth watching let alone that can compare to anything of quality like mad men or breaking bad

    • Maggie

      Sorry, have very little THOUGHT put into them*

  • sarita

    Lots of interesting points. I’d agree with those saying that while these shows do have male main characters, pretty much all of them are critical of their overt masculinity. In The Sopranos, as much as I love Tony, he’s a complete jerk– he cheats on his wife, doesn’t care about how it tortures her, he and his friends basically treat women like dispensable blow up dolls, he’s constantly hurting people with his machismo. Similarly, Don and Walt seem to be criticized for embracing macho idiocy, and in Deadwood, well… we all love Al, but he’s not what I’d call a gentle soul.

    I wouldn’t say these shows are ABOUT masculinity, though. It’s a part of it, certainly, but if I had to sum up a running theme surrounding these characters in one word, I’d say, “flawed.”

    And, despite the fact that the “main character” is male, all these shows expose us to absolutely brilliant female characters. Carmella and Betty are just as complex and fascinating as their male costars.

    I haven’t seen “The C Word,” isn’t that supposed to be a female centric drama? Should be interesting. Besides Weeds, Damages was the only good drama I could think of with female central characters. As far as Nancy Botwin goes, she’s both selfish and idiotic, so not exactly the best representation of women, but certainly no worse than the leading men I talked about earlier. Otherwise, indeed, women as main characters seem to be frequently relegated only to comedies, although I don’t think that’s the worst thing, necessarily. I think Liz Lemon and Leslie Knopp are sort of the paragons of “modern feminist woman who’s made something of her life.”

    Though I wouldn’t complain if there were a few more women centric dramas that inspired the same feeling of badassness (as well as likability despite being terrible– I loooove Al Swearengen, whereas I get increasingly frustrated by how slutty and dumb Nancy is, which makes me feel like a self-loathing woman or something, I dunno) that the aforementioned shows have.

    • sarita

      LOL I totally missed your mentioning “The Big C” and called in “The C Word.” That would be a totally different show!

      Oh also I imagined your description of a long shot of a badass woman drinking a martini Don-Draper-Style, and it looked awesome in my brain. I would totally take that seriously. In fact, it sounds a little like Glenn Close in Damages. I think you might be overestimating how much people feel like Don speaks to them, as well; I think it’s less that people relate to him, and more that people are fascinated by him because he looks so dapper and acts so cool (and probably wish they could relate to that kinda angsty glamour, in a weird way). I don’t even really want more dramas starring women whom I can relate to in particular; I just want more dramas with women who are as totally badass and cool and complex as Tony Soprano, as Don Draper, as Al Swearengen….

  • MR

    Men and women are distinct biological beings. Now a societal structure in which us guys are always “on top” is obviously not advantageous to women – and I’m not just talking about a woman’s sex life. And please don’t be confused that I am in anyway trying to be silly. Truthfully, based on what I read in your responses, it sounds like in most of these shows the guy is always on top. Sopranos? From my own experience, an Italian-American, dominated black market underground was long gone as earlier as the mid 70s. Hmm, but not in Hollywood. Jamie’s right in one sense, it’s mostly propaganda that stereotypes women into a limited Sex Role that only benefits men.