God, PBS sucks. Here’s why.
PBS, though it wants you to believe that it’s above this sort of thing (which it tries to demonstrate, as I have noted elsewhere, by those promo spots wherein divers Attractive Sample Children of the World in colorful rompers leap across the screen in slow-motion), definitely shoulders its fair share of the global misogyny-load.
First, have you seen the latest feel-good PBS promo montage? Among the various images of joyous human triumph and closeups of frogs licking their own eyeballs is a clippet excerpted from a show in which Tina Fey is awarded the Mark Twain Prize for Humor.
As you know, Tina Fey approaches greatness in many respects, and comes as close to a feminist presence as is tolerable by network television. Here is one of the pithy, relevant bits she did during her acceptance speech:
And, you know, politics aside, the success of Sarah Palin and women like her is good for all women — except, of course — those who will end up, you know, like, paying for their own rape kit ‘n’ stuff, but for everybody else, it’s a win-win. Unless you’re a gay woman who wants to marry your partner of 20 years — whatever. But for most women, the success of conservative women is good for all of us. Unless you believe in evolution. You know – actually, I take it back. The whole thing’s a disaster. — [cite: HuffPo]
Her speech ran several minutes, but the clippet PBS selected for the montage depicts Fey, the closest thing we have to a TV feminist, ducking her head in an apparent curtsey. Non-ironically.
Really? Tina Fey is too threatening a personage to be represented on PBS with an unbowed head? Come on.
OK, that’s a small thing, a split second thing, but you know as well as I do how those split seconds add up to whole lifetimes.
The Palin bit, incidentally, got edited out of the final cut of the award show. Way to keep it real, PBS.
Meanwhile, a four-part series entitled “America in Primetime” uses clips from “groundbreaking” television shows to explicate the manner in which TV character archetypes supposedly reflect actual human experience. The result is a stone butch dudefest.
The series imparts this message: “TV is about dudes, it’s awesome, and it’s art” (“Primetime’s” secondary argument for the awesome artness of TV appears to be that, compared to 2-hour feature films, TV series are a lot longer. But I digress).
Each episode in this “Primetime” series takes as its subject one of four character archetypes: “The Independent Woman,” “The Man of the House,” “The Misfit.” I watched “The Crusader.” This episode, quoth the website, “delves into the increasingly grey area between right and wrong as television heroes confront internal demons while seeking their own forms of justice.”
“The Crusader” features interviews with actors and writers who keep insisting that TV “mirrors” the “human experience.” You will hardly be surprised when I reveal that, in order to be a crusading TV hero who mirrors the human experience, you have to be a white dude in the middle of a bunch of physical violence. Human experience, according to American television, is white dude experience. Examples of TV crusaders: House from “House,” Sipowicz from “NYPD Blue,” Hawkeye from “M*A*S*H”, Jack Bauer from “24.”
Of course, PBS, as I mentioned earlier, loves diversity, so the producers of “Primetime” throw in a couple of tokens. They can’t profile an Asian crusader because none exists (well, there’s Kwai Chang Caine from “Kung Fu,” but that guy was only half Chinese, and problematically David Carradine was entirely white). Undaunted, they’re lucky to be able to kill both black and gay birds with one stone via Omar from “The Wire,” the noble gayblack criminal gunslinger so beloved of edgy American audiences.
“Primetime” also includes a perfunctory chick hero. She is neither Xena nor Buffy nor Starbuck nor Sidney from “Alias” nor Max from “Dark Angel.” No, she’s Scully from “X-Files,” a choice that particularly reeks of tokenism.Sure, we love Scully, the gun-toting FBI scientist field agent with the blazing news-anchor helmet hair, but let’s face it: the only thing she crusades for is the status quo. Scully has no demons, seeks no personal brand of justice. She’s just the tame, unthreatening, adult voice of reason, who, as Gillian Anderson here laughingly notes, is always filmed physically walking several steps behind her dude partner. They never give her anything more interesting to do than foil and rebuke and be secretly in love with the vastly more compelling and demon-filled and crusadery Mulder. Naturally — because what else can you to do your female lead? — aliens abduct her and rip out her ovaries. Mulder, on the other hand, is off getting high with the Indians. And when Mulder leaves the series? Like all female leads on TV shows that have run out of steam, Scully is of course saddled with an unwieldy alien baby. She spends the entire final season whingeing “My baby! My baby!” Scully can only be considered a crusader if you define “crusader” as “baby-obsessed killjoy who plays second banana to the much more complicated dude who really is a crusader.”
Says “Primetime” interviewee Diablo Cody, woman creator of “The United States of Tara,” in an attempt to explain the dearth of TV chicks with complex interior struggles,
Not to get all women’s studies on you, but maybe the idea of a hero with a really straightforward goal is sort of particularly male.
Yeah, for the lovagod, Diablo, don’t get all women’s studies on us; the dudes for whom TV is written find that very unsexy.
UPDATE: I have since watched the “Misfit” and “Independent Woman” segments of “America in Primetime.” In the former, it’s all dudes again. Dudes, dudes, dudes. Nerdy or quirky dudes “who defied comic stereotypes and societal expectations to reflect America’s diverse personalities.” White dude personalities, that is. Dwight from “The Office,” Gomez from “The Addams Family,” Louie de Palma from “Taxi.” Etc. Again, there’s one token chick, Tara from “The United States of Tara,” a character who plays dissociative personality disorder for laffs.
Unsurprisingly, most of the (all white) women characters featured in the “Independent Woman” segment are more accurately described as either misfits or crusaders or both (Roseanne, Mary Richards, Murphy Brown, Nurse Jackie), but are lumped together in a special “strong woman” ghetto because they are Vagina-Americans.
The clips are entertaining, but I stand by my original assessment of the series’ uncritical acceptance of a certain level of misogyny in entertainment. “Independent Woman” has that brainwashed tone you always encounter whenever the discourse tries to argue that since the death of June Cleaver modern women are livin’ the life of Riley. The thesis: since women TV leads don’t have to be paragons of motherhood anymore, and in fact can even have drug habits and be clinically insane in addition to being heterosexual hotties who remain deeply concerned with their relationships, modern television is a reflection of women’s liberation from patriarchal oppression.
Such as when the affluent white gals on “Sex In the City” sit around chic Manhattan restaurants discussing blow jobs. Women on TV, says “America in Primetime,” can be anything imaginable. Except, it turns out, a crusader or a misfit.
In a patriarchy, convincing the sex class they’re not oppressed is the name of the game. Thanks, TV!
Incidentally, I didn’t bother watching the “Man of the House” segment because those doofus dad sitcoms make me want to rip my own head off.
Scully’s baby photo here.