Thursday, September 13, 2007

The New Fall Season: Whiney Men and (Em)Powerful Women?

Vanessa has a post up at feministing that talks about a Salon write-up of the new fall season. I freely admit that I watch very little television, and I probably won't be watching these shows, but I think her take on it is interesting:

Rebecca Traister takes on strong female characters on TV that end up being portrayed as money-grubbing, selfish and more-or-less evil while emasculating the male characters. In short, although showing women as strong and self-sufficient should be anticipated as being progressive, the end result is offensive to women, men, and their relationship with one another. Sigh.

The thing is, I've read the article, and, at least from the descriptions that Rebecca Traister gives, I disagree with the analysis. Oh, there's no doubt that the men on these shows sound like total losers. They're portrayed as whiney and resentful, and unable to cope with the changing roles of women. Basically, they resent women who are successful and who are able to achieve great things within their careers.

For the most part, though, the women that Traister describes sound... well... fine.

At least, from her descriptions, I didn't think most of them sounded money grubbing, or selfish, or evil at all. And I certainly didn't think that they were emasculating the men. Unless, of course, "being successful" is enough to emasculate your partner.

The description of Carpoolers is one of the few that really has women in it that fit the description Vanessa gives. According to Traister, the show is about a group of men who share a carpool, but little else. One of the show's leads is married to a woman who stays at home watching television and taking his money while he "waits on her, cooks, and cares for the kids". Another of the leads has been dumped by his cheating wife. The last one, though, doesn't seem to have any serious problems with his spouse, except that she might be making more money than him.

While the first two spouses sound pretty awful, there's nothing about the third spouse that should raise any ire. She's not the one emasculating her husband- he's emasculating himself (well, I suppose it's really the show's creators who are emasculating him, but, whatever). Her only "fault" is that she's successful, and making money. The show, however, sounds stupid and annoying. When you've got lines like "men go off to war; women shop; if we don't provide for our women, do they really need us?" Well... I suspect I'm not really your target market.

Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton's new show "Back to You" doesn't seem any worse (or better?). Grammer's character sounds like a total asshole who gets his comeuppance after he impugns a colleague. Again, though, there's nothing there that I could see that should make me dislike Heaton's character. She's a single parent working as a news anchor, and she doesn't need someone like Grammer to make her life complete. Given that Grammer's character is the sort to say "I didn't freeze my ass off in Minnesota and fucking Pittsburgh to end up working with some dipshit who only has her job because she's fucking the general manager!" and that the only thing that they shared was a brief sexual fling... it sounds to me like she's probably better off without him. Again, though, the point is the same: I don't see a problem with her character, so much as with his.

"Samantha Who?", on the other hand, sounds appallingly bad. Christina Applegate plays an amnesiac who discovers that her "real" self was a horrible person. Now that she's lost her sense of identity, she's much nicer, blah blah blah. I'm with Traister on this one: this sounds like a show that was designed with a desire to punish and dominate a female lead. The point of the show is to dominate and humiliate a woman that was set up as being too successful.

"Women's Murder Club" sounds a lot better, to me. A group of intelligent, successful women work together to solve murders. Nothing in Taister's description paints these women out to be particularly "money-grubbing, selfish and more-or-less evil", nor do they seem to be out to emasculate the men in their lives. The main character has had a failed marriage because she refused to put her family before her career: "Before he left, I kept promising that I would change. That I would put him over the job and that I would be at home more. Eventually he just stopped believing me, and he was right." Does that sound particularly different from what we'd expect a male cop to say?

Of course, there's still an aspect of punishment there- because she's successful and driven at work, her love life necessarily sucks. She hasn't had sex in two years. But even Traister seems to see this as a problem with the men on the shows, not the women: "The only area in which these women show any weakness is their love lives, but it's made clear that that has a lot to do with male discomfort with their power."

Traister turns her sights on "Cashmere Mafia" next. The show focuses on four women who are "utterly self-sufficient professionally, except insomuch as they rely on each other for detailed four-way-phone-call advice." One of the leads has a devoted husband who stays home with the children and turns down an offer for an affair. Another is a marketing executive who may is discovering and exploring her attraction to women.

Having read through Traister's piece, I feel like I must be missing something that Vanessa saw. The vast majority of the shows described don't seem to fit the type that Vanessa describes. I didn't think that any, outside of pre-amnesiac Applegate, sounded evil, and while many of them are very occupationally driven, I don't see that as necessarily a bad thing. They certainly didn't seem money-grubbing, and I can't remember the last time I saw a man who puts business or personal success over romance called selfish, so I'm not sure where that's coming from either.

The men in these shows are, almost without exception, portrayed as insecure jack-holes who are intimidated by successful women, or who are complete push-overs. They're either asshole woman-haters, or they're willing to let themselves be walked on. And the bulk of them sound whiney and angsty and generally unpleasant.

And while this is a serious problem, I'm not remotely surprised by it. Particularly given how many men really are intimidated by powerful, successful women. It's hard to tell from Traister's piece, but I wonder how many of these shows are portraying the men's fears as being reasonable and rational. How many of them are trying to reinforce the idea that men who are married to or involved with women who make more money somehow aren't "real" men. Or, is there some attempt to show these men for the whiners that they are? Is it played for comedy (Look how stupid these men are! They're *afraid* of successful women!), or is it played straight (Look how awful this is- these men don't make as much money as the women in their lives. Isn't that sad?)?

Anyway... I won't be watching these shows to find out, but I'm a little curious. Am I the only one who is missing what Vanessa is apparently seeing? Because, while I definitely agree that a lot of this could be offensive to men, and that it doesn't show male/female relationships very well, I don't see that most of these shows are offensive in their treatment of the women- it's that the men on the shoes echo too strongly the shitty sentiments of men in the real world, and say and do offensive things to the women in these shows.


Cara said...

I read the same article, and my personal take was that these shows are more or less showing the "evils" of when women are successful, powerful and in control. See how much the men's lives suck? Notice how all the women around them are strong and independent? I think that it's definitely a part of a larger social narrative. I think that where it gets insulting to women is by showing when women are in charge, everyone loses-- the men are miserable and whiny, and the women can't get laid or have that oh-so-coveted child they want. bah.

donna darko said...

After a cursory glance at Traister's article, I also thought it was about money-grubbing, overly aggressive women too but, after reading the sexist comments, reread the article. And you and Cara are right. The women are fine but the men can't deal.