It warms the cockles of my heart to know that this blog has attracted a cadre of readers such that a post asking whether I should blog about the Star Wars extended universe prompted a record number of comments. The first three books in the New Jedi Order sequence are on my Kindle. I promise y’all a full and vigorous report. And if anyone wants to lend me the Thrawn trilogy again, I’ll pay for shipping, or even buy them off you.
I kind of think Jezebel has been barking up the wrong tree with their series of posts on how women are represented–or underrepresented–in the writing staffs of various television shows. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important that women who want jobs in television be able to get them, but I’m far more interested in the representations of women that writers of either gender produce.
Let’s take the first question, purely of numbers. Women are employed as 28 percent of television writers and 18 percent of film writers. As men’s earnings have risen in those fields, women’s have fallen. Now, that’s not a great thing, for sure. But I write about personnel issues in my day job, and these numbers raise a couple of questions for me. What percentage of total applicants for television jobs were women? What percentage of head writer positions do they hold–and what percentage of women employed in television are lead writers? Are women’s wages falling while men in comparable positions, rather than men in general, see their wages rise? Or are women simply concentrated in the lower ranks of writers where wages are falling, whereas men hold higher-ranked positions where wages are rising quickly, or a few positions where wages are rising dramatically? The answers to any of those questions could point to a genuinely discriminatory work environment, but I’d want to see those answers before I decide that women are being systematically and persistently discriminated against in television employment. If they are, that’s a huge problem, and it needs to be corrected.
But really, what I care about is the results of who’s in the writer’s room. And the list of shows Jezebel presents with the most female writers and the least female writers is fascinating in that regard. Californication, told from the perspective of a philandering man, has a writing staff that’s 66.7 percent female. The Closer, which, for all that I joke about it is an interesting and nuanced portrayal of a woman, has no female writers. The Wire didn’t have female writers either, but that doesn’t make Kima Greggs or Brianna Barksdale any less compelling. For that matter, The Hurt Locker is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen about manhood, and it’s directed by a woman. I feel extraordinarily hesitant to claim that we absolutely have to have female writers on every show about women, or that women necessarily represent or express some unique experience, if only because I think that’s limiting. If women always write better about women’s lives than men do, then how can we ever claim to write powerfully and incisively about the lives of boys and men? I’d hate for representational feminist demands about writing jobs to cut women off from writing opportunities.
Ultimately what I want is a true and unbiased meritocracy. It may be important to get women consistently in the writing rooms of shows like Saturday Night Live to changed ingrained cultures. But once those cultures have shifted, women shouldn’t be there to keep a leash on men, or to push a culture in one direction or another. They should be there because–and only because–they’re the absolute best. I understand representational demands may be a necessary first step. But it would be a damn shame if folks thought that was the end of a multi-faceted effort to make our movies and television more interesting.
How charming, right? A woman who declares: ”I am not going to die without getting engaged!” A world where a woman needs an obscure Irish holiday to propose to the man she wants to marry, and the guy she’s clearly meant to fall for ridicules her for thinking to do it! Ethnic stereotypes of the Irish as drunks! A plot where two characters realize they’re just meant for each other because people goad them into smooching! And semi-cheating that’s condoned because of course the guy Amy Adams is with isn’t actually her soul mate, so of course it’s okay!
I liked Enchanted so much not because Amy Adams was cute and fluffy in it, but because the whole move is about the power of persistent delusion. She was unsettling, in addition to being adorable, and that’s what made the whole performance work. This is just bland. Matthew Goode is at least playing Colin Firth’s lover in A Single Man (even if the trailers downplay the gay), so he’s doing something with his talent to redeem him for this. Adams, on the other hand, is On Notice.
Since I’m shipping out for the region tomorrow, my friend Alex Remington and I decided that, as a last hurrah before I leave, he’d show me Ong-bak, the explosive 2003 Thai martial arts movie that introduced Tony Jaa to American audiences. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth checking out. I’m no stunt expert, but a scene where Jaa, in a fight at a gas station, semi-intentionally sets his legs on fire and keeps him that way to increase the impact when he kicks someone in the face is pretty damn impressive.
But one thing we kept talking about throughout the movie, and that I thought about a great deal as I popped Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon into the DVD player after he left, is the extent to which martial arts movies take a restrained attitude towards sexual desire and relationships. This may not be a new observation, but I wonder if Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon connected so much with American audiences is that, in emotional contours, it feels like a Jane Austen novel–at least to me. There are the obvious parallels of course: Jen is basically submitting herself to an arranged marriage for the advancement of her father’s career; Yu Shu Lien and Master Li Mu Bai essentially ruin their lives by repressing their desire. But you’ve also got class contours that feel familiar, whether it’s the inferior martial artists (a police inspector and his daughter) who try and fail to kill Jade Fox at the beginning of the movie who are essentially living in a hovel outside of town and are essentially the equivalent of people in trade who go to nobility for justice; Jade Fox’s status as Jen’s governess; the way the noble family closes ranks around Jen; Lo as the unworthy suitor. And I think Jade Fox’s relegation to uselessness–the student who surpasses her, the woman she works for, the warriors who defeat her–is powerfully done, even if it’s not sketched in detail.
I’m projecting, obviously. There are Chinese history, Chinese gender roles, and Chinese understandings of class, and of course, Ang Lee’s Taiwanese-inflected interpretation of all of those things at play in Crouching Tiger. Reading Regency mores onto those elements is a crude form of translation. But while I have a hard time with tarted-up interpretations of Austen because I know the stories so well (something we discuss in comments a bit here). But I feel like Crouching Tiger, and other martial arts movies, do a good job of expressing and exploring the turbulence behind repressed emotion in a way that feels familiar and accessible to audiences wholly unfamiliar with their cultural contexts or styles of fighting. You may not be having sex on screen, but fighting’s quite the way to burn off similar energy. And if you’re Jen, the spoiled daughter of aristocracy, and you’re feeling particularly rebellious, you have a passionate affair with a desert bandit, and jump off Wudan Mountain. I’ve always loved that final scene in all its ambiguity. I can never decide if she dies, or if she’s finally free. In art about repression, great freedom and great risk seem eternally twinned. In Ong-bak, if Ting gives in to his skill, he might kill a man unjustly. Jen may not be able to be free or to die–she has to find a state in between.