This was supposed to be a great fall for women on television, but several weeks in, it feels like it may be better at the cause of getting women acting jobs than at providing entertainment aimed at women viewers. With that odd disconnect in mind, my friend Lux asked me what I thought made a show woman-oriented a while back, and I was reminded of it again reading Nellie Andreeva’s meditation on The Playboy Club, Charlie’s Angels, and Prime Suspect*’s ratings troubles when she wrote:
For Playboy, there was a lack of clarity who the show is for. With a popular mens magazine in the title and the promise of scantly-clad bunnies, the series seemed to be targeting men. But it was at its core a female soap. The confusion with its mixed identity was clearly visible in the pilot, which looked like a soap, felt like a soap and behaved like one until it suddenly veered into dark territory with a murdered mafia boss’ body being dumped in the river.
As with most of these things, I think it’s easier to narrow down a definition by figuring out what’s not aimed at women. New Girl, despite its name and female protagonist, really don’t feel to me like it’s aimed at women at all. The show’s advertising focuses on how the character is perceived (thus, “adorkable”) rather than who she is. Most of the episodes I’ve seen so far are on the surface about problems Jess resolves, but are actually about the things her male roommates learn from helping her solve problems — the show is about their emotional growth more than hers. Up All Night, by contrast, could work for either gender of coastal elites, but I think is slightly more aimed at women. It’s not that Will Arnett’s stay-at-home dad Chris doesn’t have a character arc, because he clearly does. But there are also women wrestling with a whole range of career and life issues, and the core couple’s storylines are, obviously, interdependent. Raising a small human tends to do that. And I can’t quite figure out if 2 Broke Girls is supposed to be aimed at women or not: it’s got female protagonists, but it remains unclear whether they’re meant to be points of entry or objects of consumption (which may be more a problem of execution than artistic intent).
Tone isn’t really determinative, either. New Girl may be all Dirty Dancing-themed sing-a-longs and sunshine, while Prime Suspect looks gritty and muted, lots of grays and washed-out purples, plus, you know, omnipresent brutal murder. But the show is essentially a funhouse version of what it feels like to work in a bad male-dominated environment. It’s kind of a horror story with a female protagonist who gets to be a hero without having to be a virgin. And it’s not really tone that’s wrong with Playboy Club. It’s that the show puts women’s bodies on screens but no concrete ideas in their heads to relate to. Finding your dad by posing for Playboy is not an idea Viewers at Home can relate to, or analogous to any situations we are likely to face in real life.
*You should watch Prime Suspect. Maria Bello is very good, and the show deserves to survive.