“I think we were at a place where a non-white actor could be the lead in a televisions how a long time ago…I just think that people have failed to cast the actors we should have been casting.” -Shonda Rhimes
Despite its silly name, Don’t Trust the B- In Apartment 23 was one of my favorite pilots that I saw this fall. I like Krysten Ritter a whole bunch, and her odd-couple roommate schtick with Dreema Walker felt plausible and funny. Ritter plays Chloe, a manipulative New Yorker who takes roommates only to drive them nuts and keep their deposits, who ends up with more than she bargained for in June, a wholesome Midwesterner who came to New York only to find the job she planned to take wiped out by Bernie Madoff’s fraud. Chloe also maintains a nicely platonic friendship with James Van Der Beek, playing a slightly-altered version of himself a la Larry David, something that, as Ritter said today, is all too rare on television in particular and pop culture in general. I was intrigued by the Madoff references, and other riffs on things like June and Chloe walking out without paying a bar tab and blaming it on times being tough, so I asked creator Nahnatchka Khan what role the recession plays in the show.
“I think we’re trying to make it feel like it exists in the world. I know a lot of my friends are feeling the recession and it’s a real thing that exists,” she said. “Dreema’s going to continue to try to get a job. She’s trying to get hired by a Wall Street firm and people aren’t hiring, so she’s working at the coffee shop with Mark. But not giving up, and that’s the hopeful message. Times are tough but people aren’t giving up.”
I sort of like that perspective. 2 Broke Girls tends to tell specific stories about why the characters don’t have any money. Max grew up poor and has financed her attempts at self-improvement with debt, which haven’t yet paid off for her. Caroline lost her family’s money when it turns out her fortune was built on a foundation of lies. But the people around them seem relatively unaffected by the recession. Han’s trying to make the diner take off, but it’s not like there are very specific problems he has because of the recession. Hipsters continue to spend ridiculous amounts of money. Peach’s friends are only affected by Ponzi schemes, not by their tanking investments.
Other shows are doing one-offs. I think we’ll see a lot of things like Raising Hope‘s planned Occupy Natesville episode, that weave in the symbols of the recession in the same way most people will have glancing contact with the bleeding edge of the conversation without being permanently on the vanguard. But getting that persistent environment right is a tricky thing that involves thinking out your characters’ motivations in a really complete way. People are affected by recessions in ways that they don’t necessarily name, and figuring out how to articulate that and keep their motivations consistent is important.
We’ve had some conversations here about Work It, perhaps the most puzzling new show of 2012. But when asked about an ad that called about the fact that the show doesn’t appear to recognize that transgender people face substantial risks were the gender they were born with to be revealed, ABC entertainment president Paul Lee’s answer was…unfortunate.
“Certainly in terms of the lesbian and gay community, we’re incredibly proud of the work ABC does, and that’s not just Modern Family, it’s Grey’s Anatomy, it’s Private Practice. In that case, I didn’t really get it,” he said. “I loved Tootsie, I think it’s a great thing, so in that particular case, I didn’t get it. But I think that’s me.” And he said that given the sophistication of the rest of the network’s fall lineup, “I thought there was room for a very, very, very, very silly show.”
Which certainly is true, though I thought that one of the better things about Revenge was its deadpan embrace of its deeply campy, silly concept. But then, what do I know. It seems like a fairly unfortunate thing for Lee not to have investigated the fact that what he’s presenting as a wacky way for straight men to cross-dress for gain (which yes, is the same concept as Tootsie) carries real implications and danger for other people. Cross-dressing is not always a trip or a thing that people try on just for kicks. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to choose between expressing your true self even if it involves repeated difficult conversations and the risk of retaliation and presenting yourself the way society expects you to at considerable psychological cost. Dressing like a lady to get a job in a fake hecession to get a job that you wouldn’t actually be a fit for is a deeply silly scenario. Being transgendered and navigating your life is not. Recognizing that Work It has unfortunate blind spots and overlap would seem wisely conciliatory and respectful.
I think Jeff Labrecque may be technically correct here that there are few women in Hollywood who gets to have careers that are as multi-faceted as the best careers for men. But I still find the idea that not being “limited by those constraints” applied to women means that Stone is like a dude:
There have been many other actresses who have experienced similar success at her age, 23, but Stone seems to be a different creature. Even when she’s cast as The Girl, she’s never been limited by those constraints. From Superbad to CSL, she’s imbued what might have been clichéd female characters into something indelibly richer. And as she increases her clout, she’s finding the unique roles that enhance her growing stardom without making her a prisoner of any specific genre or pre-fab persona.
I guess what I’m getting at, and I mean it as a high compliment, is that Stone is a dude — in the sense that she is building a career typically allowed to only serious actors in Hollywood. Guys in the industry unfairly get more leeway, whereas actresses are so easily boxed in at an early age, and few have been allowed or earned the freedom Stone currently enjoys. She can literally do anything, and she’s getting opportunities to prove it in period dramas, high school comedies, adult romantic comedies, and comic-book epics. She’s on her way to becoming a lucrative brand, an ironic but nevertheless well-deserved achievement considering her multiple talents and eclectic taste.
I actually think it’s more apt to suggest that Stone is on a trajectory to escape the permanent girlhood Hollywood foists on most actresses. Limiting actresses to stories that pit jobs v. love as if they’re a choice, or that makes the question of whether or not someone is the One isn’t just a female thing, or what femininity is made up of. Instead, it’s a way of trapping actresses in the black-and-white terms of teenagedom, of walling them off from the full range of problems and joys women get to experience. If there was one thing I liked about The Help it’s that it’s a love story where the female lead chooses her career over her dude and feels absolutely no ambiguity about it: racial justice is more important to her at the moment than romance or respectability is. Women aren’t just wives and mothers and people with jobs: they’re citizens.
Once upon a time, ABC was planning to air two shows in midseason with the word “bitch” in the title: Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 and Good Christian Bitches. Then, the shows became Apartment 23 and Good Christian Belles. And now they’ll come on air in midseason as Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and GCB. When he was asked about it in Pasadena today, Paul Lee, the president of ABC’s entertainment group, said, “on broadcast it turns out it’s a not a word you want to use in the title. But at the same time, [Apartment 23] is a show with so much attitude, and we felt, and the showrunners, that it reflected the irreverence or the outrage of that show…Look, GCB, which officially stands for Good Christian Belles, a good title, a good show.”
This doesn’t really make any sense. Abbreviating an obscenity to its first letter reads reverent, rather than edgy. This is church-ladies-being-naughty language. There’s nothing brave or outrageous about it. And there’s something strange about the idea that “bitch” is the best expression of toughness, or unwillingness to compromise, or to be edgy or interesting. Meredith Brooks has been there and done that more than a decade ago:
And we all know how that turned out. I’m not necessarily the right audience for a reclamation of “bitch,” but I’m not particularly persuaded that the term is evocative by Leslie Bibb’s argument today that “Every human being has a moment of being bitchy. I think on the show is we all sort of test each other. I think when a woman’s a bitch, it’s based on being scared.” We can find non-gendered language that captures that emotion more specifically and precisely. “Bitch” isn’t a word that can sell a TV show because of decency issues. It’s because it’s uncompelling.
Thanks to Amanda for writing the first installment of what makes the great women of the last 10 years of television great, and what we can learn from them for the future.
By Amanda Marcotte
When I first got into “Community”, I had serious misgivings about the Britta Perry as a character. There’s so few lefty feminist characters on TV to begin with, and it initially seemed that they were going to ride the worst stereotypes about feminists: that they’re shrill, stupid, and humorless. It is true that the other characters do treat her that way, calling her “the worst” at every opportunity. But it’s become clear that after a shaky start, Britta has emerged as possibly one of the most unique and interesting characters on TV, an awkward but sweet woman who came to terms with her social rejection a long time ago, and now happy to let the constant insults aimed at her roll off her back.
Sady Doyle has already sung the praises of Britta, so I’d be remiss in not quoting her:
I….. realized that this goofy sitcom with zombies and Claymation episodes actually had the most fully rounded, human feminist character — principled and shallow, pure of heart and poor of judgment, unrepentant hipster and full-on dork, tough and vulnerable, privileged and struggling, and (what really set her apart from the Lemons and Knopes) in possession of an active, casual sex life, which she controlled — that I’d seen on network TV.
The fact that, but for an ill-advised episode where she professes her love to the uninterested Jeff (which the show quickly retconned by having her take it all back), Britta has lots of sex with different men and, in a move that’s quite unusual for TV, she’s never punished for it. On the contrary, those who judge her for it look like prigs and jerks.
Once I realized that, I began to see how the show subtly uses people’s casual cruelty to Britta to say more about them than her. Because she’s a feminist with a self-righteous bent, the other characters dismiss everything she has to say out of hand, without any regard to whether she’s right or wrong, and on those occasions when she does something stupid or awkward, they pounce in order to reinforce their prejudices against her. Despite the fact that her friends believe she’s wrong no matter what she does, Britta admirably doesn’t let people’s low opinions get to her. (Feminist bloggers can attest that this is a valuable, hard-earned skill.) Jeff Winger particularly tries to put her in her place all the time, and she simply shrugs it off, giving him a pitying look for not seeing what a prick he’s being. While there are plenty of scenes in the show where Britta embarrasses herself with her awkwardness, as often as not plots turn on situations where a character blows Britta off when she offers insight, only to find later that she was right all along, much to their chagrin. See: Jeff ignoring her warnings that he has daddy issues, leading him to escalate an already bad situation with Pierce. Or when Troy and Abed forbid Britta from speaking ill of their friends, which gets them into a friendship with a genocidal maniac, despite Britta’s hints about his character.
The essence of Britta came out most clearly in the season three episode “Remedial Chaos Theory”. It’s one of the weirder episodes in an already weird show, exploring seven alternate timelines resulting from a different member of the study group going to pick up pizza. In the final timeline, Jeff gets the pizza, which gives Britta a chance to sing along loudly to “Roxanne” by the Police without him shushing her. The result is that it’s the happiest of all the timelines, with all the characters gleefully dancing like dorks. In the constant power struggle between Jeff and Britta, the show’s writers clearly side with Britta and with embracing yourself as you are, warts and all.
The bridge is yours.
-The only reason I’m sorry to be in California is the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in its broadcast decency case today. Let’s hope the decisions are as amusing as the video games case.
-Apparently, being a radio host means you have to be more sedate than a blogger. Who knew?
-Rick Santorum signals support for stronger copyright protections, if not SOPA.
-The Pawnee City Council race just got even more adorable.
-Tom Hanks will make us a web television series because why not.
-Yes, this is pretty much how I feel about New Girl:
James Franco mostly annoys me when he makes headlines these days, but in our ongoing debate for how to properly weight the recognition for Andy Serkis’s Performance Capture work, this is a useful contribution:
Performance Capture is here, like it or not, but it also doesn’t mean that old-fashioned acting will go the way of silent film actors. Performance Capture actually allows actors to work opposite each other in more traditional ways, meaning that the actors get to interact with each other and look into each others eyes. For years computer technology forced actors to act opposite tennis balls if a movie wanted to have CG creatures, but now the process has come full circle so that actors playing CG creatures can perform in practical sets, just like the “human” actors. In acting school I was taught to work off my co-stars, not to act but react and that was how I would achieve unexpected results, not by planning a performance, but by allowing it to arise from the dynamic between actors, and on The Rise of the Planet of the Apes that’s exactly what I was able to do opposite Andy as Caesar.
Now, your ability to coax good performances out of the people you’re working with is a skill that directors are generally recognized for, not actors (though I wonder if folks think about that when they’re casting their Best Supporting votes). But it’s a reminder that the effects folks couldn’t produce Serkis’s performance and the scenes as a whole he’s in without them, just as he couldn’t do what he does without their critically important work. We have to figure out a way to recognize these hybrids. They’re not going away.
I think this piece from Salon is quite intriguing, particularly in its focus on the ideological purity of country or encampment living, and in arguing that while most of these protagonists spend at least some time allied with revolutionary movements, series often up rejecting them as overly violent or just the same thing as a repressive regime all over again:
But they’re not quite noble savages, because they’re self-aware. In the wild, they find misfits who safeguard learning, hoarding the books and lore that the dystopias have repressed. The Occupy movement often casts itself in a similar light, as its members “rough it” in parks in the middle of cities as if keeping alive a more earthy, simple, honest way of living; their library tents symbolize their devotion to learning from the past as they forge a better way for the future. Indeed, the library is a synecdoche for the movement itself: in Toronto, protesters chained themselves to theirs as it was about to be removed as part of the camp’s eviction; at Occupy Wall Street, the demolishing of the library has been viewed as a repressive dystopian act.
In the wilderness, the dystopian protagonists also encounter rebels – and not necessarily the same people who read books. Unlike in escapist fantasies such as “Star Wars,” where the rebels unambiguously deserve our support as they fight an evil empire with the light side of the force, the rebels in YA dystopias can be as dangerous as those in power. Often the two are mirror images of one another, led by charismatic but delusional figures who seek to wrest power for themselves by violent means and view the teenage heroes as vehicles for them to do so. In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss becomes an icon for the rebels in the legendary District 13 but ultimately distrusts their humorless and pathologically driven leader, Alma Coin; in “Chaos Walking,” Viola (Todd’s girlfriend and female counterpart) falls in with The Answer, a group of terrorists who are healers by profession but are just as adept at setting off bombs, and wouldn’t blink at blowing her up if it achieved their own ends.
Now obviously, conservatives have their radicals, too. But I tend to think most of these setups tend to have the regime in power be a conservative analogue, whether it’s preserving extreme economic inequality as in The Hunger Games or priests entangled with the ruling hierarchy in The Knife of Never Letting Go. And so for the people who are fighting against those regimes to prove to be terrorists or authoritarians suggests an unfortunate equivalence between liberals and conservatives, from reformers and preservers of the status quo. And I think there’s something inherently conservative (and worrying, given the age of the target audience) about narratives that encourage people not to participate in the system or to believe that there’s nothing they can do to improve their lives and the structures that govern them. If you drop out, you may be able to live your life on your own terms. But at some point, you’ll probably need to be in contact with the outside world. And if you come up for air because you need an abortion, or because you’re being affected by environmental degradation, or the economy’s left you destitute and you haven’t done your part to make sure the rest of the world is responsive to your needs, you might be in for a nasty surprise.
Fortunately, there are alternatives like Tamora Pierce’s books, which read collectively and in chronological order tell the story of the abolition of slavery and the liberalization of society in her fictional kingdom of Tortall. It’s a story about reform, and as a result, it takes a long time: the arc spans more than a hundred years and twenty books. Not a lot of authors are going to commit to something that ambitious, nor should they have to. But opting out isn’t the only way you can make a story fit in two to four books. Sometimes, it’s a matter of a compromised outcome, or one reform at a time.
In the news that perhaps has made me happiest, Disney XD is apparently making a version of RoboCop for kids. It’s called Motor City, and involves a futuristic Detroit where an evil billionaire called Abraham Kane bought out the city went it went bankrupt and “banned all freedoms.” The characters will apparently descend from the floating city of Detroit (it is the future, after all) and regroup in old Detroit where they will be guided in the art of rebellion by the ghosts of Michael Moore and Eminem. I made that last bit up, but this does sound pretty rad.