Friday, October 12, 2012

Chapter XII: Wherein TV and False Feminism Collide

I'm so ashamed.  I just wasted an hour of my life watching these:


And you know what?  I'm done.  This is it.  This is the final breaking point.  Get ready world, because the rant that has been stewing for over a year has reached a boiling point and is about to explode all over the shiny white stove top of your mind.

Let's discuss New Girl for a moment.  I'll admit, a year ago I was looking forward to this show.  I watched that first episode and laughed my face off.  And then I kept watching, but something was amiss.  It fell further and further in my esteem, and halfway through the first season I was already admitting to watching it with shame, trying to downplay the fact that I would pull it up on Hulu and spend those twenty minutes wondering what I was doing.  Here are my main two issues:

#1: Schmidt.

Yeah.  That's right.  Start with the torches, but I'm sticking to my guns.  While I'm happy that Max Greenfield has found a successful role (go Leo!), Schmidt irks me.  As a character, I find him overwhelmingly shallow, narcissistic, and distracting.  "But that's who he is!  That's the point of him!" you naysayers might yell at me.  Alright, fine.  I'll give you that.  That could be his character, and while it is a lazy character it is an existing one that performs a certain purpose in the structure of the show, so OK.  Take that one.

But here's my main issue--Schmidt is the fan favorite.  Schmidt is apparently the star of New Girl, sparking press galore and even landing an entire book.  I've even heard some of my male friends express a desire to be just like him, and that's what gets my rile up.  Why?  Why would anyone exalt and emulate a man who has a douche jar, bases his values in expensive clothing and accessories, and who builds up a personality in persona rather than substance?  I understand the (slight) humor in that character, but when it goes into admiration it goes too far.  Men, you can do better than that.  You can be strong, substantial, interesting.  Schmidt behaves badly and his badness is acknowledged, but then he is inevitably rewarded for it.  This system denies him any sort of growth, and who can blame him?  If his behavior prompts the pretty girl to sleep with him, his roommates to validate him, etc., there is no reason for him to progress and change as a person.  And as someone who believes that life is about constant improvement, constant betterment, that's more than frustrating, that's offensive.  Talking about offensive,

#2:  Zooey Deschanel and her views of femininity.

I used to like Zooey.  Back when she did the wry, slightly sarcastic, slightly (very slightly) "quirky" characters, I thought she was interesting, and a new voice on the scene.  But when New Girl came out, she embraced the cuteness and made that the whole of her identity.  Which is good and dandy, but when she starts trumpeting herself as the new brand of feminism (as done through her website, articles, and episodes of her show), that's where I take umbrage.

Let's quickly dissect that aforementioned episode of New Girl to get at my point.  In 1.11--"Jess and Julia"--Zooey's character faces an obstacle in the form of the awesome Lizzy Caplan, who plays the girlfriend of Deschanel's roommate.  Caplan is a successful lawyer who wears tailored suits, works hard at her job, and is less comfortable with her emotions.  All of which, naturally, means she is lying to herself and betraying her gender.  The main conflict involves Deschanel and Caplan fighting over their ideals of womanhood, with Caplan as the big, mean woman who is too tough and trying too hard to be like a man, and Deschanel as the adorable one who is true to her femininity through baking, gossip, crying and frilly dresses.  This all ends in a huge yelling match where Deschanel gets Caplan to cry and talk about her feelings and admit that she is just faking it to be more successful, and then they have a happy knitting party.  You know, to signal that all is well in the female realm.

This bothers me.  Why are the only options the career wench and the little girl?  Why must women choose between emulating men and emulating infants?  Not even infants, but some hyper-sexualized version of every feminine stereotype there is?  There is something fundamentally wrong with that scenario.  But don't worry, Mindy Kaling will fix it.  Or will she?

Mindy Kaling and The Mindy Project: Indulging the Myth

First things first:  I think Mindy Kaling is a BAMF.  Is she the gossip-fueled, slightly silly, clothes-whoring sparkly-obsessed stereotype?  Yes.  But she freely owns up to it.  AND she has goals and works ridiculously hard to achieve them, and I can't possibly begrudge her that because that's rad.  And yet.  Somehow, her show fell so flat so fast that I can barely contain my shaking rage at what's going on over there.  NPR has an excellent, slightly more positive view on the show than I do, but they hit on a good point: the main character is unlikeable.  And I don't see that changing anytime soon.

As it stands, the character of Mindy is a shrill, overly critical woman who expects life to be a fairytale.  She expects her men to be handsome, financially secure, mentally sound, and to put up with her shallow beliefs and emotional tantrums over the slightest of obstacles, whether it's job difficulty or the wrong frozen yogurt flavor.  Which is such a non-issue, considering that yogurt places LET YOU TEST FLAVORS, that I could hardly believe that made it through the writers room, let alone became a minute and a half bit on the show.

So yes, as a character Mindy has some serious tweaking to be done.  But I think the main fault is that fairytale dream of the show, or the belief that a character who pictures life as a romantic comedy will get what she wants.  Or deserves to get what she wants.  Part of this frustration lies at the source.  Romantic comedies are a terrible model for love.  They teach that true love is instantaneous, that people are meant to be, and that happy ever after is an easy and painless possibility.  They preach that love can fall on your doorstep without any effort on the part of the receiver.  That Mr. Right will find you and stay with you, no matter if you are a whiny, entitled princess who does nothing to improve herself.  In fact, the more you stick to your childish emotions and beliefs, the more deserving you are of love because you are somehow more pure and unjaded than the rest of the world.

How is this tolerated?  Love does not work that way, and the audience should not be expected to root for a protagonist who operates under these assumptions.  And yet, in both existing episodes of The Mindy Project, Mindy acts like a spoiled brat and expects cheers from the viewer.  Look how brave she is to be uncompromising in her expectations!  Look how wonderful she is for yelling at her co-workers!  How amazing it is that she can so seamlessly fake the girl her date is looking for!  It's remarkable.

Here's what truly disturbing about these shows--they are being lauded for their bravery.  Both of the showrunners are women, and the media is abuzz about how these two shows (and HBO's Girls) are paving the way for feminism, casting new light and new possibility on women as a whole.

Quite frankly, if those shows are the model of how a woman is supposed to behave, I'm ashamed of my gender.

I'm ashamed at us for not expecting more.  For not demanding more.  According to these shows, if you are not actively working towards marriage, changing yourself for the opposite sex to make yourself more appealing, and unapologetically indulging in your girlishness without having to face any consequences for emotional outbursts or childish dreams, then you are doing it wrong.  Which is selling us short as a gender.  Feminism is not about sexualization, it's about making yourself better.  It's about the opportunity to rise to whatever is possible for you.  So kudos to Mindy Kaling, Elizabeth Meriwether, et al for being successful showrunners, but don't drop the ball now that you are there.

Women do not have to adhere to the two extremes of the overly masculine career woman and the soft little girl in pigtails.  There's an entire rich spectrum of possibility out there.  When I think of women who successfully lived up to their potential, I think of women who oozed confidence, who carried themselves with a self-assured charm.  They range from the pretty femininity of Audrey Hepburn, the strong sensuality of Lauren Bacall, and the roguish self-reliance of Katharine Hepburn.  They were not all the same cookie-cutter type of woman, but they are all connected in their level of comfort with who they were.

And that is what we need to be idealizing, ladies.  We need to stop being OK with being talked down to, with having our roles minimalized and placed in neat little boxes.  We need to stop conforming to these ideas and expectations.  Our sense of worth is not defined by how men see us.  We don't need to be sex objects or placed on the pedestal of innocence and purity.  The fight is about equality, which is essentially freedom.  Freedom to be accepting of our bodies and our personal ideals.  Freedom to be accepted for whatever personality we have.  Freedom to work if we choose, to love if we choose, and to live how we choose, according to our own standards.  So if Zooey truly loves cupcakes, awesome.  But don't call me less of a woman if I don't.  Don't tell me that my relationship is faulty because I didn't know Taylor was the one from the first moment I saw him.  And on the flip side, don't tell me that I'm selling myself short by being married, by not working more or pushing myself towards different careers.  Let me be confident in my own abilities, and I'll do the same for you.  But dear women, make sure your goals and dreams are yours, and not dictated by books or movies or TV shows.


Allison said...

Your post initiated an interesting discussion between my husband and I about what it means to be "feminine." I'm still not sure how I feel but it's an intriguing idea.

Great post, Cat!

Dana said...

Thank you for posting everything I feel. Love Mindy as a person, but that show is awful. How are we supposed to connect with who she is? Same with Jess from New Girl! I don't feel like either of these women show women in a positive light. They are both needy and obsessed with men, not to mention both of these shows are basically just about sex (can we be any less creative?). But PARKS AND REC!!! There's an awesome woman for ya, with the kick ass man candy to boot! But the best part? Leslie never changed herself for Ben, or felt like less of a BAMF without a man by her side. Love Leslie. I didn't mean for this to turn into a Lovin on Leslie post, but it did.

Love you Cat!!!!!

Symantha said...

Interesting. I stopped watching the New Girl, but I feel ya. I mean, I see the characters in both of those shows as unrealistic people put together in weird situations to make people laugh, and I never really thought of it beyond that. So it was strange to me to read that you have a friend who wants to be like Schmidt. Those people just aren't real to me. But I agree with Dana, I like Leslie. And the awkward Emily from Emily Owens MD.