Primetime Ladies

by Mattie Kahn
November 7, 2013
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Behind every great television show, recently, is a woman.

LETSTALKABOUTITTV

Oh, sure. We’re pretty fond of each other, but the truth is you all are our favorite contributors to The Man Repeller. Really! We’ve formalized that fact with “Let’s Talk About It.” This weekly column is a forum for conversation, communication, and complete distraction from the jobs you’re supposed to be doing right now. So get involved. We promise we won’t tell your bosses.

Sentient human beings and several species of highly functioning mammals received some very exciting news late last week. On Thursday, NBC announced its decision to order thirteen episodes of a forthcoming comedy from Tina Fey and her producing partner Robert Carlock. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “the single-camera effort, which is set to debut in the fall of 2014, will center on a woman who escapes from a doomsday cult and starts life over in New York City.” But wait! Like a good ’90s infomercial . . . there’s more. The Office’s Ellie Kemper is set to star.

Having trouble breathing? So is everyone else. Since the revelation, the World Wide Web has spent the past few days collectively hyperventilating. Articulating our near-universal anticipation, New York Magazine’s entertainment editors pronounced this appeal: “Please, television gods, let this be even half as good as it sounds.”

Preach.

Refreshingly absent from the extensive coverage, however, is what once might have been considered the reveal’s most salient detail. The as-yet-untitled series will not only be anchored by a woman (Kemper), but also has been imagined, executed, and written by one (Fey). The fact that Deadline and Entertainment Weekly and dozens of other platforms have made relatively little of this remarkable reality only demonstrates what we all implicitly know: that it’s not so remarkable after all. Lady-led shows are having a moment!

Between New Girl, The Mindy Project, Girls, and most recently, Orange is the New Black, women are not just starring in sitcoms. They’re also creating them, driving them, and — if my own fandom is any indication — devotedly, obsessively watching them. This weekend, I spent three hours of my day gripped by an impromptu Girls marathon! Should I be embarrassed that I’d sooner have qualified the spontaneous session as “catching up with old friends” than “a waste of time”?

Don’t answer that.

As Willa Paskin observed in her own ode to the phenomenon on Slate.com, “this may be the first time in my memory that TV has offered me, a woman, so many high-quality shows about other women.”

Of course, these fictional females — like their very real counterparts — are far from perfect. Girl’s Hannah Horvath has OCD. New Girl’s Jess Day owns a suspicious number of matching pajamas sets. And, oh, that’s right! Orange is the New Black’s Piper Chapman is currently incarcerated. While we all can surely support the growing presence of strong female leads, the question now becomes what we want from their complicated and weird and wonderful portrayals.

In her profile of New Girl creator Liz Meriwether, The New Republic’s Noreen Malone writes, “Meriwether bristles at interviewers who put too much focus on her gender or on whatever it is that [Zooey] Deschanel’s character means for modern womanhood.” Demonstrating as much, Meriwether offered her two cents on the issue in an interview with Forbes:

There are a lot of stories about female showrunners and what that means, and a lot of questions about what kind of role model Jess is. I was asked if Jess was a good representation of where we are as women these days. My response to that odd line of questioning is that she’s a character in a comedy, she’s not some symbol of a political movement. The funniest things just come from honesty. We have a tendency to see female characters as representative of something larger than what they are, when male characters are just characters.

Is she right? Does it subject professionals like Meriwether and Dunham and, most pressingly, Fey to inequitable scrutiny to ask that their characters be anything more than flatly and fabulously entertaining? On the other hand, don’t they have a responsibility — whether they like it or not — to do justice to at least a version of “modern womanhood”? Finally, are The Mindy Project’s Peter Prentice and I the only ones who have utterly lost patience with Dr. Mindy Lahiri?

Let’s talk about it.

REPLIES
  • Greer Clarke

    FINALLY

  • https://www.etsy.com/shop/amatoriaclothing Amatoria Clothing

    I like the imperfections. Women are not perfect. Not all women can wear stilettos all day, and come home to make the perfect dinner with their beautifully manicured hands before they tuck their perfect children into bed. The imperfections are funny, endearing, and relateable.

  • Kelly

    Originally I objected to the whole idea of modern womanhood, I just want to be treated and thought of as an individual, but then only five seconds ago, I was snickered at by the members of my all male office for carrying my purse into the bathroom. Sometimes I will also get teased for wearing a skirt.

    It occurs to me know that the idea of modern womanhood exists not for modern women, but for a select portion of the population of modern men, who inform some of their ideas on what a woman is from pop culture.

    Like it or not, these characters represent what woman can be to a lot of men who might not otherwise understand that woman are capable of being more than one deminsional, and the females aire not defined soley by their femininity.

  • Karolena Greenidge

    I’m a comedian. I know what it feels like to just want to be able to say and do whatever you want on stage without becoming the representative for a group of people.

    I am black, latina and a woman, those things contribute to my humor and one could even say drive it. Those things dont define me or my humor. To be honest, I’m not good at being anything but myself and that leads to all the funny shit.

    Merriweather is saying to don’t be concerned about O’Day representing you, just laugh at her becasue she is ridiculous!

    I’m proud of all of those women, especially Fey and Pohler my fellow improv girls.

    I dont ever think about Mary Tyler More’s characters or Lucille Ball’s physical comedy and think they are great because they are women.

    Being a woman is a huge part of thier sucess and their perspective but it wasnt the point of their jokes. They were telling their individual stories.

    (Comedic essays)
    http://www.kaplaceinthesun.com/

  • Eleanor H

    Okay, somewhat relevant (and by somewhat i man not really at all). Manrepellers I trust you. And THE Manrepeller herself, Leandra, you live in New York, surely you know the ups and downs of living with roommates – what to do when said roommates are being utter d’bags and you want to be entirely passive aggressive and at the same time you want to tell them exactly why you’re angry but also hate confrontation? What should my course of action be?! (read: not really relevant, but somewhat because this was all about female leading ladies, and i live in an all ladies flat)

    • Amelia Diamond

      Well first read this to know you are not alone: http://bit.ly/19FJIOm

      Being passive aggressive feels SO SATISFYING but solves nothing. In what way are they being douches so we can better advise? ALL THE DETAILS. (Can you tell I’m avoiding doing work right now?)

    • Mattie Kahn

      Ooohhh yes please! Give us all the details. I’d be happy to weigh in, but I need more information.

      P.S. @ameliadiamond:disqus, same.

      • Eleanor H

        Okay, firstly – the tissue shortage epidemic, I read it, I loved, I could deal with our flats own version of those problems. But the current story is: I’m leaving the flat next week to go travelling again, and I was meant to be coming back in two weeks time to sleep on the couch in the kitchen for two nights, and then again over Christmas and NYE. And they’ve told me last night that they think the apartment will be too small for that. (because the kitchen couch is in such high demand over night) So they’ve given me approximately zero notice and time to find other places. The one in two weeks time is sorted, but Christmas time in Edinburgh is already going to be booked out and/or cost a bomb. So I’m stressed and angry and just don’t really feel like having my going away roommate celebrations with them anymore.

        (Oh, and for a disclaimer: I’ve been living in Edinburgh for the past year, but I’m from Australia so I can’t just pop home and stay with family for Christmas. That’s why I was coming back to Edinburgh for Christmas instead of staying travelling with friends, so that I could see them/have a faux-family Christmas, and now I’ve booked all my flights so I can’t get out of it)

        The worst thing is they don’t seem to think there’s any reason why I might be angry/feel put out at all. Any helpful hints of keeping my passive aggression under control would be very appreciated! (and sorry for the mammoth vent)

  • zoe_whip

    Is it me or has New Girl been sucking lately?

    • Amelia Diamond

      I agree.

    • Mattie Kahn

      I hate to agree, but I’m afraid I must. I just want to play another round of True American. Is that so much to ask?

  • Allison

    1. OMG have you seen this video? Joss Whedon, writer of shows like Buffy and the Avengers gives the best speech EVER about getting asked over and over again why he writes strong women. http://www.upworthy.com/48-reporters-asked-this-guy-the-same-dumb-question-about-women-his-response-absolutely-perfect
    So I realize it is many years old, but still hugely relevant and inspiring.

    2. I hate that women are held to a higher standard, everywhere. Anytime a woman speaks out about gender inequality or tells her story of success, we seem to be more eager to point out her flaws, or what her story is missing, than to celebrate her addition to the conversation. The criticism that Sheryl Sandberg faced after publishing ‘Lean In’ speaks to this. So it is sad to me that even in television female characters are supposed to be perfect role models because really there is no perfect role model. Trying to establish the perfect woman can only end in failure: we don’t all share the same aspirations of what kind of woman we want to be! (Unless she is Audrey Hepburn, which sadly none of us will ever be. AND if Audrey Hepburn were alive today, she would probably have haters too. No, I can’t imagine what anyone could possibly hate about her, but she would probably discover healthy food, deem it worthy of a cookbook, and find herself instantly loathed worldwide.)

    3. One thing I worry about is making female characters too flawed. Or expecting real women who are successful to be sorry for it somehow. It’s like, if a woman is powerful, intelligent, sexy and also perhaps a good cook, or if a woman has found balance in her life and is living well, she has to somehow apologize to other women for having something that the rest of us struggle with. A woman is only liked if she can eagerly show you all of her flaws, like if she trips on her ball gown after winning an oscar. God knows if she walks up there with poise and grace and her speech is 100% grammatically correct, we will do everything we can to tear her down. (Hathahate, anyone?) What is that about, ladies?!

    4. And to be honest, one-dimensional female tv characters probably aren’t all that engaging, and wouldn’t successfully entertain us. Look at Gloria on Modern Family – we love her because she is fabulous and opinionated and very real (you know, for a character). So I’m not sure the flatly and fabulously entertaining thing can really even go hand in hand, and I certainly don’t think it’s enough to carry a show. Tina Fey in 30Rock – her struggles are funny because they are real – there’s nothing flat about her! As for men needing to be educated by pop culture to know where women stand. I think we need to educate them ourselves!! Be strong! Be proud! If you be it, TV will come. (Maybe.)

    • Kelly

      Very cool video :)

      Unfortunately, many men will look at strong woman as an exception, not the norm. They will even start to define a strong woman as masculine. That’s why it is so apparently funny to the men that I work with when I do things that are traditionally feminine, like carrying purses and wearing skirts. We need cultural symbols that demonstrate femininity and success can coexist, and that strength is not an inherently masculine trait. It’s unfortunate that reporters still ask Joss Whedon that question, and I am so grateful for his answer.

      Not all men think like this, of course. My husband is a true feminist :) It’s just more men than we would like to think.

  • Amelia Diamond

    I don’t think characters should be written for the sake of being role models, and I like when they are flawed. Dr Mindy is my favorite female character on television right now (in case you care my favorite men are New Girl’s Schmidt, and Friday Night Light’s Coach Taylor for a little #TBT action).

    Dr Mindy is probably an annoying person to know in real life, but I find myself endeared to her because she’s so fucking real and funny and unapologetic. I love that she can be a doctor, and also completely unaware of larger world views. Is someone who doesn’t know where Haiti is a good role model? No! But does she make for funny tv? Yes.

    But Mindy Kaling the writer etc of her own show — now she’s a role model.

    Also, what an interesting point Meriwether made:

    “We have a tendency to see female characters as representative of something larger than what they are, when male characters are just characters.”

    Why is that, do you think?

    • Mattie Kahn

      The way Meriwether puts it (and I’m inclined to agree), the ability to be *just* entertaining is a privilege. It’s like: a woman writing for TV has to be making some colossal STATEMENT, whereas a man writing for TV or a male character isn’t held to that same standard at all.

      But what’s complicated about Meriwether’s desire to be freed from the unfair responsibility that she describes is the fact that the sitcoms prominently featuring female characters right now (a la New Girl, The Mindy Project, even Shosh on Girls) tend to be more concerned with accurately depicting at least some kind of reality than sitcoms starring men do.

      Is that perhaps reflective of a difference in what men and women find funny? Or: at least reflective of a difference in what makes a male or female character seem funny?

      Basically: Does a character’s plausibility matter more to women than it does to men? If it did, then it would make sense that we accept, say, the fact that New Girl’s Winston is basically a caricature of a functioning human being, while we demand that Jess be “a real person.”

      • http://marciayl.tumblr.com/ Marcia Lee

        I think we are particularly sensitive to the role of women, or rather any minority figure (religious, gender, racial) because of the history of underrepresentation and the new ground that these characters are breaking. marvel just launched a new superhero who is a muslim girl from jersey city – i’m sure this character will be heavily scrutinized by fans to be a positive reflection of themselves because she will be the first of her kind unintentionally depicting them, whereas another male, caucasian character can be as eccentric as necessary because there are so many other portrayals of caucasian males in media to counter these eccentricities.

        so yes, i think we are on the verge now where there are enough female characters in media/entertainment that we can begin to enjoy them for who they are, but it will be a hard lens to shake of trying to make them somehow more plausibly and positively representative of women.

  • http://www.fancyalterego.wordpress.com/ Heather P.

    I’m glad we’re finally in a place where people, in general, don’t give a shit that Tina Fey is a woman, writing a show that’s probably geared at…oh yeah…EVERYONE.

    My husband is a far bigger fan of New Girl than I am, not because he has a “thing” for Zooey Deschanel (he doesn’t as far as I know), but because he thinks it’s a GOOD SHOW. For once, we’re getting to the point that even men are getting over the idea that a female lead in a show is something to treat with suspicion. He can watch a show starring a woman based on something other than whether or not he’d bang her if given the chance…and not be made to feel bad about it.

    I can’t wait to see what Tina Fey does next. Not because she’s a woman, or has any obligation to womanhood…but because she’s a damn fine writer. :-)

  • http://www.thehousealwayswinsblog.com/ Rachel Wilkerson

    I’m a huge Mindy Kaling fan but I haven’t been loving her character lately and I can’t put my finger on why. That said, I still love the show and Peter is my FAVORITE. (Though Morgan is a close second.) I love how he speaks entirely in frat bro cliches and somehow I still find him attractive.

  • Leandra Medine

    TINA OR BUST is all I’ve got.

  • shadeofredblog.com

    I guess we are just drawn to the dysfunctional?

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