Hi Bitch blog readers! I'm a sometime blogger (under an assumed name, mostly, but my sorely neglected personal blog is here) and I can't tell you how excited I am to be associated with Bitch even briefly. I am incredibly honored to get to talk to and with you for the next few weeks about women and television, a subject about which I am embarrassed to say I know entirely too much.
I shouldn't be embarrassed, right? But I am. If you are a Bitch reader and a dedicated TV watcher you probably know what I'm talking about. When you are a lefty feminist caterwauler type, and you tend to hang out with other lefty (and frequently feminist) caterwauler types, TV is a thing which one does not confess to watching very much. (And you are not supposed to have cable, ever. Seriously uncool, cable is.) So consumerist! There was that show about paying people to get married! Those horrible Speidi people! Trashy! Pedestrian! You'd so much rather be spending your time reading de Beauvoir or H.D. or hell, at the very least, Naomi Klein and Mother Jones. And your Netflix queue is rife with Truffaut and Antonioni and basically anything that isn't an American movie made in the last twenty years.
The funny thing about this moment in TV culture though, particularly in the United States, is how incredibly rich and diverse television programming just is these days. Oh, the roster isn't perfect, still far too few women and/or people of color and/or the differently-abled. Still far too much product placement and plastic surgery. But as any dedicated TV watcher knows, it's far too hard these days to say anything about television as a genre, because there's simply too many things orbiting around out there. I don't think it's even possible to find some kind of connection between So You Think You Can Dance and Battlestar Galactica.
Although, to contradict myself already, there is one thing I think you can say categorically about television: it's way better for women than any other performing art.
No wait, come back! Hear me out.
The possibilities that television has opened for women are endless. I don't think it's any mistake that when you think of feminist archetypes in popular culture, lots of television characters come to mind immediately: Maude, Mary Richards, Cagney and Lacey, Claire Huxtable, Murphy Brown, Roseanne, C.J. Cregg. What has American film got to match any of those women in the last thirty years? A Melanie Griffith Working Girl here, a Diane Keaton Annie Hall there, but those comparisons seem almost insulting, right?
I'd love for this to be the result of a high number of female producers and writers in television, or even the result of the fact that women watch more tv than men do, but neither of those factors seem to stand in the way of, well, the rest of television. I'm ready to concede there's a hundred and one horrible, misogynistic programs and casting choices and scripts out there in the television universe. Some of the misogyny is literal (Desperate Housewives and basically every reality television show ever made), but a whole lot of it is much more subtle (later on I'll be blogging about misogyny in Lost). And American television is, after all, made in Hollywood, which as we all know isn't much of a woman-lovin' place.
If television is (and it is) still a man's game, what's the explanation? My best guess traces it to the drawn-out nature of narrative in television. When you have 22 hours in which to tell a story, or even a number of stories, cardboard cut-out characters very quickly begin to run thin on interest – for the writers and for the actresses who play them. This can only be of benefit to women, because, as we know, women get the lion's share of the cardboard cut-out characters in our imaginary worlds: in the fictional universes we escape to, women are little more than princesses and hags, sluts and virgins, sassy Girl Fridays and nagging wives.
Television characters, initially, often tend to be many of these things too – keep in mind that Peggy Olson is, on paper, a glorified Girl Friday. But in the patient hands of Elisabeth Moss and the Mad Men writers, she's now something most women can recognize: a woman trying to make her way in a world whose terms are written by men, who doesn't like the hand she got dealt but plays it anyway, who smiles prettily because it's what expected of her and not because it's how she feels.
So while I'm writing here, what I plan to be doing, mostly, is testing that hypothesis against what's on TV now (and to some extent what's been on in the past). I look forward to hearing your thoughts!