The First Dates guide to first dates

First Dates is the best reality show I have ever seen. It is a simple, inexpensive idea- Channel 4 gets a real restaurant, fills it with single people on blind dates, films them during the dates, and interviews them afterwards. If someone’s date does not go their way they can come back for another, and the viewer can go online and apply to join them.

The way that the footage is edited and narrativised is clear and interesting. The editors presumably have two or three hours of different facial expressions to make reaction shots out of, and they do a beautiful job of telling stories. If they want to show that someone talks too much, they’ll cut shots of them telling a long anecdote in with shots of their date yawning or looking at their watch. If they want to show that someone has offended their date, the date is shown to get up and go to the toilet immediately – like, immediately – after the other person has spoken. You would be surprised how often this happens- it’s how I now know not to tell Holocaust jokes on a first date. If the date has a positive outcome, the daters are shown beaming a lot, and their breakthrough moments will be accompanied by adorable accordion music. I suspect that many of these stories do not correspond to the date itself at all, but nobody watches reality TV to see actual reality anyway, and if you want to see what an awkward first date really looks like you can just go to a nearby restaurant and stare rudely through the window.

I have been on two dates, and they were not like the dates in First Dates. I have learned that there is a whole world out there, and it has rules. It is my pleasure to share these rules with you.

1. It’s all about the future

Few people are on First Dates because they want to meet someone cool and see how it goes. Everyone’s terrified about the future. The pre-date interviews always express one or more of the following: my time is running out, all my friends are having babies, when will I have a baby, I keep going to weddings on my own, if I keep sleeping around no-one will ever marry me. There have been two pairs of people over 60 on dates on the show, who just say they’re just looking for companionship- that’s because the future (having a family) has already happened to them. From this perspective, First Dates is shot through with people’s panic, sadness and fear of failure, and documents a widespread unwillingness to imagine a life without normative models of family and happiness.

Poor Carl- women take one look at his hair and assume he's a player

Poor Carl- women take one look at his hair and assume he’s a player

For this reason, also, the conversations on these dates are super weird. If I had just met someone, I would not ask them where they see themselves in five years, how many people they’ve had sex with, or what they look for in a girlfriend. These are all common questions on First Dates. If you give the impression that you have had a lot of sex, it is over for you. These these conversations are more punishing to women, whose promiscuity is more stigmatised and who are expected to be younger when they find ‘The One’. I never thought I’d see a really sweet, personable and nice-looking young woman in her mid-twenties openly weeping in despair in an interview because some jerk who she doesn’t even like didn’t want a second date with her. 

2. People change in the bathroom

No, silly- not their clothes. Men on First Dates go to the bathroom, start chatting to another man and become monstrous woman-haters of the highest order. I think that fully half of the men who pass through the First Dates restaurant should not be around women, and should instead direct their barely disguised rape threats at themselves, in the mirror, and see how they like it. So First Dates is good for people who are already misandrists, and also people who are thinking of getting into misandry.

3. No rejection without friendship

The only way to reject someone it to suggest that you be friends. You can’t say you don’t want to see them ever again. You just can’t. Even if you clearly hate each other. If any of these friends have actually hung out outside of the First Dates restaurant, I will give £1 to each of the 7 people who read this review of First Dates.

Purdey seems like a really terrible person

Purdey seems like a really terrible person

4. The “friend zone”- what is it?

I’ve never heard the phrase “friend zone” used in real life, probably because of my entire lack of dates, but it is very commonly used on First Dates. It’s primarily used by men to make women feel guilty for not wanting to have sex with them. It makes it sound like friendship is bad. I think it is because these daters know- as I now know- that being friends with your date just means never seeing them again.

I know that the “friend zone” is supposed to happen to men who are too nice to women- and yet, as soon as a man sees that he is being moved into the “friend zone”, he becomes bathroom-style monstrous and verbally abusive. And that is not nice at all.

5. Compliments are not for men

If your date is a woman, it is polite to tell her she looks beautiful, or to say something nice about one or more of her body parts. If your date is a man, don’t bother! He’s not listening.

These two daters are the BEST. The BEST.

These two daters are the BEST. The BEST.

6. People are cute / It’s OK if your date thinks you’re weird

One of the pleasures of watching First Dates is seeing people who get rejected on first dates by someone who really doesn’t get their whole ‘thing’ come back for another date, and find someone who totally LOVES their whole ‘thing’. Like Stephan and Angela.

Stephan had a bad date with Nike- she was quite reserved, he was very exuberant, and she suggested they be friends (LOL). Angela also had a bad date with a very rude man.

When Stephan and Angela met, they were super into each other! They had a great time! Angela wasn’t at all put off by the way Stephan repeats one joke over and over again, and she liked his dancing. Suddenly everything that had been grating about Stephan was actually brilliant.

fd1

Watching First Dates means watching 45 minutes worth of highly mediated human interaction in a very specific register- a first date! Watching date after date after date really lays bare the conventions, which hardly change at all though the people are all, obviously, very different. It’s sweet and hilarious, and full of great characters and interesting insights into dating culture. I also think that watching it would be a fun thing to do on a real life first date, and I would like someone to try it out and get back to me.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dallas Buyers Club

This is a short note about Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, which I saw yesterday. The film tells the true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), an emphatically heterosexual electrician, rodeo cowboy, homophobe, and plaid shirt enthusiast who is diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live. After self-medicating with AZT, drugs and alcohol until he collapses in a Mexican hospital, Ron starts living healthily, and also importing non-approved AIDS treatment drugs into America to sell. The film has two other main characters, neither of whom has a real-life counterpart: Rayon (Jared Leto), a trans woman with AIDS who helps Ron run the Dallas Buyers Club; and Eve (Jennifer Garner), a doctor who is won over by Ron’s approach to treating AIDS and eventually loses her job challenging the medical establishment.

Like Mark from Eastenders, through whom I came to know about AIDS as a child, Ron got AIDS from having sex with a woman. The film protests Ron’s heterosexuality too much. In a gesture that I find morally awful, Vallée goes so far as to locate the precise heterosexual encounter which infected Ron with HIV, flashing back to a dark motel room and a woman with track marks on her arm. I am fascinated by the inclusion of these shots, which isolate the moment of transmission and definitively remove the possibility that Woodroof might have had sex with a man, or that any of his other sexual partners, those without obvious physical markers of being IV drug-users, could have given him HIV. The close-up on the woman’s arm assigns guilt for Ron’s infection.

Rayon, the only queer character in the film, is figured as complicit in her own horrible death. She ignores advice from Ron she refuses to live healthily: at first this manifests as her insisting on continuing to eat processed food, foreshadowing her insistence on continuing to shoot up – again, against Ron’s advice- until she coughs up blood and dies. Eve, her doctor and long-time friend, says she died because she was a drug addict, attributing her death to a personal problem unrelated to the conditions she lived under as an uninsured trans woman with AIDS. As Rayon’s drug use causes her to weaken and die, while Ron’s clean living and happy sexual encounters with HIV+ hotties help him to live, I see Dallas Buyers Club subtly apportioning blame.

Rayon was surely written into Woodroof’s story to connect Ron personally with some of the communities most affected by AIDS- queer people and drug users- and to make it easier to measure Ron’s progress from homophobe to non-homophobe. But their relationship is thin and Rayon is expendable, her death necessary, even, for Ron to truly acquire the status of non-homophobe. I see this as the film’s ultimate goal.

I’ve watched a lot of documentary films about the AIDS crisis recently, and one aspect of responses to the crisis that seems especially radical to me is the formation of non-traditional support and kinship structures around people with AIDS. Dallas Buyers Club is striking in that there is no kinship or community in it- just a line of people with AIDS at Ron Woodroof’s door, waiting to get hold of the medications to which their membership entitles them. Ron appears at a support group for people with AIDS several times, but the life of the support group is subordinated in the script to the need to tell Ron’s story. In a 20-second scene we hear a people talking about the non-availability of specific drugs while the camera remains on Ron skulking at the back of the hall trying not to make eye contact with anyone, filling the viewer in on the medical situation without making them engage with anyone with AIDS who isn’t Ron. At a later meeting Ron arrives to distribute literature about the buyers club and gets into a confrontation with an FDA representative. The support group is cut exactly to the dimensions of Ron’s story, lending a background of desperate, neglected people to provide narrative motivation for Ron’s actions, background info on the crisis,  and a stage for the confrontation between the enterprising individual and the state.

The experience of constant loss which people who lived in AIDS-affected communities talk about in the films I have seen is from a different world to Ron Woodroof’s world- save Rayon nobody dies, or rather, there is nobody in the film whose death you would notice. It is the story of one man who has the tenacity and greed to survive and flourish during the AIDS crisis. Dallas Buyers Club mimics responses to the AIDS crisis by the US government and news media, showing very little care for the communities worst affected by the crisis, and lavishing attention on those people with HIV who because of their social status, skin colour and/or sexual orientation could be framed as ‘innocent’ to a racist and homophobic public.

You can read analysis of Rayon’s character as a passive recipient of pity here. And for some accounts AIDS activism for access to treatment I recommend this article and the films How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger, which are about ACT UP.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

More thoughts on Doctor Who feat. Bruce Springsteen

It is not in my nature to brag, but LOADS of people have read my piece about Doctor Who. Really, like…loads. Let’s just say it’s roughly the population of the North Wales seaside resort of Colwyn Bay. [Update: as of July 2014, it's roughly the population of the South Wales seaside resort of Barry.] I bet that’s super normal for a lot of people, but I am not used to being so popular. For a while there I thought this might be the moment when I become a famous TV writer who has a weekly newspaper column and can comfortably afford groceries. I was obviously wrong, but it was nice while it lasted.

I felt really wary of writing about Doctor Who because even though I like it a lot and have been watching it for many years, much of its viewership is extremely protective and hostile to criticism. I don’t normally worry about not being nerdy enough, but this time I was like “Oh God what if I am not nerdy enough?!”

I got a large amount of comments that were appreciative and thoughtful, and full of new ideas that I hadn’t thought of. But as I anticipated, writing about Doctor Who on the internet is a bit like poking a wasp’s nest with a stick. Wasps will come out, and they will correct your spelling. Note: if I wanted men to correct my spelling, I’d be blogging at www.correctawomansspelling.tumblr.com.

A small amount comments were made with the intention of showing me that I do not have the credentials to write about Doctor Who because of my tastes, gender and spelling. It’s like – have you noticed that often when people want to ascertain whether or not you like Bruce Springsteen they won’t say, “Do you like Bruce Springsteen?”, they’ll say, “Are you a Springsteen fan?” It is a difficult question to respond to. I mean, sure I like Bruce Springsteen! But do I like him enough to tell this person that I am a Springsteen fan, and then face six further questions about Bruce Springsteen which sound friendly but are actually intended to show me up for not being a true Springsteen fan? Do I? I do not.

Exhibit A:

“Please do stop watching Doctor Who. Gossip Girl, Glee and other simplistic shows need your viewership. *pats head* Here’s a ball to play with.”

This commenter is asserting that as a woman I would be more suited to watching programmes aimed at women, and leaving men’s programmes to the men…and yet by offering me a ball, he strongly implies that I am a puppy. Which one is it, commenter? Am I a woman or a puppy? When you figure it out, please leave me a note at www.correctawomansspelling.tumblr.com.

There are also a lot of jokers out there who get very angry when you do not publish their screed on your blog. Not publishing a comment is not censorship. You can send two thousand letters to newspapers about how this country is going to the dogs and your neighbours are spying on you. But they don’t have to publish them, because it is not your newspaper.

Power?

It wasn’t within the scope of what I was writing to discuss River Song. But I hate River Song. I think that with her comic/threatening hypersexuality, she is another manifestation of Steven Moffat’s obvious fear of women. I would also strongly dispute the idea that she is a strong or empowered female character. Yes, she does have a gun. But people who imagine that gun-ownership is the same as power are routinely mocked on Doctor Who.

The Doctor replaces Jack's gun with a banana in 'The Doctor Dances'

The Doctor replaces Jack’s gun with a banana in ‘The Doctor Dances’

Despite being kind of badass, River’s story on the show is characterised by powerlessness, as she is unable to control her relationship with the Doctor, and every time she sees him he knows her less, which makes her all sad and wistful. Her attraction to him is very occasionally reciprocated, but is often framed as unwanted and over-the-top and tragic. Her abilities as a fighter do not make her happy or free.

There are a lot of unhelpful ideas about empowerment around which conflate violence with power. Violence and power are not identical, especially not on the TV, where characters are not real agents but fictional people being shunted around by a writer or a team of writers. I have recently been thinking about power in this way: does this character have the ability to decide what happens to her? Do other people make decisions for her or act upon her in unwanted ways? Is her inability to make decisions about what happens to her part of the drama of the show?

A person can have the ability to do violence to people, for example by having a gun or knowing some cool martial arts skills, and still be written into states of victimhood. Due to unemployment I have recently been watching The X Files. Scully (Gillian Anderson) is an interesting one. She has many of the hallmarks of a modern TV woman- she has a medical degree, she wears a lot of wide-shouldered suits, she has a job which mandates a certain degree of violent behaviour, and she carries a gun. But she does not have the power to decide what happens to her. If Mulder and Scully have pretty much the same job, why is it always Scully who is inseminated by aliens, kidnapped by dangerous hair fetishists, or trapped alone in her apartment with a serial killer with a salamander arm? Eh?

Scully is the most powerful female character that 1993 could come up with, yet she is constantly written into situations in which she is acted upon by others, and frequent violations of her body and personal space are part of the entertainment. It looks a bit like empowerment, but it is not.

So, when Martha decides to leave the Doctor and get on with her life because he treats her badly and makes her hang out with racists, she is given awesome decision-making power! And when the Doctor grabs and kisses Jenny the plucky Victorian detective without her consent, she has her power taken away.

We call this "sexual assault"

We call this “sexual assault”

Anyway. Next time I’m gonna give myself a break and write about something that almost no-one watches. Like the BBC’s darts coverage, or some GCSE Bitesize programmes that air at 4 am. Or series 14 of Big Brother. Burn! That is exactly the kind of incisive, topical satire you can expect to read in my next post.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

What is wrong with Doctor Who?

If Matt Smith jumped off a cliff, would you do it too? I wouldn’t. But I guess some people would.

doctor who jumping off cliff

Geronimeeeewwww

It was this moment from ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’ where I thought…this is a bit shit, isn’t it? They created this really unnecessary high-stakes moment that has very little payoff, with the sole aim of forcing the Doctor’s assistant to put her life in his hands, again. It’s a mandatory bonding moment from which there is no possibility of escape. It made me think – who would be an assistant? Who are these women? What would have happened if she had not wanted to jump off that cliff?

That is actually a trick question- got you!! Because trusting the Doctor, not running away from danger, and not saying no are really fundamental qualities of the assistant. They don’t write them as people who would say “I’m not jumping off that cliff”, or “It looks a bit dark in there let’s stay out here”, or “Please stop stalking me through time and space.” I thought it was time to give some thought to what the Doctor-assistant relationship is, what function the assistant has on the show, how Doctor Who distributes personal qualities by gender, and why I now hate this lovely show that I used to love.

I should say that I haven’t seen a lot of old Who. I watched one series with Tom Baker and got literally nothing out of it. Nothing.

doctor who tom baker nothing

Nothing.

This being the internet, I am clearly leaving myself open to comments to the effect that if I had seen the 1972 series ‘Birthday Party of the Daleks’ I would see that Matt Smith’s take on the Doctor actually owes a lot to zzzzzzz. I’m ready for you, the internet.

Doctor Who is structurally sexist. It is about a male hero and his female sidekick. Moreover, the hero is an alien man with great power and knowledge who takes a younger, human woman away from her home and family and frequently puts her in situations in which she is out of her depth, upset or in danger. I don’t usually think about it that way- until the last few series I mostly just thought “Great, Doctor Who is on again!!”- but that is how power is divided between the Doctor and the assistant. It really didn’t bother me until Series 5, when Matt Smith took over as the 11th Doctor, Karen Gillen was introduced as the Doctor’s assistant, and Steven Moffat became head writer. I feel like something in Doctor Who has warped, and now the Doctor-assistant relationships makes me feel a bit queasy.

What do the five assistants featured on the show since 2005 have in common? Well…

  • All are female.
  • Four are white.
  • Four are tv-thin, and the other is a little less thin.
  • Four are in their late teens or early twenties.
  • Three have obvious romantic feelings for the Doctor.

Something else that strikes me as interesting is that only one – that’s Martha – had been pursuing a career prior to being doctored. The rest are in transitional periods or stuck in menial work they don’t enjoy. This makes sense- a woman with fulfilling relationships with friends, a job she enjoyed or a great sense or purpose would be less likely to pack everything in and get into a spaceship with a stranger. There is nothing wrong with being in a transitional period, and nothing necessarily right about pursuing a career, but the show, especially in the Russell T Davies era, really likes to emphasise how sad it is to work in a shop, watch TV and eat chips. Accordingly, the Doctor is not seen to be targeting vulnerable or unhappy women, he is seen to be saving his assistants from a life of mediocrity.

The fact that the Doctor usually runs with relatively low achievers also means that these women rarely have useful skills to contribute to the fight against intergalactic evil, aside from the highly feminised skill of listening. It has always been the assistant’s job to connect with others- almost always other women and girls- on an emotional level.

doctor who rose nancy

Rose and Nancy the plucky wartime single mother

Rose and Gwyneth talking about boys

Rose and Gwyneth talking about boys

doctor who martha chan tho utopia

Martha and Chan Tho talking about boys

doctor who donna miss evangelista

Donna and Miss Evangelista talking about how everyone thinks Miss Evangelista is stupid

doctor who amy

Amy telling this little girl she doesn’t know whether or not she wants to get married

doctor who clara alien girl

Clara comforting this scared alien girl

It is often the case that while the assistant is off emoting somewhere, the Doctor is working on the technical or practical side of solving the episode’s big problem. This creates a super gendered division of labour in which the woman listens and cares while the man acts. While this was definitely already the case under Russell T Davies, this distinction between the man’s job and the woman’s job was less rigid. Rose, Martha and Donna are resourceful, tenacious and capable of acting independently of the Doctor. The Christopher Eccleston Doctor and the David Tennant Doctor form emotional connections and leave themselves vulnerable to loss and pain at various points- for example with Lynda in ‘Bad Wolf’, with Renette in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’. They do big displays of emotion- the dying David Tennant Doctor’s furious rant about how he is not ready to die is a favourite of mine. Moreover, both of these Doctors are in a loving, affectionate and reciprocal relationship with Rose.

I can’t imagine Matt Smith’s Doctor loving someone any more than I can imagine Steven Moffat having done something to deserve access to clean air and water*. Steven Moffat is a man who thinks that women are so terrifyingly powerful these days that it’s getting really really hard to be a man. He wrote the bizarre, unfunny, sub-Friends festival of gender stereotyping that is Coupling, and the BBC’s Sherlock, a mystery show about a man whose emotionlessness and disdain for women are a source of power.

Under Moffat’s watch the Doctor has morphed from an alien who loves humans and feels their pain and experiences love and desire and empathy to a stunted, child-like and extremely bloody irritating space-goon who flaps about like an injured moth when other people’s emotions are making him uncomfortable. And makes sexist jokes about how women are scary. And wants his married companions to sleep in bunk beds. And can save human lives but does not seem to understand human feelings. Who would travel with this man? He might be zany and charming and have nice boots, but he is fundamentally cold and unrelatable.

I also think the role of the assistant has changed since Steven Moffat started overseeing Doctor Who. Rose, Martha and Donna were chosen to travel with the Doctor because they showed in one way or another that they were smart and up to the challenge. Amy and Clara both come to the Doctor first and foremost as mysteries. Amy is the little girl who grew up with a rift in time in her bedroom wall, who doesn’t know why she doesn’t have parents. She spends many episodes being mystically both pregnant and not pregnant but doesn’t know a thing about it and all our information about it comes through the Doctor. What the fuck is that?

amy doctor who pregnant not pregnant

The “mystical pregnancy” makes women in fantasy and sci-fi suffer, exploiting their reproductive capacity as a weakness

Some version of Clara dies on screen twice before she is taken on as the assistant, and it seems like the Doctor takes up with her to find out why. In both cases, the woman is not of interest for her character or her abilities, but for some fundamental mystery in her being. The mystery isn’t even a secret she’s keeping, something over which she has control- it’s something she does not know about, that the Doctor must puzzle out in his own mind. It’s not about her- it’s about what’s wrong with her. When Steven Moffat took over Doctor Who, women became a problem. 

It’s also interesting that Amy and Clara have no family. Rose, Martha and Donna all have family members who are featured in their series as named characters, and they end up back with them when everything is over. Amy and Clara’s home lives are marked by loss and absence. This makes them more vulnerable, more rootless, and more singularly devoted to the Doctor.

I was pretty grossed out but not really surprised when Clara is damsel in distress-ed in ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’. It reminded me of ‘Flesh and Stone’ and Amy, blind and totally defenseless, groping her way through the woods. The Doctor dehumanises Clara by calling her “salvage”, and the wardrobe department took care to dress her as a little girl. I don’t recall Rose, Martha or Donna being put in such a tight spot. Furthermore, though those three clearly have less know-how than the Doctor, they are at least resourceful and smart and good at taking independent action in a crisis, rather than stroppy or “fiesty” but without any real power, like Amy and, so far, like Clara.

Guys, why don’t I like Doctor Who any more?

The great challenge of the series used to be saving the universe, and that was really fun, but in Series 6 the challenge was saving the Doctor. We’re in the middle of the quite tedious enterprise of finding out his real name. This is not something I care about. We’ve also had two episodes recently dedicated to the T.A.R.D.I.S and sure, one of them was really great, but I like it better when the T.A.R.D.I.S was instrumental to the journey, rather than the focus of a 45-minute voyage of discovery.

In recent series the Doctor has become more powerful and more important relative to the assistant and relative to every other life form he encounters, not within the universe of the show but in terms of how his stuff is privileged over other people’s stuff, his life over other lives, in the structuring of the plot. Now, not only does he have the same powers, the same knowledge, the same spaceship that he always had, but he and his origins are now supposed to be the thing the viewer is interested in above all other things. Like Steven Moffat’s SherlockDoctor Who now feels like an icky tribute to the all-powerful man whom we all love.

I wonder if children still like Doctor Who. I have trouble following it these days, and I am an adult with many years of TV experience. Moffat has gotten rid of some of the naffer, more kid-friendly aliens like the Ood (I liked the Ood!) In fact in the three most recent episodes they made a big feature of not giving you a good look at the monster. They’re slicker and scarier and less rubbery than the Ood. As the monsters get more high-concept and understanding the plot starts to require a longer memory and a lot more patience, I wonder if Doctor Who hasn’t maybe become a bit charmless.

Doctor Who should be such a great show for children. It is strongly anti-violence, it has queer characters, a generally positive attitude to difference, and a lovely, mawkish humanism. The villains are often not aliens but bad humans, villainous colonialists or capitalists.

doctor who henry van staten

This man makes a vast profit from collecting and patenting alien technology.

doctor who simon pegg the editor

This man represents a consortium of banks.

doctor who british empire torchwood

This woman oversees a colonial project which steals alien artefacts with the aim of protecting the “British empire” from alien threats.

Doesn’t that sound great? Don’t you wish it would just keep on with that instead of aiming itself at its audience of typically male long-time superfans? I would love it if Doctor Who stopped trying to outdo itself aesthetically and conceptually and had a stab at moving forward in other ways, perhaps with a female Doctor and a male assistant. There are probably people who would get upset but unlike the year 5 billion*, it would not be the end of the world.

*Joking, I am. We all deserve access to clean air and water. But not to much beloved classic TV shows.
* Do you like my nerdy joke?

 

Postscript: for fans of bitter ranting, I have written a short follow-up to this piece, dealing largely with how it was received. You can find it here

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 79 Comments

Mad Men

One of maybe two parallels between Don Draper and The First Evil is that Don Draper never seems to touch anything, and nor do any of his male colleagues. Wealthy white women birth their babies and make their dinner, poorer white women type out their letters and connect their calls, black women look after their children and keep their houses in order, and black men push the buttons in the lift for them. With all those real world impediments taken care of by other people they just glide along, having a much better time than anyone else.

You can tell that Don Draper is not literally incorporeal because he touches drinks, cigarettes and women. And sometimes the phone. I spent five years not watching Mad Men because I thought it was probably really sexist. Watching it I found that as much as it is a show about wealthy white men drinking in meetings and cheating on their wives, it is equally a show about women. Mad Men is immensely preoccupied with certain aspects of women’s struggles- most obviously integration into the world of work but also various forms of transactional sex and, from a limited perspective, sexual violence.

The most interesting and productive moments in Mad Men, for me, come when its desire to give a somewhat truthful account of what it was to be a woman in the 60s clashes badly with what critics seem to admire most about the show, its carefully stylised and seemingly affectionate portrayal of the all-powerful white married male who can have whatever he wants. The show’s dual fascination for the glamorous lifestyle of the male advertising executive and for the constant, gritty struggle of female wives, secretaries and professionals make a strange mix that gives a lot to think about. What I’m going to do here is look at Mad Men through four of its women- Betty, the unhappy housewife and Carla, her maid; Peggy, who gets ahead mostly using her brains and Joan, who mostly uses her sexuality- and Don Draper, the show’s main character and in my opinion one of its greatest weaknesses.

Betty and Carla

The unhappiness of Betty Draper as a housewife and mother works as a fairly facile critique of what was once the pervading model of female happiness, the happy housewife. Mad Men‘s writers had a great time showing Betty Draper crumbling under the pressure of being a perfect wife and mother, going out into her neat suburban garden with a gun and firing at her neighbour’s pet birds.

Best. Cry for help. Ever.

Best. Cry for help. Ever.

After the first two seasons I was like- I get it. She’s unhappy. You have grasped one of the basic feminist arguments, that being a housewife isn’t fun. The characterisation of Betty draws equally on the fantasy figure of the perfect, happy housewife, who is beautiful, loves her home and buys what Don Draper’s agency advertises, and the corresponding figure of the unhappy housewife. I believe the viewer is supposed to enjoy both.

Sara Ahmed writes in The Promise of Happiness, which I love and heartily recommend, that certain objects, states and identities come to us already invested with the idea of happiness or the promise that they will make us happy. A clear example, and one on which Ahmed dwells, is marriage. The supposed innate happiness of the state of marriage is endlessly reaffirmed by culture, politics and popular psychology, such that it is hard to imagine a happy, well-lived life without marriage. This conception of what makes people happy orients us through what we see as life’s stages, from childhood to marriage to babies to whatever to death. To reject this scheme of happiness as a feminist, a queer person or just a general sourpuss, is often to be seen by others as a source of unhappiness or a killjoy.

Ahmed discusses the figure of the happy housewife, and the control this cultural trope exercises over who is seen to be close to or entitled to happiness. The happy, or indeed the unhappy housewife in the popular imagination and in Mad Men is a white woman from a privileged background who pursued her own, respectable interests until she got married and dedicated herself to her husband, children and home. This is certainly the case with Betty, who went to a women’s college, did a bit of modelling and then settled down with Don. The happiness afforded to the housewife is obviously illusory, and insistence that this is a happy state hides a multitude of unhappy realities like a narrowing of intellectual and social possibilities, unpaid domestic labour, and spousal rape.

However, if the figure of the happy housewife is a fantasy, some women are closer than others to the fantasy, which at least comes with social respectability and probably some degree of economic security. Feminist critiques of the imperative to marry and settle down wilfully ignored poor women and women of colour, many of whom were not housewives because they were already in the workforce through necessity. It is not necessarily happiness that is unequally distributed between rich and poor women, but proximity to the fantasy of happiness. Ahmed writes that “what is unequally distributed is the feeling that you have what should make you happy, a distribution of the promise of a feeling…rather than the distribution of happiness.”

The way Mad Men uses the fantasy of the happy housewife is interesting. Betty’s role as a housewife is a source of unhappiness for her, but the fantasy, the happy surface, is also highly aestheticised and made appealing to the viewer. Mad Men‘s meticulous styling creates a visually pleasurable fantasy of the beautiful, wealthy, devoted housewife, a good consumer, and the large home in a monocultural suburb, which the viewer can enjoy while smirking about how outdated it is and how much better things are now. Carla, the Drapers’ black maid, fits into the Betty fantasy as a prop, but as a character she is so far from the fantasy of the happy housewife that the viewer of Mad Men is not encouraged to wonder whether or not she is happy. She is in many episodes, with few lines, and we know little about her. When Betty arbitrarily fires her in Season 4 we may feel outrage or sadness for her, but in the grand scheme of things her disappearance from the show barely registers- but it does allow Don to take Megan to California, fall in love and propose to her.

mad men carla

Don’t worry about it guys she only raised your kids for years and years

I recently watched Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, a film about a white single mother, Laura, who dreams of making it as an actress, and a black woman, Annie, whom Laura takes in and exploits as a domestic labourer and companion for many years until Annie dies. This film from 1959 succeeds as a critique of the exploitative relationship between a white woman and her black maid in a way that Mad Men absolutely does not. Ahmed writes that some women, women like Carla, are seen to be “lacking the very qualities and attributes that would make a life good”. Because of her race and economic status, Carla is so far from the cultural ideas about happiness with which the show is so preoccupied that she is seen as being unentitled to happiness and unentitled to our caring about her happiness. Her lack of weight in the show suggests an unwillingness on the part of the show’s writers to explore the life of someone whose existence cannot easily be made glamorous. She is uncritically backgrounded, and eventually uncritically ditched. Meanwhile Betty is shipped from one stifling marriage to another so that the viewer can continue to enjoy the cautionary spectacle of the unhappy housewife.

Peggy and Joan

There are two rapes in Mad Men that are depicted as rapes in a straightforward way. In Season 2 Joan is punished for her sexual activity with men at the office with rape by her fiancé, at the office; and in Season 3 Pete Campbell the spineless, greedy dweeb, rapes his neighbours’ au pair, figuring that she owes him sex because he got her a dress. The show also allows for a surprising amount of grey area between rape and sex, rarely shying away from the coercive or transactional nature of ‘consensual’ sex in a setting in which men always hold power over women as their providers or employers. Joan Holloway, who is presented as having a great understanding of workplace sexual politics, intimates to Peggy on her first day at work that sleeping with her superiors is part of her job, and when Peggy does subsequently sleep with Pete Campbell the slimy, entitled toad, there is no doubt that she is doing so out of obligation, not desire. The pregnancy which devastates her and has many long-term consequences for her was, to me, a really moving element of the plot, approached with compassion- it shows us that hard, horrible things happen to women in a patriarchy.

The world of Mad Men is one in which the idea of a woman freely choosing to have sex doesn’t make a lot of sense, because having sex with men is so highly incentivised, and not having sex with men is punished by disdain and disfavour at work. It is pleasing to see Peggy able to claw back some sexual agency after the trials she goes through in Season 1, and she does this by asserting herself as someone smart and respectable who will not be persuaded, from a more authoritative position as the firm’s first female copywriter. There is a sense that by climbing the ladder at work, by being able to move from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and so on, Peggy escapes from the duty-sex that is a fact of life for the lower-class women on the show.

Best fringe on Madison Avenue

Best fringe on Madison Avenue

Joan, by contrast, never successfully disentangles herself from the sexual economy of the workplace, and her body never ceases to function as a source of visual pleasure both for the males at the office and for the viewer. People talk about Christina Hendricks’s body so much that I am very reluctant to do it myself, but I believe that her diegetic function as a body that people enjoy looking at in the office, someone whose beauty is used to attract clients, and who in Season 5 is strong-armed into having sex with a potential client to secure their business, is not separable from the way Hendricks is dressed and filmed for the visual pleasure of the viewer. It is not pure objectification, because Joan is such a wonderful character whose steeliness and short temper suggest years of struggle and hard work and paying dearly for her mistakes. She is an amazing creation. But it is also true that Christina Hendricks’s body is deliberately used as part of the appealing surface on which Mad Men sells itself.

mad men cast photo

Who is being sexualised in this publicity shot? Clue: It’s not Lane Price.

I love Joan and Peggy so much that I would watch Mad Men spin-offs called Joan and Peggy every week until they got cancelled. They are not just two flat models of female success, as they could have been if Mad Men was the show I thought it was before I watched it. The ways in which they have worked their ways into positions of relative power and authority are complex, and I personally feel a far greater degree of identification and sympathy with Peggy and Joan than I ever could with Don.

Don Draper

This will sound strange, but one of the persistent flaws that I see in Mad Men is that it is too enthralled to Don Draper. It’s like the writers have really been taken in by the aura of mystery and authority they they have written around Don Draper, like clients in meetings are taken in by him. They really love him. Things got uncomfortably reverential in Season 4, and frequent, tedious scenes of Don writing in his journal and telling us his incredible thoughts in voiceover were included to show us that Don Draper is now wise and introspective, as well as handsome, smart, fantastic at his job and irresistible to the ladies.

don draper mad men writing

Whatever, Don

Don Draper is supposed to be simultaneously a serial womaniser and a devoted husband and father, an alcoholic yet far more in control than any other alcoholic, thrillingly reckless yet always right. His being one thing and its opposite is not complexity or depth of character, it’s him being written as some kind of incredible 1960s advertising hero-god. And Mad Men‘s thoughtful exploration of sexual politics goes totally out the window when it comes to Don Draper. This SNL skit about Don Draper has a lot to say about the horrible ease with which he accesses women, which I don’t find very funny. The fact that he is someone’s husband or boss or paying for their drinks no longer signifies power disparity when Don Draper has sex- women just want him, always, unconditionally. When he does hurt a woman, as he hurts his secretary Allison in Season 4, the show’s focus remains on him, and the incident is incorporated into the development of his character as a mystery, someone who is wounded and struggling but well-intentioned. His unethical behaviour is intended to increase our admiration for him.

And this is one of many respects in which political and social complexities can be totally glossed over when they trouble the glamorous surface that is supposed to be one of Mad Men‘s main draws, and to which Don Draper’s infallible genius and great face are integral. I love watching Mad Men, but I hope that the second thing that Don Draper and The First Evil have in common is that they will both be vanquished by women.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Money (That’s What I Want)

While you’re reading this you might want to listen to ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ by Barrett Strong. Totally your call though.

My favourite film is Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I think that despite coming the Hollywood studio system, which likes money more than women, it is, intentionally or not, a film which loves women, and thinks money is a joke. It stars Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei Lee, your classic “gold digger”, who will slow dance with the oldest, most lecherous man on the boat if he looks like he’s got some money. Always there to roll her eyes is her best friend and closest confidante Dorothy (Jane Russell), who, to Lorelei’s frustration, doesn’t care about money and is only interested in sex. They are endlessly supportive and affectionate towards one another, and even the film’s very last scene, a double wedding, focuses more the bond between the two friends than the two truly unconvincing heterosexual romantic partnerships which the scene technically solidifies.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is said to be the film which established Monroe as a “dumb blonde”, which I personally find strange because Lorelei is not dumb- she knows exactly what she’s doing. When accused of being stupid by her fiancé’s snobby father, she responds, “I can be smart when it’s important- but most men don’t like it”. Lorelei’s voracious materialism and dumb blonde act are quite clearly part of a survival strategy, and nowhere is this clearer than in the iconic number ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’, which she performs late in the movie after she and Dorothy have been left penniless and alone in France by a man whom they had trusted to support them.

Here is a link to a video of the number, which cannot be embedded.

It is interesting to compare this song and performance with Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ and its video. In lovely full-on pastiche mode Madonna borrows the pink gown, the staging and the army of rich suitors from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the similarities between the two numbers prove to be extremely superficial. ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ isn’t only about diamonds, it’s about how risky it is to be a woman in a society in which forces women to depend economically on men. The speaker in the lyric loves diamonds because, unlike a kiss, a man’s affection, and your beauty, diamonds are tangible and valuable, and they last forever. She worries about paying rent and being able to afford food, and she knows that when she gets old and unattractive men will stop helping her. The diamonds are not loved for what they are- expensive and beautiful objects, paradigmatic of wealth and power- but what they can do- ensure that you can keep on living when men abandon you. I find the song anxious, morbid and sadly pragmatic.

‘Material Girl’ is different. It bounces with confidence. Madonna’s lyrics speak of an uncomplicated joy in money for its own sake which I think is totally missing from the lyrics of ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’. Being able to get money from men, and reject those who can’t offer money, is a happy victory in the battle of the sexes- very 80s, I think- not a matter of life and death. Madonna smiles as she takes money from the male dancers’ pockets and pulls rings off their fingers, and they don’t mind. The video also misses one of the really interesting parts of the Monroe performance- the verses she sings to a crowd of younger women. In a film which is so preoccupied with female friendship and mutual support between women, Lorelai sings conspiratorially to these other women:

He’s your guy when stocks are high,

But beware when they start to descend

It’s then that those louses go back to their spouses

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Diamonds

She teaches these eager young girls survival skills to use in their future dealings with unscrupulous married men. While Madonna speaks from a very individualistic perspective- “I am a material girl”- Lorelai Lee speaks in generalities- “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”- and shares her hard-earned knowledge with the girls on stage, and the women in the cinema. Men come off very badly in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, from lecherous diamond dealer Piggy to credulous wet blanket Mr Esmond, and the real driving force behind the film is the unshakable friendship between the two female leads, who help each other to survive in a hostile world.

How to Marry a Millionaire, another Monroe comedy from 1953, has a comparable premise- three low-waged but respectable gals team up to rent a huge apartment, and use it to try and snare a millionaire each. The film, however, is almost unwatchable, as the bond between its female characters collapses and its focus ultimately shifts to the men they are trying to marry. The disappointment I felt watching How to Marry a Millionaire helped me to realise how extraordinary Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is. The former comes off as an uninteresting product of capitalist Hollywood, and its reverence for money and marriage is humourless and straightforward, whereas the latter treats Lorelai’s obsession with money as a result of her being young woman with no education living on her wits in 1953, and her desire to marry as a ruse.

The spirit of Lorelei Lee is alive and well in modern pop music, and freedom from male control is mostly framed in terms of having access to money; in place of marrying a millionaire, the goal is to become one. In ‘Irreplaceable’, it seems that Beyoncé is able to gleefully dismiss her unfaithful boyfriend largely because she is not dependent on him financially. In the video, she’s chucking him and his scruffy boxes of unimportant stuff out of her enormous mansion. How was he untrue? “Rolling her around in a car that I bought you”. What is the final indignity for the ex-boyfriend? The car is hers, and he has to leave in a taxi. Her attitude is a mix of the Madonna attitude and the Lorelei Lee attitude- money is both desirable for its own sake, because it makes you beautiful and buys you nice things, and expedient, because it allows you to choose which men you involve yourself with. This is the case with a number of Beyoncé-penned songs, from ‘Independent Women’ to ‘Countdown’.

In the documentary the ever-humble Beyoncé has made about her own life and how brilliant it is, she says:

“You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do…I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

I read this in an interview Beyoncé did with GQ. The interview is about how Beyoncé is independent, in control of her career and culturally powerful, and the photos accompanying the interview are pretty demeaning. Hadley Freeman in The Guardian childishly criticises Bey herself for letting the side down, talking about equality in her pants, but the way I see it the interview and the photos are not dissonant, they are a perfect fit. Beyoncé braves being laughed at by a male-dominated cultural world to tell us what she has learned during her long career- that men are powerful because they own money and businesses, and our cultural standards were created by men- and her point is proven by the sexual photographs she had to be in to earn the space in a men’s magazine. As wealthy, as in control as she is, Beyoncé can’t have the career she wants without using her body as a selling point, and this is not something to criticise her for but something we can learn from.

Under capitalism and patriarchy it is super obvious that your survival and fulfilment as a woman should be tangled up with money, and that taking money and power from men, by being a rich man’s wife or an audacious female capitalist millionaire, should be seen as the best mode of liberation from gendered poverty. In this interesting article, Emma-Rose Cornwall writes about finding out that most of her possessions are uninsurable, essentially valueless. Most advertising aimed at women sells things that are used to make a woman’s body more desirable -valuable, even- but which themselves have no resale value. Mascara might make you look more like you should, but a used tube of mascara cannot be sold for money. Cosmetics, gym memberships, jewellery and clothes add value to a female body by making it more acceptable to men and sexist culture, but these, unless they are extremely expensive like Lorelei’s diamonds, are not assets in the same way as a car or a house. Instead, your body becomes the asset, in which you invest and from which you expect a return. This is obviously a risky place to store your wealth. I am not suggesting, of course, that women don’t own houses and cars- they obviously do. But they also make up the majority of low-paid and unpaid workers, are often in more precarious or part-time employment because of caring responsibilities, still often depend on a male breadwinner and nonetheless invest vastly more than men of what they do earn in the aforementioned physical acceptability-boosting items.

Instead of shying away from this stubborn facet of gender inequality, culture aimed at women appears to have embraced it. I am thinking particularly of Sex and the City and Carrie Bradshaw, a woman who seems to only buy shoes, lunch and cigarettes. In one episode Carrie has a crisis, realising that she doesn’t have enough money for a down-payment to save her flat but has spent tens of thousands of dollars on clothes and shoes, things which she can’t easily resell. Over one of their expensive power-lunches she jokes to her friends, “I have spent $40,000 on shoes, and I have no place to live. I will literally be the old woman who lived in her shoes!” The women of Sex and the City were surely intended to be a model of modern, independent women, and they terrify me, with their extreme post-feminism, their smiling complicity with lucrative, embarrassing product placement deals and their Chinese mail-order babies. They talk about sex a lot, but it’s all in the spirit of sifting through all the different types of men, looking for Mr Perfect. If that is what emancipation looks like…yeesh, I don’t want it.

I think pop culture by women could move away from Carrie Bradshaw-style liberation and slowly disentangle independence from money, success from proximity to the board room, and salvation from marriage, by focusing on community, friendship and inter-reliance between women. Recent TV shows written by women such as The Mindy Project, Girls and New Girl, while they are definitely not the angry, radical and totally unmarketable sitcoms I dream of watching, do feature female characters who have affectionate and interesting relationships with one another, and who enjoy things other than men- things like nudity, delivering babies, being a primary school teacher, writing novelty songs, getting married as a drunk joke, and so on. Also an honourable mention to Ann Perkins and Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation, who are obviously soulmates.

The warm, delighted feeling I feel when I watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes comes from watching Dorothy and Lorelei being a team. If I were a writer, I would write a beautiful sitcom about being a team, in which you don’t have to be rich if you don’t want to, and there are better ways of not needing men than being able to buy your own car. The point would not be total independence, like being able to survive without any help, which is not necessarily a desirable goal, but a good kind of interdependence, in which the well-being of the team is more important than the material success of the individual. As individuals we obviously can’t ignore money, and shouldn’t ignore economic inequality, and as women it is hard to ignore the imperative to use our money to make our bodies more desirable; but our culture could leave these things in the background instead of using wealth and beauty as the ultimate measures of a woman’s independence and success. And that…is what I want.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Misfits’ supersexism triggers my rage-induced computerised telekenesis

Pals, TV lovers, fans of justice and equality, I strongly advise you against watching the latest episode of Misfits, episode 2 of series 4.

The episode’s main plot has to do with new character Finn, who has his girlfriend Sadie tied up and gagged in his flat to stop her from using her power on him- the power to control his behaviour. My deep discomfort with the episode had to do equally with the notion of this woman being held captive for her own good and the good of others, and the characterisation of her as a castrating banshee. Finn gives a misogynist diatribe half way through the episode to explain himself to the other characters, and I have carefully transcribed it for you all using my own superpower, rage-induced computerised telekenesis:

“I know it looks bad, keeping someone prisoner like that and tying them up and making them shit in a bucket. But it’s not what you think- she’s my girlfriend. She’s got a power. She can make me into a perfect boyfriend. Whatever she said, whatever she told me to do, I did it. I stopped drinking. I stopped going out with my mates. All I cared about was making her happy. Endless presents and flowers and pampering… the conversations, we had to discuss everything, my jaw physically ached from all the talking. That and the hours of cunnilingus. I practically lived with my face between her thighs. Some days I felt like I didn’t see the sun. A few weeks ago she went to Ibiza with her friends, leaving me to deep clean the flat. With her being away her hold over me faded and I realised what she was doing- and I did the only thing I could do. I tied her up and gagged her, to stop her using her power.” 

I know. It’s so horrible. This superpower that she has is so obviously gendered- she’s a classic sexist stereotype, the shrill, domineering woman, only she was bitten by a radioactive spider. She’s like a turbocharged Amy Pond. The writers adapted the plot of this episode from a comic book written by an angry and romantically unsuccessful man during his toilet breaks. It’s called My Nagging Wife Made Me Hoover So I Fucking Killed Her. The last two sentences are not true.

I felt a slight sense of relief when Sadie is untied and appears to be quite a normal person with reasonable expectations of Finn; I thought the episode might turn a corner and focus on Finn being a misogynist jerk who had his girlfriend tied up for no reason. That’s not how it went, though- back on the loose, Sadie turns back into a sexist caricature of the girlfriend from hell, supermanipulating Finn into buying her flowers and going down on her. Turns out, he was right to have her bound and gagged for all those weeks! She’s a nightmare! These are the conclusions reached by Finn’s new friends at the community centre- at first they were maybe a bit perturbed by the kidnap, but once they realised how awful his girlfriend was they had nothing but sympathy. The phrase pussy-whipped was used a lot. Like, a lot a lot.

As the only steady female character in a show whose humour now seems to rely heavily on rape jokes, new kid Jess has a lot of weight to carry in offsetting the hilarious (not hilarious) and deliberate sexism of the other characters. Unfortunately this means that she doesn’t get to do anything else- instead of having fun and going on capers like the rest of them, she just stands forlornly at the back of scenes, pointing out that other people are being sexist. She’s basically me.

With Lauren Socha (Kelly) and Antonia Thomas (Alisha) gone, the show has lost two tough, cool women and replaced them with, well, nothing.I used to really enjoy Misfits, but that will be the last time I watch it.

i made this image with the help of my rage-induced computerised telekenesis

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments