by: Caitlyn Durkin
Ever since I read it a year ago, I haven’t been able to forget the message in a film theory article voicing the idea that women in our culture are portrayed having an eternal struggle, forced to choose between love and having a career. This article, “Postfeminism and Popular Culture,” honestly made me wonder if this was the future I was headed toward as a woman pursuing a career in film. These words infiltrate my experience as a viewer and focus my retinas a little tighter when I’m watching movies that are made by female directors, wondering whether these theories hold true, wondering what these women went through to get their views to show up on screen. I read about women in television or major motion pictures having to “cleverly” rewrite lines that continue to portray female characters in a very traditional light, without actually saying the things that they want to say. It reminds me of watching The Celluloid Closet, where directors had to sneak in homosexual innuendo to say what they wanted to say without being overt. Never before have I been so pleased with a medium’s ability to resonate what I feel is the most modern voice as current television shows such as Mad Men and 30 Rock. These shows are television I can appreciate; not necessarily because they evoke overt girl- power messages, but because they explicitly reject stereotypes, implicitly provide social commentary, or simply make fun of these older social norms.
The article mentioned above is by Suzanna Dana Walters. It discusses how unhappy and unsatisfied women who have “gone too far” with their attempts at achieving the American Dream once were, believing that they could “have it all” with as in the early 90s television show, The Trials of Rosie O’Neill. These shows were stating that women become “like men” and take on “double duty” at home and at work. The article moves to the way the set of problems in 1994 when shows like Rosie O’Neill were aired, where women were punished for “wanting it all,” caught in the midst of the Superwoman syndrome (pressure to perform well in multiple roles) and Cinderella complex (women’s fear of independence and unconscious desire to be taken care of). These women were denying traditional values of stay-at-home moms before them, and as such were vagabonds, a “lost soul, an ambitious career woman who has lost touch with her femaleness—motherhood” (121).
I found myself on film sets this summer where older women were telling me, “hang out with your boyfriend instead of being on set with your dream director, because if you put work before your loved ones you’ll end up all alone like me.” I heard this more than once in different ways, such as the time I was told I should rethink my dreams of being a producer because having “chosen” my boyfriend that fulfilling the advice of having a life outside of being an overworked, unpaid production assistant, that I should really rethink my future. I felt like I had done something terribly wrong and still in some ways do, though I’m not sure what the “right” thing would have been. While I understood both points, as you shouldn’t put yourself before all of your loved ones or you’ll end up with nothing in this industry (or in life in general), and if I can’t work those long, unpredictable hours then I should rethink a 9-5 career, I wonder how much of what these women were saying was fueled by repeated identity politics that tell them what their “real” role should be. They were forced to choose, and someday I would have to as well. I began to think about how I should start prioritizing similarly. I felt discouraged seeing these continued portrayals of women who aren’t fulfilled by the business world, that somehow it wasn’t destined for us the same way it was for a guy, and that because we want to be moms one day that we suddenly can do nothing else if we become one. I don’t think we stop to think enough that this whole internal struggle we are supposed to feel may not be as prominent in our opposite-gendered counterparts’ lives, so why should we be expected to have it? Don’t happy characters in movies often become happy because they live a balanced life where they have achieved their goals and had someone to share it with?
Walters talks about a piece on an NBC Nightly News show in the 90s about the problems of a “working woman,” and how women were working through this dilemma. It never mentioned how this work/family dilemma was a problem for men, but presented it rather as a problem that women could now “work out with the paternalistic help of benign and benevolent corporate America” (123). She explains the theories that women went rampaging off to work only to find that they were skimping out on family, or that women went off to work and realized it wasn’t that great after all (123). The article points to shows that have seemed liberal and instead portrayed “good” women as stay- at-home moms and the career women were desperate for a man, lonely, bitter. Women often wrestled with the work/family dilemmas in shows like Thirty Something (134). She feels that women’s shows of the 70s like Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, and Maude were starting to morph feminism to a new level, which she claims was the “golden age” for feminist televisionl, but in the 80s the era of disappearing mothers began. “Although most single parents are women, if one only watched television one would think that lots of men are bravely raising their kids alone” (135). While still presenting their own sets of problems, the medium came a long way since the days of I Love Lucy, who were homebound women struggling to escape, always being put back into their place by the Ricky Ricardos (139). Despite I Love Lucy’s writer, star, and studio head, Lucille Ball, these portrayals weren’t exactly progressive. While Walter’s article was written nearly 10 years ago, the messages still resonate with me.
Mad Men is written and directed by women (7/9 writers, 5/13 episodes directed in the third season), and the outset of this show defines the premise. As the head of Menken’s Department store steps into the boys world that is Sterling Cooper, Ms. Menken is ousted from the office on the grounds that she is a woman stepping outside of her “place” in the world by challenging the men to sell her company in the light she envisions. Don Draper goes as far as to ask this client why she isn’t married.
“Don’t you think getting married and having a family would make you happier than all the headaches that go along with fighting people like me?” he asks her.
“If I weren’t a woman I’d be allowed to ask you the same question. And if I weren’t a woman I wouldn’t have to choose between putting on an apron and the thrill of making my father’s store what I always thought it should be.” To this he asks if work is a thrill to her.
“That, and… I’ve never been in love,” she replies.
He goes on to define what “love” really is: “You mean a big lighting bolt to the heart where you can’t eat and you can’t work, and you just run off and get married and make babies. The reason you haven’t felt that is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell Nylons.”
While this show is set in the 1960s, this show is commentary on many modern themes, such as this one, where women are sold a concept of our feelings, forcing us to believe that this commodity is the role we should fulfill, because some internal switch is turned on and we know that this is where we belong. In fact, in an interview, writers for the show admit that this show is based on many issues that the writers face themselves. Beside being wildly entertaining, the show feels comforting to me that our stories are being told, implicit or not. Author of the Wall Street Journal article, “The Women of Mad Men,” Amy Chozick, writes, “the writers, led by the show’s creator Matthew Weiner, are drawing on their experiences and perspectives to create the show’s heady mix: a world where the men are in control and the women are more complex than they seem, or than the male characters realize.”
The show is mostly centered around Don Draper, but a main part of the series is its complicated female characters. “It’s less skewed than it appears,” says consulting producer Maria Jacquemetton, who is married to fellow writer Mr. Jacquemetton. At the time of the article, the show was nominated for 16 Emmys and had an overwhelming number of viewers. “A lot of people think women can only do women shows,” says Jennifer Getzinger, who started as script supervisor for the show and is now directing it. In many ways this is a show written by and about women, for men, which makes it all the more intriguing.
Tina Fey, Kay Cannon, and many other women help to make 30 Rock the success that it has been. Perhaps the writers of 30 Rock do what Lucy was doing in her day by poking fun at the discrepancies that women were feeling in their lives, intending to empower them. But Tina Fey feels empowering to me more so by basing the show on the company in which she works, rather than her battle between work and home life. When she breaks up with a guy, she doesn’t go into acting as a crazed work-a-holic, nor does she become depressed and useless without her pilot boyfriend. Instead she accepts her spinster-hood (as seen on the “It’s never too late for now” episode), which is eventually sucked out of her by co-workers that cheer her up. When she wants to feature a new feminist writer for the show, she ends up hiring a misogynist woman that talks baby talk and offers lap dances in the office. This satire of feminism challenges and embraces the claims that the show may not be feminist.
The show doesn’t just center on Liz Lemon’s faults, but pokes at all of the archetypes on the show, as the characters are all parodies of ridiculous people in the entertainment industry. Tracy Jordan’s character helps to serve as satire for racial relations. Tina Fey’s character, unlike other feminist characters in the past who had to be like men and reject “feminine” qualities in order to be considered “feminist,” embraces these “faults” and helps make this show funny by not falling into Walter’s categories, however traditional these qualities may seem. This show does not uphold the issues that Walters’ essay voices. Instead it jokes about how irrelevant some of these “issues” should now be for women as these gendered flaws are satire. All of the characters on the show mock their sitcom predecessors, men and women alike. Alec Baldwin’s character (who is extremely conservative) is made out to be gay by two gay men for his Princeton football references. To me, the whole show is a refreshing take on the matter. The show is less concerned with political correctness, and more about breaking down continually reinforced images of people, re-contextualizing them instead of repeating them. This reduces the stigma associated with gender, race, and sexual politics and brings them to a place where women, men, and work are all more normalized than they have been in the past. It points to the fact that things have not progressed completely, without overtly saying it.
While portrayals of women in the workplace have changed over time, there is still reason to continue to be skeptical of the idea that we have moved into an “equal” cinema arena. According to the Directors Guild of America, the labor union that represents film and television directors, about 13% of its 8,000 directors are female. I’m not sure that this is a balanced scale. Nearly 80% of TV programs in the 2007 to 2008 prime-time season had no women writers, according to a study by Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. While there still is much ground to cover, I appreciate the shows that are making these changes successfully and portraying a world where we “can have it all,” despite the issues we continue to read and experience.