Once again, someone has realized that putting male superheroes in the same positions as women reveals how ridiculous and sexually reductive those poses are in the first place. We’ve been here before, and recently. And we’ve seen it in the superhero-themed Victoria’s Secret fashion show, which had a number of outfits that were actually less revealing and more practical than the outfits comics artists give female heroes who have to do things other than walk down runways in them. But sometimes I wonder if practicality, dignity, and logic are beside the point here. It’s hard to think of another art form that’s so impervious to the idea that women exist for something other than male enjoyment.
The word is grim: Credit Suisse revised its forecasts, and instead of expecting cable television subscriptions to increase by 250,000 next year, they’re now predicting that the number of subscribers will fall by 200,000. And it’s not just that families are cutting the cord because it’s expensive. The number will go down because of a larger cultural shift, younger consumers who have decided that cable isn’t worth the money at all and are declining to subscribe in the first place, so they won’t replace older ones who are exiting the subscriber universe. That should be a much scarier proposition for the cable industry, but it’s an intriguing one for networks.
I remain pretty convinced that even if it takes a very long time to unbundle cable, and even if a bunch of networks die in the process, a move towards a more flexible (if not entirely a la carte) multi-platform system is inevitable. The idea that choice is paying for precisely what you want, rather than getting an enormous number of things — some of which you want and some of which you’d gladly see die in a fire — for your money seems pretty well-entrenched in the music industry now, and has always been the case for books. If I were HBO, I’d be pondering a subscription option for HBO GO only: I’m pretty sure I’d pay the $9-odd dollars I pay for my HBO package now for HBO GO only if I didn’t have cable.
For networks that don’t have the same premium branding as HBO or Showtime baked into their business model, and thus would have more difficulty attracting a core of subscribers used to paying for them separately, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. I can see something like Bravo making the jump to premium-lite status not because the content is astonishingly good but because the brand is so clearly defined. And I wonder if other networks will retrench their content offerings to try to keep the subscribers they have, or innovate to try to bring resistent cord-nevers into the fold. It’d be easier to do the former, but for the survival of the industry, much more important to innovate with everything to do the latter.
I’ve mentioned that I’m on a hardcore Living Single kick (TVOne really needs to have a marathon so I won’t run through my DVR backlog every night), and it struck me that one of the reasons I love the show, in addition to its specificity on race and its Friends-without-the-dopiness vibe, is that Khadijah James reminds me a lot of Leslie Knope.
First, there’s their collective hyper-competence — and exasperation when other people aren’t as committed as they are or up to their exacting standards. I’ve always appreciated the way that Leslie’s collective enthusiasm spills over to her friends and colleagues, turning Ann Perkins from a concerned citizen into a committed government employee (even if she was super-bossy about that final transition); inspiring everyone to reach for new heights to honor Lil’ Sebastian; convincing Ron to save her job even though on principal he’d love to see enthusiastic people like her get out of government and to see government wither away behind them. She gets so much pleasure out of work done right that she’s genuinely uncomfortable when someone like Ann isn’t as excited for or anxious about a job interview as Leslie herself is, and she can’t resist jollying along someone as terminally apathetic as April. Leslie is the rare television character who runs the constant risk of being annoying, but because she’s enthusiastic, rather than wacky. And she redeems herself by painting a vision so compelling everyone else wants to go along with it. She’s the rare female television character her show doesn’t feel the need to humiliate or cut down in any way. Leslie is allowed to be Wonder Woman. Or Diaphina. Take your pick.
Khadijah’s less strange than Leslie — the entire universe of Living Single is more realistic and less hyper-real in the Parks and Recreation. But it’s cool to see her conquer the challenges of publishing (and it’s a nostalgic look back at the industry as it was more than a decade ago). In one episode, she’s working on a corruption story (Living Single has really nice, smart roots in local government with Max’s side gig as city councilwoman) when her parent company forces her to hire an arrogant but brilliant reporter who wants the story for himself. She puts up with him turning in notes to her on candy wrappers, rolling into the office late, and generally mouthing off to her employees, but when he concocts a complicated scheme to get himself arrested to get close to a key source, she shuts him down and reports the story herself. When a rival magazine starts ripping off Flavor, there’s a great screwball sequence of Khadijah getting in trouble for taking down literally every flyer the competitor’s posted in New York City — she only got busted when she stole an absolutely enormous sign and lugged it all the way home. Khadijah’s more stressed than Leslie, but she also has to hustle harder than her Pawnee counterpart, who’s had several seasons of making governing look effortless. And again, the show walks a fine line between showing those struggles and cutting her down to size: an episode where she seeks therapy is genuinely touching and funny.
Leslie and Khadijah are also not the most conventionally attractive women in the casts of the shows they’re on, but both shows are committed to the idea that they’re almost irresistibly sexy and romantically successful. It might have been easy to treat Leslie as Ann’s nerdier best friend in matters of the heart, but Leslie’s love life seems somewhat more successful than Ann’s does. And people tend to single her out as unusually attractive, whether it’s Jerry taking her as an accidental muse or Jean-Ralphio thanking his lucky stars he’s finally gotten a chance with her. Similarly, Khadijah could have ended up second fiddle to the romantic travails of Barbie-pretty Regine or skinnier Max (I appreciate the way she’s essentially a black female Jughead). Instead, men can’t resist her. Her reportorial rival at the Village Voice courts her even as she hustles past him to a blockbuster story. Grant Hill falls for her — and when she breaks his heart, Alonzo Mourning says he’d love to date her but hears she has a reputation for loving and leaving them. It’s just profoundly refreshing to have these shows see these very attractive, interesting women as they are, instead of assigning them pathetic places in the warped hierarchy that is Hollywood attractiveness. And it’s kind of depressing that across the media, female characters this complete and this undefeated are so rare.
In what appears to be a pattern of concern-trolling by players’ representatives in European soccer, the chief of the Italian players’ union, Damiano Tommasi, has advised against gay players coming out of the closet on the grounds that it would violate the sanctity of the locker room:
Homosexuality is still a taboo in football in the sense that there is a different kind of cohabitation to other professions. Expressing your personal sexuality is difficult in every professional environment and even more so for a footballer who shares a changing room with his team-mates, and hence also his intimacy with others. In our world it could cause embarrassment. In a sport in which you get undressed it could cause an extra difficulty in cohabitation. In other professions such as journalists or bank employees, this doesn’t happen.For them it’s easier to express themselves. But from a personal point of view, I think you can live without showing your own tendencies or you can do so in a discreet manner.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t about protecting gay players from having to feel strange and different. This is about protecting straight players from having to face their anxieties — and find out they might be false. This is about the false idea that locker rooms are already sexually neutral zones, because when it’s heterosexuality, it’s neutral and doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable, but if the specter of gayness creeps in everything is confused and weird and overwhelming. This is about the deeply illogical idea that if someone behaved in a dignified and professional fashion while they were in the closet, that they’ll suddenly become a sexual harasser upon coming out, an event that usually accords with people wanting to reassure their friends and family and coworkers that everything about them is still essentially the same.
This is the same kind of false expression of concern that happened back in August when Philipp Lahm, who captains the German national team, warned in his published autobiography that if gay players came out, they would be harassed into suicide. His only evidence for this, of course, as my colleague Zack Ford pointed out, was a teammate who killed himself over the fear that he would be arrested for sexual assault. And even if he’d had an actual example, this would be an argument about straight homophobes, not gay people living their lives openly and honestly.
In a way, this is a victory for gay people. There are no legitimate objections about the threat gay people pose to straight society. So homophobes have to find convoluted ways to pretend they care about the well-being of gay people instead. But it’s still kind of depressing.
Just a reminder, for next week, we’ll be watching Oz Season 2, Episode 3; Season 3, Episode 7; Season 4, Episode 4. The show is available through HBO GO.
So it turns out that Last Dance is about a party boy who finds his purpose working in the appeals office for a Southern state government, falls in love with a murderer played by Sharon Stone, and after she’s executed, takes an Annie Lennox-scored trip to the Taj Mahal in her memory and as a way to express that he’s finally really, seriously at peace with himself. In other words, it’s a pretty terrible movie, chock-full of sassy black death row inmates who call Stone’s sweet former-addict killer “girl” a lot, a weak-sauce and sentimental discussion of racial and economic disparities in the death penalty, and a lot of thick-accented callous Southern stereotypes. But it does a couple of things that I think are interesting, even if I don’t think it does them particularly well.
First is the way it addresses lingering discomfort with executing women. Sam, the head of the appeals office, treats feminism as if it’s a joke that women have played on themselves, suggesting that executions of women are up because of the “Women’s lobby. They all want equal treatment in the eyes of the law.” Rick, the young attorney who’s come to work for Sam while he figures out what he wants to do with his life, expresses bewilderment that a woman could commit the crime Cindy’s guilty of, bludgeoning two wealthy young people to death — Sam tells him, “Most of the time when a woman kills, it’s a crime of passion.” Later, the pompous, tough-on-crime governor informs Rick that “Her sex made no difference to her victims. It makes no difference to us under our legal system.” These are platitudes and stereotypes, but there’s a real issue here about how gender plays into our expectations about violent behavior, and our willingness to exert violence against women in the name of the state. If crimes against women, particularly white women, inspire moral outrage, violent crimes committed by women also challenge our conceptions of gendered behavior.
Second, there’s the question of how race and class interact in the death penalty, which is mostly addressed when Rick, told to stay away from Cindy’s case, visits a black inmate who’s earned a law degree and written a best-seller about his moral evolution on death row. He predicts, accurately as it turns out, that the narrative of his transformation will earn him a reprieve that Cindy is denied. “What’s the smart money saying? Who’s going to live, me or the white girl?” he asks Rick. “They will be diminished by my death because I represent everything they love and admire. How are they going to kill a man who’s been on the New York Times best-seller list?” I don’t know that it’s true that politicians are less afraid to appear classist than they are to appear racist, especially when it comes to black men and crime, but against, it’s an interesting proposition, one the movie floats and lets gets away before it can explore it further.
Running around New Haven art museums today, so no links roundup. But you can thank the members of the Yale Political Union for this:
The latest Annenberg study of women’s representation behind and in front of the camera in the movies in 2009 is out, and the results remain depressing: women have just 32.8 percent of speaking roles in the movies the study examined (the same percentage as in 2008 and up from 29.9 in 2007), and just 21.6 percent of producers (up from 19.1 percent in 2008 and 20.5 percent in 2007), 13.5 percent of movie writers (down from 13.6 in 2008 but up from 11.2 in 2007), and 3.6 percent of directors are women (down from 8 percent in 2009 and up from 2.7 in 2007). If women are involved as writers on a movie, the percentage of female characters in that film jumps from 29.8 percent of characters to 40 percent of characters, and if women are directing, the percentage of female characters rises from 32.2 percent of the speaking cast to 47.7 percent of the characters. Putting women in a position to tell stories changes the kinds of stories that get told, and our failure at the former guarantees our failure at the latter. The gains we’re making are small, and they don’t appear to be particularly durable from year to year.
A couple of data points, or the absence thereof, stood out at me. I’d actually be interested to see an analysis of non-speaking roles as well as speaking ones. If women had a majority of non-speaking roles, it might reinforce the idea that women in the movies are passive or merely eye-candy. Are there are a lot of women in the background of scenes where men are speaking, whether they’re presented as sexually available or part of the landscape? Do movies with female stars put women in the frame in passive roles instead of putting men there? If the percentages of speaking and non-speaking roles for women are roughly equal, it might just be that Hollywood is more comfortable telling stories about men or in male settings. Those problems are interrelated, but they aren’t precisely identical.
Second, one statistic that’s gone down is the percentage of female characters who are described as attractive within the movie, from 18.5 percent in 2007, to 15.1 percent in 2008, to 10.9 in 2009. During this same time, the percentage of female characters who are depicted partially unclothed has ticked up 1.8 percent, and the number of women portrayed in relationships has gone up 6.9 percent, which may mean that audiences don’t need to be told that yes, in fact, yet another pneumatic starlet is a good-lookin’ woman. But interestingly in 2009, the attractiveness of just 2.5 percent of male characters was remarked on during the course of a movie. Could it be? Could attractiveness be a more important indicator for women than it is for men? Could it be that we just sort of take for granted that a broad range of men are considered attractive, whereas it’s a requirement that the sexiness of women, particularly those who don’t fall in a narrow mold, be constantly reaffirmed?
And finally, it’s fascinating and deeply weird to me that just 16.83 percent of movies have casts that are balanced between men and women, up from 15.1 percent in 2008 and 11.88 in 2007. I get that some subjects, like war movies, are likely to be weighted toward heavily male casts. But for movies set in the civilian world, it’s not like the majority of women work at ladymags, or all-female PR firms, and it’s not like the majority of men work in all-male investment banking or management consulting shops. Even if they do, men and women tend to have friends, neighbors, and relatives of the opposite sex. We don’t divide our cities and towns into cloisters, and that’s the source of so many of our joys and torments, our consolations and stumbles towards the light. It’s odd that our movies try to separate us from each other, except in pursuit of sex and love.
I will admit to being somewhat dorkily excited for Tony Scott’s upcoming Narco Sub, a movie about the battle between efforts by drug cartels to use primitive semi-submersibles to get cocaine into the United States and U.S. law enforcement agents’ effort to stop them, despite the fact that it seems inevitable that Denzel Washington will get cast as a badass DEA agent, that things will blow up rather flagrantly, and that it will probably be terrible. But even though Scott won’t actually take this path, the Narco Sub story is the kind of action movie that could be adapted to be unpredictable and challenging.
In real life, the hero of the fight (which honestly is a mix of action-packed and pretty goofy) against drug trafficking via home-made submarines is Sandra Brooks, the Navy’s Deputy Director of Intelligence and Security and Chief of Innovation and Technology, who started a program to go after “unconventional targets operating in the maritime environment.” As she said when she won a major award for public service in 2010, her first score was nicknamed Big Foot because her colleagues thought it was a myth — and they caught 9.2 tons of contraband along with the semi-sub. You could upset all kinds of movie conventions by making the Narco Sub hero a woman (and a lesbian — Brooks is gay, which shakes up the action-romance narrative nicely), and in the best tradition of Spooks, someone who figures things out from an office rather than parachuting in to a dumpy submarine to punch drug traffickers in the schnoz. They’ll never do it, of course. But I would watch the hell out of that movie, or anything else that acknowledges that there’s more than one way to beat the bad guys, and more than one kind of person capable of doing it.
As one is wont to do over the holidays, I found myself watching some episodes of Friends, a show I caught only sporadically when it was airing the first time around, with my family. I found myself particularly struck by the episode where Ross gets anxious over the possibility that a new girlfriend will turn out to be a lesbian because she’s hanging out with Susan, his lesbian ex-wife Carol’s partner. At the time, I found the scenario sort of grating: it’s irritating to watch straight guys angst over whether the supply of women who are sexually available to them will dwindle.
But the more I thought about it, the more I think the episode is a smart illustration of the ways in which closeting and lack of familiarity with gay people are bad for heterosexuals as well as for gay people themselves. Because Ross’s main experience with coming out has been with someone who didn’t figure out she was gay until after they were married, it’s not totally illogical that he’s anxious about it happening again. And I think it’s fair to acknowledge that damage done to straight partners in those situations, even if the impact is worse for people who are denying their true selves and the full range of experience that comes with it. This is not purely the stuff of fiction, or the ’50s, as evidenced by the column last week in the New York Times about an academic couple who stayed together for appearances and, as they told themselves, for their children. And the fact that Ross doesn’t appear to know very much about gay people — including the fact that having a very close lesbian friend doesn’t mean you’re going to spontaneously flip your sexual orientation — heightens his anxiety. It’s not a perfect episode, but it’s a nice little fable about the need for familiarity to dispel fear.