The Fem Spot

Good news for the women of television

Posted in Feminist Theory, Film and Television by femspotter on March 30, 2009

March 30, 2009

Their stories are getting very interesting! (Apparently, the writers got my memo.)

It may seem as though I do nothing but watch television and movies. There’s a lot to write about because – I am pleased to say – women are being written rather well, in some cases. They’re increasingly dynamic. Unlike “chick” shows where several characters add up to one “real” woman, each character embodying a facet of the female psyche (think: Sex and the City, Designing Women and The Golden Girls, to name a few), some of today’s women have a little more in the mix: they’re allowed to be sexy and smart and confused and confident…all at the same time. What a novel idea!

Over the years, I’ve generally stuck to the programs on Showtime and HBO: Sex and the CityDeadwood, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, The L Word, which I wrote about two weeks ago, and Big Love, which I’ll probably write about in upcoming weeks. I generally avoid network television (I watch DamagesThe Office and 30 Rock right now) because commercials are annoying and the content doesn’t usually interest me. Believe it or not, the lack of sex, violence and profanity that you might expect me to applaud given my reaction to Watchmen coincides with a reduction in substance. Unless the television show is about flying nuns, there should be a modicum of each to keep it real. (Think: Watership Down – bunnies with blood and guts…and fascism. Very interesting!)

I estimate that I watch between six and eight  hours of television per week; and in that six or eight hours, I try to keep my feminist perspective honed. It might surprise you that The Office – very funny though generally devoid of topics for intense discussion – contained a golden nugget of feminist historical significance several episodes ago. I highly doubt that the writers were aware they’d created this landmark occurrence unless one of them was attending a college English literature seminar at the time… I just became aware of it during a second viewing of the episode last night.

Jim bought a house for his new life with fiance Pam, and he reserved for her the stand-alone garage as an art studio. When he surprised her with the house, he’d already set up the garage. He gave her just what every woman needs: creative independence. According to Virginia Woolf, every person should have “a room of one’s own.” And this space must have a door with a lock and key. It must be hers and hers alone, Woolf advocated, apart from the spaces of home and work or home/work united.

Because Jim has given Pam this space for her unique liberty, she has no need to abscond with her creative ideas later on, the way that Edna Pontellier does in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a landmark feminist text. Edna – the quintessential oppressed wife and mother – recedes to the cottage behind her middle class American home to express herself through art after she meets a mysterious single women named Mademoiselle Reisz. Reisz plays the piano hauntingly, casting a kind of spell over Edna who subsequently becomes inspired to create the separation between herself and her family. She wants to make her own music, so to speak.

In the case of Pam, as a wife and mother, she’ll feel little or no need to assert her independence. All she has to do – in order to feel herself again – is step out her back door and cross the lawn to her makeshift art studio in the garage. “It gets great light,” Jim announced when he presented it to her, canvases, easel and necessary art utensils already in place.

Meanwhile, “over the hill,” and unarguably overweight office chum Phyllis is happily married to Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration. (In case you missed it, he does own his own business!) Phyllis is perhaps my favorite character on the show because her narrative arc shows that romantic dreams really do come true for nice women who aren’t the aesthetic ideal, but who wait their turn with thoughts optimistic. Bob once paid $1,000 for a hug from his wife at a charity auction (the top moneymaker)…and in a later episode, the happy couple abandoned their dinner guests (Jim and Pam, no less) for a sexscapade in the handicapped restroom. (Pam ate some of Bob’s French fries, and helped herself to a bite of his steak too! It just goes to show you that there are two kinds of couples in this world: those who enjoy sex in public bathrooms, and those who wish they did!)

These characters and their antics make me laugh so much that I re-watch episodes, often three or four times. But sometimes I need a little intrigue and that’s when I turn to Damages, starring the incomparable Glenn Close. Her character, Patty Hewes, is wicked to the core and a firecracker of an attorney to boot: in other words, she’s Snow White’s evil stepmother crossed with Alan Dershowitz.

It seems that all the shows I like are wrapping up their seasons – or even going off the air permanently – right now: The L Word (cancelled), Big Love (hiatus), Damages (hiatus), etc. But the one I’ll miss the most – the most revolutionary program in television history, which I just finished watching on DVD in rapid fire succession with the final episodes purchased on Apple TV: Battlestar Galactica. Though it has no mainstream accolades to show for itself, CNN reports that the cast and writers of the show executed one final diplomatic operation at the United Nations before fading into the past. It seems that the struggle for the survival of the human race after its near-anihalation at the hands of renegade cylons (machines, or “toasters”) really struck a chord with post-9/11 political leaders. Like their 1978 shortlived predecessors, Battlestar Galacticans utilized their own expletives (“Frack!” “Mother Fracker!” “Gods dammit!”) but found a way to stay human(e) in the face of near extinction. What can we learn from them?

Captain Kara Thrace and President Laura Roslin

Captain Kara Thrace and President Laura Roslin

For starters, we can learn that women have just as large a role to play in preventing the Apocalypse as do men. So there! The original series portrayed an ill-equipped elected civilian leader who led the human race to ruin with the help of a corrupt count, both male. In the 2003-9 re-imagined series, the civilian leader is transformed from a one-dimensional character into a force to be reckoned with: former Education Secretary turned “dying leader,” President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell). Though suffering from breast cancer for the greater part of the show’s four mammoth seasons, Roslin rarely lets her authority slide. She’s tough when it’s warranted and warm-hearted when she can afford to be. And her winter romance with Admiral Adama is one of the most thoroughly convincing love stories ever to air on television, despite Roslin’s failing health. (I think the original President Adar would have stayed in bed.)

The re-envisioned show also transformed the swashbuckling, womanizing Captain Starbuck (played by pretty boy Dirk Benedict) into the swashbuckling, seductress (I hate the word “slut!”) Captain (Kara Thrace) Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff). I’ve read comments by some women who don’t like this re-imagining because Kara Thrace is rarely feminine and mostly a hard-drinking, hard-punching sex instigator. “Why can’t she be a tough girl who is still a girl?” they wonder.

What do you want her to do? Put on make-up and knit a sweater? She’s a pilot who’s bunk mates with a bunch of other (male) pilots. She’s bound to be a little crass. She smokes cigars, drinks liquor and plays cards with the rest of the pilots…of either sex. It’s how they unwind after a long day of heroics and it sounds good to me!

I like Kara. I like both of these women because I think they work hard and make sacrifices without self-pity, proving that they have the right to be where they are. In the first few episodes, the qualifications that they bring to the table are questioned, first by a cylon skin job (one disguised as a human) and then by the Admiral, among others. I don’t remember anyone ever saying “because she’s a woman” – the show is too subtle for that. It was implied that the question arose as to how much of the burden these women can carry because of their sex.  The answer: all of it! Kara Thrace could pilot a colonial viper after a few rounds of whiskey and Laura Roslin led the survivors of the twelve colonies to “Earth” after a few treatments of chemotherapy.

Even though Battlestar Galactica has ended, there may be an evil cylon or two left in the universe. I guess it will be up to Patty Hewes to…hire a contract killer to assassinate them…or sue them – whichever angle works out best in her favor.

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Farewell to The L Word: “this is the way that we live”

Posted in Feminist Theory, Film and Television, Pop Culture, queer theory, Sexuality by femspotter on March 12, 2009

March 12, 2009

I have many topics to rant about these days (misogyny in the Watchmen movie, the debate over castration of sex offenders in Europe, Campbell Brown’s ludicrous claim that her opinion-based “news” broadcast on CNN contains neither bias nor bull, the Rihanna scandal, etc.). Isn’t it a lovely time to be a woman! (It’s raining out and I’m entitled to be grumpy!)

After last Sunday’s broadcast of the final episode of The L Word, it got less lovely, I’m afraid.

The show’s creators claim to be astonished that so many straight women have feverishly tuned in to watch the lives of Los Angeles lesbians unfold over the past six seasons. Why? What other television programs do we have that are devoted entirely (and seriously) to women? Other shows about women often depict lives that revolve around men. Not The L Word.

True: the show does have its schmaltzy moments. It’s gone out with a bang: the “Who Killed Jenny Schecter?” bang. But it has also given us a lot to chew on over the years when it comes to the difficult challenges that face all (or many) women, gay and straight. I’d like to pause for a moment of silence in memoriam, and then tell you what this heterosexual woman learned from The L Word, and why she will miss it.

the-l-word-cast

The L Word gained notoriety early on rather than being swept under the rug owing to some pretty impressive star power. Many actors worry that “playing gay” will land them in typecasting hell. But once the beautiful – and surprisingly soft spoken despite the often harsh tones employed by her character – Jennifer Beals signed on to play Yale-educated, interracial art connoisseur Bette Porter, all of the rest of the chips fell into place. Beals – perhaps best known for the movie Flashdance (1983) – brought poise and intelligence to this keystone role. I love that the creators adapted some of her most interesting attributes for the character: Beals is a Yale graduate with interracial heritage.

Before long, actresses like Margot Kidder (iconic for her role as scrappy reporter Lois Lane in the Superman films) and Kelly Lynch – and even cultural heroines like Gloria Steinem – were making cameo appearances on the show. And by the end of its six seasons, controversial, full-figured  comedy actress Cybill Shepherd, out and proud lesbian funny lady Jane Lynch, and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin (playing the first deaf lesbian romantically involved with a hearing lesbian in television history) were regulars. Throughout, Bette, Tina, Shane, Alice, Tasha, Max, Helena and Jenny would meet and eat at The Planet, owned by Kit (Pam Grier – renowned tour de force black American actress). (If any of those descriptions sound insulting, I assure you that they are all reasons to be proud in my book!)

According to its before-the-finale special, The L Word challenged many of the stereotypes heterosexuals believe about lesbians: they hate men, they wear flannel shirts and Birkenstock sandals everyday, and they experience “lesbian bed death” the longer they sleep together. Because some of the sex scenes have been very explicit over the years, the show also lifted the veil over female same-sex sexuality. I confess that I often found the career and friendship exploits more enticing than the steamy love scenes, but it was definitely interesting to learn and understand the mechanics of a sexuality that I haven’t personally been privy to.

The L Word brought lesbians to a mainstream audience, and with “Les Girls” came some of the most important revelations for women in television history. I cried with Alice when her best friend Dana died from breast cancer. I looked with horror upon Dana’s amputated breast, clearly shown for all the world to see. We never get to look at breast cancer that way. We never get to see that butchery to women’s bodies.

Similarly, it’s also uncommon to spend time with a female character who identifies as a male and works toward transitioning from one sex to the other. Bravo to actress Daniela Sea (Moira/Max) for portraying this difficult life alteration with dignity and honesty. I cried for him every time he had to look in the mirror and see himself wearing a “costume,” the female body he was born with.

Kudos to the show for bringing smart alec Alice into our lives. I related to her desire to “figure out” the world we live in by creating “The (Sexual Connection) Chart,” forcing the issues, pushing people’s buttons and speaking her mind. Come to think of it, I need to get myself one of those “I Love Alice” tee shirts from the show’s online store so I can wear it with pride: gay pride and feminist pride. (That’s right! I’m a straight woman with lesbian pride.)

I cried with Bette and Tina when they took their daughter Angie to the hospital with a high fever and the receptionist demanded that they decide which parent would represent Angie because the receptionist couldn’t comprehend one child having two mommies. I sympathised with Jenny when she sliced open her skin on the bathroom floor (as she’s done since childhood) and Shane found and comforted her. I cheered for Kit when she and Helena bought back The Planet and threw that witch Dawn Denbo out on her butt! I’m cheering now even though I know it’s time to say “goodbye.”

But the most important moment I experienced while pondering The L Word was to finally understand the politics behind the lesbian identity. It used to bother me when people (children) would tease me for my feminist ideals saying, “You must be a lesbian!” Why must I be? Not all lesbians are feminists and not all feminists are lesbians.

In late 2007, while writing an MA English paper on warrior sex and gender in an epic poem, I realized that I actually am a lesbian: I am a metaphorical lesbian. It dawned on me that, just as lesbians fight to be taken seriously as individuals in a world that applauds beauty and simple-mindedness in women and validates strength only in women who stand behind their men, I too fight to be taken seriously as a woman: just me, not me in relation to my husband or father, not me in relation to femininity. I refuse to model myself after a feminine ideal that isn’t natural for me. As a queer theorist, I reject the notion that sex and gender must always go hand in hand.

I wrote:

The “metaphorical lesbian” has been established, first by Bonnie Zimmerman in her essay “Lesbians Like This and That: Some Notes on Lesbian Criticism for the Nineties,” and then again by Elizabeth LeBlanc in her essay “The Metaphorical Lesbian: Edna Pontellier in The Awakening.” There is a political component to lesbianism that hasn’t always existed for gays. Historically, gay sex has been acceptable for free men, so long as they were in the active role of penetrator. This active role is associated with masculinity, while passivity is associated with femininity. According to Freud, it “is clear that in Greece, where the most masculine men were numbered among the inverts, what excited a man’s love was not the masculine character of a boy, but his physical resemblance to a woman as well as his feminine mental qualities – his shyness, his modesty and his need for instruction and assistance” (10). Kirk Ormand refers to some women of Ovid’s poetry as “impossible lesbians” because, with two female and thus passive participants, sexuality is at best limited and at worst unachievable. Lesbians therefore have something to prove: they must proclaim their active and yes, masculine, nature, and furthermore, they must convince the world that this nature is acceptable or even “normal.” “Because ancient Rome perceived sex as essentially predicated on an asymmetry of power, one of the two parties must be active and, if a woman, therefore monstrous” (Ormand 85). Lesbianism, as a political force, is thus parallel to feminism because both movements seek to achieve acceptance for socially unacceptable women: the active/masculine woman or metaphorical lesbian.

I never could think about lesbians without stereotypes until I got hooked on The L Word, and thus I certainly could not think about myself in relation to them. If someone accused me of being a lesbian today, I’d tell them, “Yes, I am.” Like “political lesbians,” I refuse to be defined by my relationship to men: daughter, wife, etc. I refuse to be compared to the feminine ideal and found lacking. I am a masculine woman. I wear dresses and boots. I’m pretty and tough. I’m not afraid to stand up for people and animals who can’t stand up for themselves…just like Alice!

I’ll miss the girls. I really liked them all…except for Jenny…but everybody is missing her these days anyway.

Hollywood, meet my Catwoman

Posted in Feminist Theory, Film and Television, Sexuality by femspotter on July 31, 2008

July 31, 2008

I saw it. I liked it. I think it’s about 45 minutes too long…

But, as you would have expected that scenario to play out, my husband, like a little boy in jammies stumbling downstairs on Christmas morning, brought me to one of the first screenings of The Dark Knight in Manhattan.

There were crowds. There were long lines. But the end result was that two satisfied superhero junkies boarded a bus back to New Jersey and had plenty to talk about.

On that bus were a man and a woman talking “Batman.” And yes, almost every cliche was invoked. I said, “Christian Bale is soooooo dreamy!” He said, “Those action sequences were awesome!” I said, “The love triangle was dynamic.” He said, “The three-way chase scene was exciting and funny!”

Not really. But I’ll admit to enjoying the film as one might expect a heterosexual female to: I wanted good looking men in couture to fall all over themselves when vying for the affections of a complicated, heroic female character.

But wait? Christopher Nolan, the director, wouldn’t know a complicated female character if she bit him on the ass. His idea of female depth is upgrading from a sweet and pretty lobotomized actress (Katie Holmes) to a less than beautiful, somewhat quirky and slightly more intelligent one (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Maggie is great, but she needs more to do, more to say before she gets shuffled into the category of “whole characters.”

Come to think of it, Nolan has a history of marginalizing female characters. In Insomnia, he gave us the thoroughly good, lapdog cop Hilary Swank. And, there was also the bland yet mysterious hotel manager Maura Tierney. There was potential for both characters to develop into someone more than a pushover (Swank) or a quixotic shadow (Tierney)…but they didn’t. The same thing goes for the cardboard cutout of Bruce Wayne’s mom we’re given in Batman Begins (I bet you didn’t even notice her).

You start with curiosity, Nolan, and then develop your director’s vision into one that is courageous enough to look women in the face. Like the caped crusader himself, we’re complex…much more so than a miscast Scarlett Johansson’s version of a Cockney vagrant in The Prestige.

Gyllenhaal’s Rachel is definitely more interesting than the previous love interest. But it will take a lot more thought and respect from the filmmakers if The Dark Knight team is to resurrect the franchise for a third installment involving Catwoman: respect for the long and diverse history of this character. She’s been everything from an amnesiac (one who doesn’t know her own identity) to a thief (one who steals herself a new identity). She’s been a vamp, a helpmate and a sensitive lover. Catwoman is an important female figure in this mythology because she’s been able to transcend the role of love interest and become a force of her own in a man’s world.

Historically, Catwoman has represented everything from pent up female aggression to not-so-cleverly disguised anatomical innuendo. Tim Burton managed both extremes with Michelle Pfeiffer in the vulgar 1992 Batman Returns. Pfeiffer’s anti-heroine has an agenda: avenge her own human death at the hands of a sadistic tycoon (Christopher Walken). But she’s also out for a roll in the hay. And the film’s predictable script wouldn’t be complete without the words: Just the pussy I’ve been lookin’ for!

I’ve been thinking about Catwoman for days now. I don’t even like her as she’s existed. But here’s a thought: since the new Batman franchise is rooted in reality (ha!) with a gritty, human drama at its core, why not keep to that standard with the execution of one of the only enduring superhero women? How about if all the cat-themed adornments and leather really stand for something? And Catwoman can have a past that’s as dark and affecting as Batman’s. She can be a villain and a heroine at the same time.

What if Catwoman is a prostitute? Don’t play at being shocked. Her cat ears and rubber tail, her slender physique loosely shrouded by black rubber…all of this spells S.E.X. And sex sells…in Hollywood, in brothels and on the street. Catwoman can then be a real woman, prowling the night looking for prey; first allowing men to prey on her and then subsequently punishing them. Maybe she’s a prostitute from day one…or maybe she’s a woman who was raped or saw a rape in progress and decided to intervene. Whatever her back story, Catwoman has the potential to be both heroine and anti-heroine, good and bad, sexy and chaste. In other words, she can be complicated.

And she can, and should, be sexy. There’s nothing wrong with sexy. Sex is good. I like sex. If they cast Shane from The L Word, they would kill two birds with one stone: Catwoman would appeal sexually to both sexes.

Of course, Nolan probably won’t face any of these suggestions from male studio heads. After all, the next film, like all the others, is designed for and marketed toward men…and The Dark Knight is making everybody rich. Just ask Entertainment Weekly: “The conventional wisdom about superhero movies to be sure, is that they attract teenage male nerds and older male nerds who think they’re still teenage nerds. But a reported 48 percent of The Dark Knight‘s audience was female, and that number probably would have been even higher had so many women not flocked to Mamma Mia!” (“Knight Fever” Aug. 1)

Wait: 48 percent of the audience at The Dark Knight was female? (That’s like the percentage of Democrats who voted for Hillary in the primary, almost half.) According to EW columnist Mark Harris, Hollywood has a history of undervaluing the female reception of movies. This year, Sex and the City was a “surprise” hit for the money men. And so were Waiting to Exhale (1995), The Princess Diaries (2001), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and this past January’s 27 Dresses: all profitable, and all clearly marketed for and received by women. There’s a trend here.

Nobody’s about to fix something that ain’t broke, however. Chris Nolan, should he choose to recreate Catwoman, will probably be allowed to do whatever he wants. And because nobody in Hollywood has picked up on the information that “chic flicks” can be and are lucrative, in addition to the “surprise” female turnout for recent superhero fare, nobody’s about to force the issue.

I’m really part of the problem. I would have gone to see The Dark Knight even if the hubby hadn’t insisted. And whatever they do to Catwoman, I’ll be there to receive her. My money, combined with the cost of admission from the other 47.99 percent of the girls in line to see Batman III, is just as good as any man’s money.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I think Catwoman has potential…and I wouldn’t mind it one bit if she showed us a little more than skin.

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