"From ‘Parks and Recreation’ To ‘The Good Wife,’ Sex, Money, Power, And What Women On TV Want"
Over at Grantland, Kate Carraway has an interesting look at how shows about women handle questions of money and ambition, both by making concrete what it takes to buy Carrie Bradshaw’s shoes or pay Shoshanna’s rent on Girls, and looking at the emotional costs of not having money–or having it and not being able to buy what you want with it. But towards the end of the piece, Carraway pulls out a divide that I think artificially flattens the question of what women on television seem to want, reducing it to a juxtaposition between public service and virtuousness, or personal ambition and avarice:
The middle-class characters of Leslie, Jess, and Jackie are primarily good. Their professions are public service, teaching, and nursing; their values are integrity, community, and doing what they know is right, even if they get there differently. Every one of the upper-middle-class and upper-class characters, though — and there are so many more of them — are motivated by something else, something personal, something less righteous: Liz Lemon by a cynical sense of justice; The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick by a duty to her firm, her family, and her social position; Nashville’s Rayna and Juliette by selling records, or an image. Up All Night’s Reagan eye-rolled her way through encounters with too-earnest neighbors and her best friend, and seemed to want to be left alone more than anything else. Girls’ Hannah wants creative fulfillment and recognition, and started to get it deep into the second season; Veep’s Selina wants political power. (And seeeeeeex, which is a better and way more interesting through line on that show.) Mindy is smart and fun and funny, but selfish and frequently mean. Mindy-as-Mindy’s motivation seems to be getting what she believes she is owed; like my Twitter associate @david_j_roth tweet-posited, “There’s something ineffably Republican about The Mindy Project.”
That schematic doesn’t quite line up, in part because it gives far too much credit to the people who work in public service professions. Rather than dividing female characters up by what their incomes might reasonable be expected to be, it makes more sense, I think, to focus on the various categories of what women want.
Parks and Recreation‘s Leslie Knope and Veep‘s Selina Meyer, for example, have much more in common than Carraway gives them credit for. They’re both talented, extremely ambitious political figures who are coming at the same goals from different starting points, Leslie’s from a middle-class, Midwest public service job, Selina from family money and a higher political position. Their quests for political accomplishment have both been complicated by their love lives. Selina may be more politically successful than Leslie, but her first husband Andrew, is a far poorer choice of partner than Ben Wyatt, Leslie’s co-worker and eventual husband. Andrew uses Selina to generate business for himself, is happy to sleep with her casually without regard for the consequences their reunion might have for her career, and creates friction between Selina and her daughter. Ben, by contrast, has consistently made choices that are supportive of Leslie’s career, whether he’s quit a stable job to avoid tarnishing her in a scandal, worked to support her campaign, and left another job in Washington that would have furthered his own ambitions to come home and propose to Leslie. The shows are much less about money and advantage than what can happen to women in public life depending on whether or not their partners are supportive.
Similarly, 30 Rock, Up All Night, Nashville and Girls might well be defined as shows about women who want creative independence that test how much those women really want what they say they want, and what they’re willing to endure to get it. One of the enduring throughlines of 30 Rock is the idea that Liz Lemon began her relationship with Jack Donaghy committed to her artistic vision, and discovered, gradually, that she was willing to sell it out for a greater sense of security, whether she was panicking after storming out of the office with Rosemary Howard and seeing how that veteran TV writer lived, writing a Lifetime movie about Jack’s wife’s kidnapping, or realizing that she wasn’t ready to be the star of her own show and face the corresponding public exposure. Liz’s life may not have been one of creative integrity, but by the end, she was alright without it. Up All Night has been many things in its short, troubled history, but at its best, it was a show about a woman who was excellent at her job, and the sacrifices her husband was making to let her keep being excellent at running a talk show, a core conflict that gave it a fair bit in common with Parks and Recreation. Nashville‘s running rivalry between Rayna and Juliette is also a story about the way the two different women leverage their successes to win more creative freedom from the record label that represents them both. Rayna uses her long record of success to both try new styles of music, and to demand, and get, the opportunity to build her own microlabel, extending her taste and protection to a new generation of artists. Juliette, by contrast, uses her enormous market power, which has eclipsed Rayna’s, and the power of social media, to prove that she can sell more innovative songs than the pop-country that made her famous. And Girls is about pursuing artistic fulfillment with very few resources at all, as Hannah uses her willingness to have experiences ranging from excessive drug consumption, to sex that isn’t remotely fulfilling, to obsessive-compulsive disorder, to gather the experiences that will become her currency, and that win her the book deal that will let her keep writing.
The Mindy Project and New Girl are sometimes alike in an ambiguity that they share. Both shows present their female leads as more actively in pursuit of stable romantic relationships than their careers, but both shows are often better when they illustrate how much their characters’ careers mean to them. Mindy is easier to root for when she’s schooling a neighbor girl on sex ed or ditching a date to deliver a baby. And Jess has been at her best when she lost her job as a teacher, and New Girl explored what it meant to her to be without work, and to be exiled from a setting where, her quirky behavior aside, she’d clearly excelled.
And Alicia Florrick and The Good Wife might be put in a category with the female characters of Game of Thrones, shows set in remarkably different settings, but both concerned with social status in a remarkably specific way. After years of being her husband’s accessory, Peter’s prison terms requires Alicia to begin cultivating the independent power base that will allow her to support her family, and to manage her own reputation in the wake of the scandal. Her return to the law may have been born of necessity, but Alicia discovers that she enjoys being an independent operator to a certain extent, not least because of how having a career changes the dynamics of her intimate relationships, both with Peter, and with Will Gardner, her boss. Game of Thrones takes place in a setting where roles for women are substantially more circumscribed, but watching Lady Olenna Redwyne swish through a King’s Landing garden with all the style of Diane Lockhart in her law offices, or seeing Cersei Lannister trying to hold on to her children and define a role for herself after the death of her husband, and then the arrival of her father in the capital makes you realize they’re all facing similar dilemmas with different constraints. Money influences these characters’ decisions, whether Alicia’s making use of her husband’s political connections to keep a job she badly needs to support her family, or Cersei’s planning a lavish wedding for her son to give the citizenry a satisfying spectacle. But it’s less an object for these characters than a constraint and sometimes a tool in achieving their real ends.
In other words, thinking about sex and money for women on television is exciting less because it gives us a clear breakdown of characters’ motivations, than because it illustrates the diversity of women’s motivations in both comedies and drama. It’s easy to get burned out on television’s obsession with violent death, a trend that makes it even more important to remember how many concerns there are out there. Money matters for women on television. Bu tit’s because, even if we sometimes forget it, they’re so often doing things other than getting murdered.