ICYMI: Farewell to TV’s Most Powerful Single Ladies

This February I wrote an essay for Christianity Today reflecting on the connections and–as one imagine–disconnects between how the late Mary Tyler Moore and Girls’ Lena Dunham represented single women on TV.  Both were revolutionaries, but I argue that the elder path-breaker, despite being the embodiment of “Minnesota Nice” was probably more effective at moving culture in her direction.

Here’s a teaser.  Click at the bottom to read the rest at CT.


Female television fans are saying some hard goodbyes this month. Two weeks ago television icon Mary Tyler Moore passed away at age 80. This Sunday, Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls will debut the first episode of its final season.

Separated as they were by years and their approaches to, well, just about everything, it is easier to imagine these two actresses as poles on a spectrum from “purposefully disturbing” to “calculatingly genial” rather than as co-laborers for a common cause. And yet it’s hard to name any two women who have influenced the way television portrays single women more than Dunham and Moore.

As creator, writer, and star of Girls, Dunham has represented the unique challenges of millennial women—from reconciling high hopes in a crappy economy to understanding one’s relationship status in a hook-up culture.

Over the life of the show, Dunham has exploited HBO’s reliance on nudity for her own ends and in so doing served up a feminist critique of unrealistic images of women’s bodies. In a recent interview, Dunham recalled how her insistence on frequent nudity almost spoiled her effort to recruit series regular Allison Williams: “She said, ‘I don’t want to do nudity.’ I was like, ‘We have to get back to you. I’m gonna be naked, people are gonna be naked—that’s a big part of what this show is.’” The sexually explicit encounters on the show, however, strike me more as gritty renderings of broken dating culture than the refreshingly realistic explorations of sexuality that Dunham no doubt intended.

For all Dunham’s boundary-pushing on pay cable, it is unlikely that her show’s confrontational aesthetic will become the norm. Girls attempts to move culture like a tug boat pulls along a ship. The vanguard series has won tons of praise from the cultural elite but can only claim between less than one million and five million viewers an episode. Girls has influenced the influencers, but its niche popularity suggests that it’s no barometer for whether Americans are ready to recalibrate gender norms.

Mary Tyler Moore, on the other hand, seems to have been more deft at knowing how to nudge the machinery of culture-making in a women-centered direction. Her cheerful ’70s sitcom is widely acknowledged as a crucial pivot in our culture’s acceptance of both single and working women. From 1970–1977, The Mary Tyler Moore Show won 29 Emmys and was consistently rated in the top 20, if not the top 10 programs on television.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970 with a simple but totally novel premise: It featured a single, working woman as its main character. Mary Richards is a 30-year-old journalist who moves to Minneapolis for her career. She doesn’t live with or near any of her family, nor is she hoping to find a husband and start a family of her own. Instead she forms deep, supportive relationships with other women and her work colleagues. The show de-centers men or motherhood as the central sources of identity, conflict, or comedy for Moore’s character. In fact, Richards does not date much at all—a decision (by the writers) that closed down any need to comment on the ongoing sexual revolution.

By generally ignoring its main character’s love life, Mary Tyler Moore’s series produced seven years of episodes that all pass the Bechdel test (which requires that a story have two female characters who speak to each other about something other than men).  Read the rest.

 

The Crown: Balancing Family and Calling Is a Royal Pain

The Netflix series focuses on the pressure around the monarch’s marriage.
I recall sitting with my mother in my childhood living room and watching Diana Spencer—about to be Princess Diana—walk slowly down the aisle toward the altar and her prince. The year was 1981, and despite my tender age, the princess fantasy did not take hold. Nor did I become a “royals watcher”… at least not until Netflix released its Queen Elizabeth II bio series, The Crown, earlier this month.

Why the change of heart? Maybe it was the promise of seeing Elizabeth, now the longest-reigning monarch in British history, as a young woman. Maybe it was the heady feminist air as the series debuted, just days before the US—it seemed—might elect its first female president. For others, maybe a love for British period dramas is enough to pull them in.

Since I’ve been aware of the royal family, of course, but not particularly interested before, the effect of the series has been something like moving a piece of furniture in your grandparents’ house only to find that behind that bookcase, the wallpaper you’d taken for granted your whole upbringing had at one time been far more bold and colorful than you’d ever realized. It’s enough to make you question the assumptions you’ve made about what sort of stories the walls would tell if they could talk.

The Crown attempts to tell those almost forgotten bits of the queen’s life that transpired before she ascended the throne and took on a relentlessly public life for the next 64 years. It begins with her marriage to Prince Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1947 and is chiefly concerned with Elizabeth’s life during her 20s, including her coronation at a mere 25 years old and finding her footing with Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The Crown brings into focus how much the story of Elizabeth’s transition into leadership is also the story of refining her marriage. Much like the images of gold being poured out and cast into a new shape that accompany the opening credits, the union of Elizabeth and Philip is remade in dramatic fashion. […]

Read the rest online 

originally published at ChristianityToday.com December 2, 2016.

Westworld Stages a Consciousness Raising

HBO’s new hit show riffs on one of Second Wave feminism’s signature tactics

At the start of the pilot it was Dolores.  At the start of this weekend’s episode, Maeve.

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Images from Westworld via The Week

These shots of two of Westworld’s central characters waking up help visually underscore the narrative parallels of these two characters. As stereotypes of women they represent the Westworld poles of the madonna/whore dichotomy. Both are attractive to a number of the park’s visitors, though one for her romantic innocence as much as the other for her worldly knowing.

The similar shots of waking also provide us reminders that Westworld is a story in no small part about androids waking up to their circumstances as objects designed for entertainment that are also frequently objects of desire, sex, and violence.

The theme of awakening to the true structure of their reality is also echoed in the script followed by employees performing diagnostic interviews with “hosts” in the corporate laboratory.  In this set-piece, the host in question (often Dolores) answers the question, “Do you know where you are?” with, “Yes, I am in a dream.”

Thus the movement between the real world as dream and the “awake” world of the Westworld theme park takes on irony and existential weight for main characters Dolores and Maeve.

Viewers can expect that as these women awaken to their circumstances, something in the narrative world will change.

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And that expectation feels like a pop cultural legacy of Second Wave feminism to me.   Continue reading Westworld Stages a Consciousness Raising