Thursday, March 28, 2013

So much for women's lib...

by Michelle Gagnon

While watching the season finale of GIRLS, there was a moment at the end where I was seriously tempted to hurl something at the television. Because after all the advances women have made over the past fifty years, apparently for the younger generation of women showcased by the show, we're pretty much back where we started.

This episode concluded with a nod the classic, "An Officer and a Gentleman" scene where Richard Gere sweeps Debra Winger off her feet, literally. Now, I loved that movie--still do--but the underlying message at the end was that the only way for poor Paula to advance in life was to marry well. I'd hope that nearly thirty years later, we were past such tired tropes. But according to Lena Dunham, they hold true. Not only does her character get "saved" by a man (ironically, the same one that earlier in the season terrorized her), but her fellow castmembers all fall in line accordingly. One starts dating her ex-boyfriend again because he's suddenly struck it rich. Another dumps her boyfriend for not being ambitious enough (as underlined in a scene where his boss explains that, "she wants you to make enough money to be able to keep buying her purses shaped like bread products.") Even the "hippie" character Jessa takes a payout from the wealthy investment banker she was married to for a heartbeat.

Really? Is this what we're selling to girls in their twenties? I understand that GIRLS is a fictionalized version of reality, but if this throwback mentality is being showcased ironically, it's far from apparent. And over the course of the season, this "girls can't do it" attitude has been emphasized time and again. Hannah finally scores a book deal, but suffers a breakdown over the stress and is unable to write it. Marnie is laid off, becomes a hostess (and paramour to an older artist), and decides to become a singer; but we only see her pursue that dream via an ill-advised attempt to humiliate her ex at his office. And Jessa simply takes off.

I'd like to think that this is not emblematic of a wider issue with the upcoming generation of women, but a recent conversation with a friend was very disheartening. She told me that her recently-divorced brother (a man in his forties) now only dates girls in their twenties; thirty is his cut-off point, because after that age they're focused on marriage. Plus, he's discovered that girls in their twenties are extraordinarily eager to please. They have no problem with him calling last minute because another date cancelled. They text suggestive photos after the first date. In addition to the age limit, he also stops seeing them after five dates--and he claims that most of them don't seem to expect anything more.

He's an awful jerk, of course, and probably has a keen eye for girls with low self-esteem. But listening to her, I couldn't help but think that the behavior she's describing is precisely what Dunham has been showing us over the past two seasons. Her characters are not strong young women, struggling to forge their way in the world through that challenging post-college phase. They're highly educated girls whose lives invariably revolve around men, and whose biggest aspirations appear to involve being supported by them.

Mind you, I'm not saying that finding a person to spend the rest of your life with isn't a lofty ambition. And I also strongly believe that deciding to stay home and raise children is just as valid a choice as pursuing a career in the workplace. But the fact that this is what we're seeing on television, at the same time that Sheryl Sandberg's eye opening book "Lean In" is making waves, is telling. Mary Tyler Moore it ain't.

I'd love to see a show aimed at this age group with strong female role models--and I'm hard pressed to name a single one. A show where the "girls" had some self-esteem, and respected their relationships with themselves and their friends as much as their romantic liasons. A show, basically, where it wasn't all about finding the right boys. In television, where shows created, written, and run by women are finally becoming more prevalent, is this really the best we can do?


 
 

26 comments:

  1. This subject hits my hot button. I've raised a girl, now 19, and have worked hard to express in her that she is in control of her life, that her virtue is a treasure worth defending, and that her values are not to be compromised for the "security" of a man in her life. She has been successful. But every movie or TV show directed at her is full of young women who view success as how many men they can sleep with and how much money they can get (not necessarily earn). Yes, it's a huge step backwards. Hollywoods message to young girls is to use their bodies to get what they want. It sickens me. And I can see the effect its having. I've watched most of my daughter's friends turn to the lifestyle they see on the screen. All they've done is sold themselves. This is progress?

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  2. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic--wait, that's not aimed for the 20's female crowd.

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  3. No offense but is this the venue for this discussion?
    I recognize this is not my site but as a follower I want to state anonymously(call me a coward) my preference for topics related to writing.
    Genuinely no offense intended.

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    1. While not a member of this site, the role of popular media is relevant in that writers are part of the production of popular media.

      It is true that this post is about television but every book, short story and web novel (cough cough) has to compete alongside movies and television for views and both are about messages.

      I hear where you're coming from but take a step back from the "it's about TV" and think about "It's about the culture that consumes our work" and I think the post fits in quite well.

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  5. I find this topic interesting (go ahead, accuse me of a brown nose), because it made me think of how I portray Mabel, my MC. She is strong, but I don't want her to come across as Rambo, either. She has a soft side, I want it to come through without making her compliant, or at least so compliant she's easy. I'll keep this post in mind whenever I write more about Mabel.

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  6. Actually, as it says in our mission statement above, this blog is and has always been a forum where we discuss topics that inspire, anger, amuse, and entertain us. Although I would argue that this post was about writing-albeit tv writing- and the responsibility writers have to readers and viewers in a larger social context.

    Ron, I have a daughter as well, which is probably why this has struck such a chord with me. What the entertainment industry is pitching to young women is appalling, lacks depth, and for me the greatest offense is that they point to Lena Dunham as an inspirational role model. It's fantastic that a female writer has her own show- I just wish it was a better one.

    Funny side note- at Comic con last summer, the panel in the room next to mine was , "My Little Pony, Friendship is Magic." A long line of people with unicorn horns glued to their foreheads and tails attached to spandex tights. And that room was probably twice as packed as our panel.

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    1. If you've ever watch an episode of MLP:FiM--especially the series opener in two parts--the horns and spandex aside, you'll find that it's a well-organized, positive, and very entertaining show. It's certainly better entertainment than a lot out there for the same age group: Bratz, Strawberry Shortcake, Horseland, etc. All of which either feature rude, snotty, and obnoxious characters as if those are acceptable role-models or have paper-thin plots trying to teach weak moral values. Is it any wonder why kids gravitate toward the more entertaining options? At least MLP:FiM is all three: positive, entertaining, and educational.

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    2. Note to self: Read down more before you respond to someone. (doh)

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  7. I watched the first episode of Girls and didn't go back. Mainly because everyone was so whiny, self-absorbed and unpleasant to spend an hour with. So I can't comment on the series as a whole but purely as a social observer. (Aside to anonymous: This post IS about writing because fiction writers are social observers and Girls purports to reflect today's young women.)


    I agree with others here who see a disturbing trend among young women. Is it because of general diminished expectations for the young? High college debt, no jobs, no clear path to success? Does this malaise spill into the personal expectations?

    I don't have kids but I have a young grandniece (20 years old) and as lovely as she is, I see this low self-esteem thread in her thinking, especially toward her boyfriend. She works hard at her low-paying job, goes to college part time, comes home and cleans and cooks and picks up after him. (Alas, she writes about this on Facebook). There's this weird schizoid love-hate thing going on in her head.

    I don't get it. I just don't get it.

    As for the writing angle: I don't read YA or late YA (this new sub-genre geared for 17-20 women). Is it surfacing there?

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    1. I think you're right. The popularity of toys and shows targeted at young and very young girls like Bratz is a distressing sign. And I have two girls aged 3 and 4 that will be growing up over the next several years. Distressing indeed.

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  8. PJ- I almost postulated that part of the problem might be that this is the generation that was weaned on Bella of the Twilight series, a damsel in distress if ever there was one who is self-destructive and constantly in need of rescue by big, strong men. But current YA is full of strong, capable heroines: Katniss chief among them. So perhaps that will filter down to the upcoming generation?

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  9. Mass media simply hasn't caught up to reality, it seems. In education, we're dealing with the increasing gender disparity: girls are about twice as likely to be in advanced classes, and boys are twice as likely to be in remedial classes. This is nationwide, and colleges are beginning to have trouble finding the right proportions of qualified male applicants.

    I wonder if we're on the edge of a huge cultural shift. As Michelle points out, YA lit has been leading the way with capable female protagonists. I wonder how long it will be until Hollywood catches up.

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    1. Good point about the gender disparity in education.

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  10. I posit that this is part of a larger cultural trend that began with the onset of the economic disaster of 2008. In this economy, money (representing stability and provision) is being prioritized over individuality. After a decade of greed on wall street, that mentality and another counter-mentality reacting to it have now infected the greater population. To our detriment.

    It's probably more like the 1930s than we realize.

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  11. Great topic, Michelle. My daughter is a freshman in college and she had to write an essay paper on an article discussing the female characters portrayed by Disney throughout the past 50 years or so.

    I was surprised when my daughter agreed with the author of the article, who basically slammed Disney for its portrayal of heroines and the fact they are not able to complete missions without being saved by men. When I read my daughter's take on it, I was astounded she'd seen through the smoke and mirrors here.

    Her comment to me? "Mom, the media lies to us. They make us promises about men, and we're disappointed when we grow up and discover things aren't that way at all."

    She has a standard when it comes to dating. She tells any guy that wants to go out with her, "You have to meet my dad first. If you can't do that much, you won't survive in my family, so what's the point? :D

    Kids are smart. Unfortunately, the media is run by capitalists who feel no moral obligation to the future of our society. They are writing to an audience of viewers who are addicts to drama and the next, big train wreck, which has to be bigger and messier than the last one.

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  12. My 23 year old single daughter asked me last night if I had heard of some new test for books to determine whether they portray gender equality. I don't recall the name of the test.

    It goes like this: If two female characters talk 1:1 in a book, do they talk about something other than boys/men/their love lives? According to my daughter, 58% of all books on the market fail this test. The message seems to be that male characters are out doing important things with their cohorts while female characters are obsessing about their relationships with their cohorts.

    My daughter (who grew up watching Zena, Warrior Princess and listening to me preach about female economic independence as a prereq to building a successful relationship), was incensed by this statistic. I was thrilled to see her outrage. Gives me hope for the future. On a side note, she's always been a huge fan of the Bones TV series, but this year she isn't watching much. When I asked why, she said the female lead was constantly crying and falling apart. She wanted the strong, analytical heroine back.

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    1. That is an awesome test. Of course I need to track down the specifics because I'm not sure if two women talking about a boy who wants to murder them counts as "talking about boys" or "twarting a murder".

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    2. The Bechdel test has been around for well over ten years and was devised for films. It stipulates that a film must:
      1. Contain at least two NAMED female characters;
      2. Who have a conversation together with no men present;
      3. About something other than a man.

      Needless to say, very few films pass the test. I've never heard of it applied to books before and most books I read would probably pass it anyway. But then, I don't read books written by men if I can help it, unless they come highly recommended.

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    3. For what it's worth, I know of more than a few men who publish under women's names because of just that. Usually it applies to the Romance genre though.

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  13. I think one of the problems we've got with the entertainment industry is that it goes to extremes, black & white. Women are either classed as faithful, feminine Mrs. Haskel wives, or as stay at home sluts; as smart nerd girls or as hot chicks with black horn rimmed glasses and cleavage; hardcore self-motivated business over-achievers or girls who bed their way to the top. There seldom seems to be a realistic model for girls to strive for.

    While I don't have blood-born daughters I do have more than a score of God-Daughters and that many again young sisters who I have raised in the church. I do believe that marriage between man and wife is the the pinnacle of relationships (that relationship has an incredibly deep meaning as I understand it from a life of studying the Bible, and definitely not the stereotype Hollywood likes to stamp on religious folks. here is what King Solomon had to say about wives) I also believe that women should be both strong and wise. I've spent the past 24 years teaching girls to be virtuous, strong women and not to fall for the concepts that all they are is a)chattle for men to own or for their hearts to be walked over or b)hateful, spiteful feminazis who want only to control men.

    My philosophy can be seen in the female characters I have written in my own books. Feminine women who are not push-overs or loose girls.

    Esther - Iranian Christian victim of abuse and rape who becomes a key figure in an underground spy ring (KARL'S LAST FLIGHT)

    Lonnie - black belt Alaska State Trooper who doesn't take well to the notion of being a quiet, submissive lady. (65 BELOW)

    Hildegard - probably the most feminine of my ladies she definitely wants a classic, traditional white knight to sweep her off her feet (she's a romance writer on the side) but until the perfect man comes along she's enjoying her job as an FBI technical officer. (FAITHFUL WARRIOR)

    Galang - bad girl...she's the chief of a gang of Indonesian pirates and is definitely not nice, but she still has feelings ... of course if the guy doesn't do it her way she's also got a sharp machette and skill at single swing beheadings. (BLADE OF HEARTS)

    All of these women are tough, resourceful and strong while still being women. without making them men.

    As writers I think we have to understand that regardless of our wish to do so our writing teaches and trains those who read it to some degree, especially if we have younger readers.

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  14. It's good to hear that young women are casting a critical eye at what the media is attempting to spoon feed them. My daughter is still young, but we spend a lot of time discussing the shows pitched at her age group, which are rampant with scantily clad fairies and teenage girls who obsess over boys (thanks, Disney channel, for continuing to perpetuate stereotypes). What I find most disheartening is the number of awards GIRLS has raked in. If a show epitomized racial stereotypes so flagrantly, I believe that it would be receiving a scathing reception- but somehow this is okay?

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  15. This topic is ENTIRELY pertinent to the choices authors make in developing characters. We funnel the creative process thru the meat grinder of our world view & perhaps become a reflection of our times. Those who also write YA may think about "themes" too.

    I've been recording this show, mostly for banter dialogue reasons, but I agree that there are scary messages in this show. Girls having sex with guys who should scare them or who putting themselves in dangerous situations (for the sake of TV entertainment) is alarming. Couple this trend with reality TV that has nothing to with reality and it sends a bad message & encourages low self-esteem. Good topic, Michelle.

    I was hoping for more from this show. You'd think they would occasionally hit a highpoint, but they never seem to.

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  16. This is exactly why I cannot watch this show - I tried but I just couldn't stand it. Very depressing...I worry that here I am trying to instill in my boys a healthy respect for women's rights, abilities and choices while in the meantime the media seems to 'sell' them on the exact opposite:(

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  17. I watch shows with strong female leads like Nikita, Continuum, or Castle. These have intelligent heroines who choose a lifestyle other than marriage/family/kids/domesticity. So other role models are out there.

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  18. Michelle,
    I know we have moved on but there's an excellent op ed in today's NYT from David Brooks about today's young women.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/29/opinion/brooks-the-empirical-kids.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

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