Around this time of year, every newspaper, magazine, and blog offers up some form of the “Best Of” list, chronicling the best films, television series (or episodes), music, books, Broadway shows, trends, etc. of the previous year. Obviously, ranking the year’s best of anything is subjective and also impossible (after all, only an individual who was watched every television episode that aired in 2012 could state, definitively, which were in the top 5). And yet, such lists are so alluring. As a working mom, who reads, watches and listens to only a fraction of what I would like to read, watch and listen to, these “Best Of” lists take an unwieldy set of pop culture possibilities and whittles it down to a manageable chunk. These lists tell me “These are the only films from 2012 that you need to watch.” Then I take a deep breath and load up my Netflix queue.
You might thinking to yourself “Why would I read a ‘Best Of’ list compiled by a woman who has just admitted that she relies on other people’s ‘Best Of’ lists to tell her what pop culture was worthwhile from the previous year?” Excellent question. Why are you reading this? Don’t you have something better to do? No? Well then settle in, friend. I have some completely subjective selections for you based on an unrepresentative sampling of the year’s popular culture. I think you’ve made the right choice.
So without further ado, I present Part I of my “Best of 2012” list:
Best Television Series
2012 was an excellent year for television. I loved watching Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lose the final pieces of his soul on Breaking Bad. The last shot of the Girls season finale, in which Hannah (Lena Dunham) finds herself on Coney Island (after passing out in the subway and getting her purse stolen) and slowly stuffs her face with cake, was the perfect end to a first season filled with uncomfortable, body-focused stories and imagery. The look on Don Draper’s (John Hamm) face when he sees his daughter wearing fishnets and go-go boots or the scene in which Henry (Christopher Stanley) feeds his newly-plump wife (aka, “Fat Betty”) some steak at the kitchen table in the middle of the night were two highlights of the Mad Men season. I also loved watching all or most of the 2012 seasons of Louie, Boardwalk Empire, Happy Endings, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23, Parenthood, Teen Mom, and Game of Thrones. No, I don’t watch Homeland, The Good Wife, or Justified. I’m sure I would like all three, but right now I don’t have room for them in my TV diet. Like I said, “best of” lists are subjective. Let’s move on.
Dog smoking cigarette = win
While I loved all of the aforementioned programs and could make a “Best” case for many of them, my choice for “best” television series of 2012 goes to the FX series, Wilfred, because it is, simply put, the most bizarre show I have ever watched, with the exception of (of course) Twin Peaks.
“Can you hear it?” “No, ma’am, I cannot.”
The pilot episode of Wilfred opens with Ryan (Elijah Woods) trying and failing to commit suicide. We eventually find out that Ryan used to be a successful lawyer, working in his father’s firm, but when we meet him he is unemployed and estranged from his father (the reasons for this are only explained in the second season). Ryan’s attempts to end his life are finally interrupted by his neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), who wants him to watch her dog, Wilfred. Ryan is surprised to discover that Wilfred appears to him as a large, vulgar, Australian pothead (Jason Gann) wearing a very unconvincing dog costume. And the kicker is: Ryan is the only one who sees Wilfred in this way. This may seem like a gimmicky basis for a show, but it is also the source of some of the show’s greatest gags: one minute Wilfred is lecturing Ryan on ethics and the next he is chasing and maiming pelicans on the beach (“It’s a pelican !!! IT’S A PELICAN!!!..It was a pelican!!!”):
In a lukewarm review of pilot, Todd VanDerWerff explains “the show gets a surprising amount of mileage out of having Gann running around in a dog costume and saying things a dog might say if it could speak.” But Wilfred isn’t just shots of Jason Gann humping or chatting up his life partner, Bear, who is a large stuffed bear. The reason I love the show is because it so deftly shifts from bleakness to laugh-out-loud comedy. I often read about how shows like Louie and Girls are changing the rules of the sitcom by offering up tragic moments (like when Louie’s love interest dies in front of him on Christmas Day) in between low-brow body humor and Seinnfeld-ian levels of navel-gazing. But Wilfred takes those devices to another level. In Wilfred, despair and laughter are produced by the same cue — what is light quickly becomes dark, and vice versa.This is because the series is structured around the tension between two realities: either Ryan is a lonely, depressed, schizophrenic who uses an imaginary friend to work through his life’s problems or he is a lonely, depressed but otherwise sane man who happens to see his neighbor’s dog in human form because that is something that happens in this world. Therefore almost every scene on the series can be read in two ways.
Each episode is named after a particular lesson or virtue that Ryan needs to learn, such as “Letting Go,” “Avoidance,” and “Honesty.” Wilfred teaches these lessons to an unwilling Ryan , usually embroiling him in interpersonal conflicts that force the passive man to say or do things he normally wouldn’t. Although Ryan’s suicide attempt from the pilot is barely acknowledged, the series is clearly about teaching Ryan how to “live” (and live) in the world again. Of course, every “lesson” Wilfred teaches Ryan serves Wilfred’s interests in some way. We feel good when Ryan learns to stand up for himself or to reconnect with his institutionalized mother (played by an excellently loopy Mary Steenburgen), but we are always left wondering: is Wilfred helping Ryan to live or is he destroying Ryan’s life, piece by piece? And if Ryan is simply imagining Wilfred, then is Ryan using this dog-shaped delusion as an excuse to destroy his own life? Is he committing suicide, just at an incredibly slow rate?
Wilfred dances in between these many possibilities. Its genius lies in convincing the viewer to believe one scenario and then upending that belief with a single line or image. For example, after Ryan finally gives up on the possibility of romance with Jenna, he begins dating a co-worker named Amanda (Allison Mack). Amanda seems perfect — she’s funny, quirky, and clearly besotted with Ryan. It seems that perhaps Ryan will finally be able to have a loving intimate relationship after past traumas had made this kind of human connection difficult for him. But in “Truth,” Wilfred tries to convince Ryan that he should not move in with Amanda because he is still too mentally unstable. Ryan believes that Wilfred, as usual, is just looking out for his own self interests — if Amanda moves in, Wilfred will lose his best friend. Who will take him for walks or smoke pot with him? As they have this argument, an earthquake traps Ryan and Wilfred in the basement (of course). Bruce (Dwight Yoakam), the only other human who can see Wilfred (and thus the only plot point in the series that lends credence to the theory that Ryan might not crazy), appears to rescue the duo, promising to reveal the “truth” about Amanda that is concealed in a suitcase. This truth will prove why Wilfred is right.
But first, Ryan and Bruce must engage in a game of “Calvinball,” which involves pillow fights and “truth or dare.” The game is deliriously surreal, like so much in the series. When Ryan finally “wins ” the game and is granted access to the magical suitcase, he doesn’t discover anything about Amanda. Instead he finds a timer that tells him that he has spent 12 hours in his basement playing a bizarre game orchestrated by his neighbor’s dog. In other words, Wilfred was right — Ryan should not move in with Amanda.
Ryan is such a likable character (he is kind, empathetic and selfless to a fault) and we want him to be happy. But when we see the timer, the audience realizes — at the same moment that Ryan does — that he is crazy … but wait, is he? Or is this just what Wilfred wants Ryan to think in order to maintain the status quo? Isn’t it suspicious that everything that ends up “being for the best” also happens to serve Wilfred’s interests? These uncertainties are what drive the series and which make this show more than a collection of pooping on the lawn jokes (though I am 100% for a show that is nothing more than pooping on the lawn jokes).
And if that doesn’t interest you, Wilfred is worth watching for its “couch scenes” alone. Incidentally, as I was writing this post I found out that these short scenes, appearing at the end of show (after the main story has been resolved), are called “tags,” or “codas” (thank you Twitter):
Learning is fun!
The tags in Wilfred almost always take place on the couch in Ryan’s basement and feature Ryan and Wilfred engaged in a banal task, like playing a board game or having an inane conversation. They’re always fabulous:
And if that doesn’t interest you? Well, there are loads of other shows to watch. I hear The Good Wife is awesome, so maybe you should watch that instead?
I will be posting my “Best Meme,” “Best Film,” “Best Single,” and “Best of Social Media” picks over the course of the next few weeks. Stay tuned! If you dare!
Full disclosure: I am an upper-middle class, highly educated (I have a PhD!), white woman. So when the protagonist of Girls, Hannah (played by the show’s writer/producer/director Lena Dunham), admits to her emotionally distant, sometime-lover Adam (Adam Driver), that her parents have cut her off financially at age 24, and then adds, sheepishly, “Do you hate me?” her mixture of white privilege and liberal guilt reverberated with me. It was a moment of resonance, a particular feeling generated by a particular situation, and I experienced it as a “real” moment.
My guess is that Girls will create lots of resonant moments for many viewers for a variety of reasons. I imagine that some will relate to Marnie (Allison Williams) and her mixed feelings about her too-nice boyfriend or Jessa (Jemima Kirk) and her desire to travel in order to avoid impending adulthood. These are interesting characters. They are messy and imperfect, which is almost always preferable to neat and perfect characters. And I like that Hannah is slightly overweight, or as her fuck buddy assures her “You’re not that fat anymore.” I daresay that this is one of the most radical aspects of Girls: the very ordinariness of its protagonist. As I watched Hannah move across the screen, examining her for an inkling of physical charisma, I was both frustrated and elated. I was frustrated because I am so accustomed to looking at perfectly formed women on TV, with tiny waistlines and flat-ironed hair, that looking at a normal one was a little bit of a let down. But I was also elated by Hannah’s ordinariness and the radicalness of placing a slightly frumpy, slightly average-looking female character at the center of a television series about young women. Jenny Jones offers up a lovely analysis of Hannah’s appetites in her own response to the pilot:
The shot opens with Hannah in close-up but off-center, shoved into the bottom right corner of the shot, breathlessly stuffing spaghetti into her mouth. As the scene continues, she and her father voraciously shovel down food while Hannah’s mother encourages them to slow down. From the start this positions Hannah against her mother and toward her father, an issue which springs up later when her mother is also the instigator for stopping Hannah’s money flow. Hannah is portrayed as consuming carelessly–including sex, drugs, and money–and food does seem to be a primary way that’s characterized. Eating a cupcake in the shower seems to be the ultimate example of this.
I, too, loved seeing Hannah shoveling food into her mouth because I also eat this way and I know it is disgusting. It’s also unusual for a not-stick-thin actress to eat heartily on camera and not make it into a schtick (as Bridesmaids did with Melissa McCarthy’s character). As I watched I asked myself: what if every model and every actress was as average-looking as Lena Dunham? Note that I did not say “ugly” or “fat” (she is neither of these things). She’s just…plain. If film and television were populated with ordinary women would I feel less critical of my own aging body? Would my 5-year-old daughter be less likely to tell me, as she examines her perfectly perfect little body in the mirror,”This shirt makes me look fat”? (True story).
Why is it so rare and exceptional to have an ordinary-looking female protagonist? Ordinary male protagonists are ubiquitous, of course, but for some reason a female character can’t just be smart or powerful or deadly with a broadsword. She has to be fuckable. I don’t want to my 5-year-old to think she has to be fuckable. And the media are working against me and my attempts to bolster her self esteem. And that sucks.
But even as I praise Girls for these praiseworthy elements, it must be acknowledged that there is a wide swath of audience who will have difficulty finding an entryway into this show. As Francie Latour wrote in a recent editorial for the Boston Globe:
It’s a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City’s population.
Latour’s observations are not in any way surprising. Films and television series are usually not made with a non-white, non-middle class viewer in mind. And when television shows do feature, for example, an all African American cast, it is rare that these shows are allowed to explore the subtle realities of their character’s lives. These shows tend instead to be broad comedies or exploitative reality shows. So no, I’m not surprised that there were no brown faces (no poor faces, no queer faces) in the pilot episode of Girls. But I am disappointed.
No show can (or should) offer to represent all possible identities since this is both impossible and by nature unsatisfactory. But Girls is a specific kind of show. It is a show that aims for verisimilitude — with its focus on the plastic retainer Marnie sleeps in, the scene in which Jessa talks to Marnie while taking a dump and wiping herself (gross, but okay, there was some realism there) and the spartan decor in struggling actor Adam’s apartment. If this show takes the time and care to present the realities of life in New York City for this group of young women in their early twenties, then I do expect to see some homosexuals and some African Americans and definitely some Spanish-speaking characters. It’s New York City for crying out loud! It’s telling that the only person of color to speak a line of dialogue in the entire pilot is a crazy, homeless, African American man who makes a pass at Hannah as she leaves her parent’s hotel room. I mean, seriously, HBO? That’s the role you decided to give to the black guy? [note: I forgot about Hannah’s Asian coworker who asked for the Luna bar and the Smart Water and the Vitamin water. So that’s two POC]. They found a way to bring a British woman onto the show (she’s that Mamet girl’s “British cousin” of course!) so couldn’t an Indian girl be Hannah’s old friend from the weight loss camp her parents made her go to as a tween (I just made up that backstory, by the way)? Couldn’t an African American guy be an actor friend of Hannah’s fuck buddy? There are ways to do this that do not stretch the credibility of this program. And that would make the show more real because I just don’t buy that a girl like Hannah would only interact with straight white people when living in Brooklyn. I do not buy it. And by the way, saying that you wish you could have done this doesn’t count. Consider the following exchange from an interview with Dunham in The Huffington Post:
Are you concerned that people might just think “Girls” is another example of white people problems?
Definitely. We really tried to be aware and bring in characters whose job it was to go “Hashtag white people problems, guys.” I think that’s really important to be aware of. Because it can seem really rarified. When I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, “I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color.” You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that.
What? Why could you not do that this season? As the show’s closing credits inform us, you run this show, Ms. Dunham. If your hands are tied, you’re the one who’s tied them.
So is identification necessary to the pleasures offered by Girls? I would argue yes. It is a program that aims to create “real” moments, such as Hannah awkwardly trying to maintain a sexy bondage position while her doltish lover looks for lube and condoms. We are meant to watch this scene and think “Ah yes, I remember having an awkward sexual encounter like that!” And this is not to say that a gay man or a black woman cannot identify with a straight white woman and her awkward, somewhat humiliating sexual experiences. Of course they can. But I don’t think the show is cultivating that identification. I believe this show is zeroed in on a particular kind of viewer, a viewer who is like Dunham: white, middle- to upper-middle class, educated, and liberal. A viewer like me.
Why do I think this? Because the show is awash in its own privilege. It winks and nods, but then dismisses it as if to say “I acknowledged this okay? Can we move on to what I want to talk about now?” If you have the critical fortitude to acknowledge privilege, like when Hannah’s friend scoffs at her for whining about having to pay her own bills (reminding her that he has $50,000 in student loans), then you better well deal with it. Kristen Warner addresses this nicely in her post on the pilot:
White womanhood holds in its grasp innocence. They are the only ones who can truly be innocent. The only ones who can truly and sincerely have a conversation about why working at McDonalds is not an option while waiting on a cup of opium with Jay-Z playing in the background without remotely considering the juxtaposition of all these um…ideas. And the way that the main character, Hannah, and her girlfriends deploy that innocence (in sometimes successful but mostly unsuccessful ways) reveals the invisibility and instability of whiteness.
To offer up a counterexample, the current season of Mad Men is finally starting to do a respectable job of acknowledging its insulated whiteness. In the past Roger Sterling (John Slattery) has been a likable cad, making skirt-chasing, cheating on your wife, and getting drunk at lunch almost (almost) seem charming. But this season Roger has become a dinosaur, an artifact of the white male patriarchy. He is no longer charming. He can’t bring in new clients because he can’t understand that the world is changing. Instead he sits in his office and stews, getting drunker and hazier as the days goes by. In the meantime, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) puts her feet up on her desk, wears ties, and extorts money from her desperate boss. She is going to replace Roger because she at least understands, in a limited way, that the culture around her is changing. Roger just puts his head in the sand and this will be his downfall.
But Girls does not really address its privilege in a satisfactory way (meaning, I was not satisfied). When Hannah steals the housekeeper’s money we cut to her walking on the street (being harassed by the craaaazy black man) and smirking a small smirk of triumph. What did I need after that scene? I needed a 30 second scene depicting the housekeeper walking into the hotel room, instinctively looking around for her tip, and then muttering something about “cheap motherfuckers” before stripping the bed. That’s all I needed. Just a moment of consequence. Instead, Hannah gets to commit her selfish act in a vacuum and whoosh, it’s gone. Invisible. Quirky.
Am I being picky? A little. Can you judge an entire series based on its pilot? No. But let me explain myself through a teaching analogy: when I am grading essays I tend to be harder on my best writers. I challenge them more on their ideas, get more annoyed at their grammatical errors, and more outraged at their lazy arguments. “I know you are capable of better work than this” I might write at the end of a perfectly respectable essay. If you have the ability and the intelligence, then why create something subpar? I’m taking the same critical eye to my study of Girls. Dunham is a great writer and a pretty good actress with an ear for smart dialogue, and I know she can do better. Do better, Dunham, you are capable of better work than this. I give you a B. I know you can get an A.
For more reactions to Girls, I encourage you to check out our Facebook group, which is the hub of our Girls blogathon.
I can’t believe it’s been a month since my last post. Please forgive me, readers, and blame my pet humans instead. Both of these humans will be in some form of regular day care starting in August and yes, the thought of putting #2 in daycare does give me the weepies and intermittent panic attacks. However, daycare means that I will be able to return to blogging with some regularity. “Phew!” you must all be thinking, “Thank God she’s coming back!” Well, you’re welcome.
Now on to my post, before #2 wakes up. He has a sixth sense about my productivity. That is, he frowns upon it and likes to disrupt it with all the tricks of his trade: too-short naps, poop bombs, and my personal favorite, big, gummy smiles.
There are several blog-worthy shows currently on the air — True Blood, Top Chef, and soon, July-25th-soon, Mad Men! But I wanted to use this post to write about something that has been percolating in my brain for a few months now: my television pet peeves. As an avid TV watcher, I am pretty adept at suspending my disbelief. I accept that vampires, werewolves, and demons exist when watching shows like True Blood and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I accept that there is a magic island filled with polar bears and electromagnetic energy when I watch Lost. I even accept that the idea that the teenagers in shows like Gossip Girl drink martinis at hotel bars without getting carded. And I always accept most of those overused TV tropes documented at the great site TV Tropes. But there are a few tropes that I cannot stomach and which force me to yell at the television set every time they occur (which is a lot). I don’t have a good explanation for why these particular violations drive me up the wall, but here they are in no particular order:
1. My Water Just Broke!
Despite the fact that approximately 490,000 babies are born every day, television shows rarely get the details of childbirth right. Most labor scenes begin with a character saying — usually at some inopportune time, like in the middle of a kidnapping (Desperate Housewives), in a stalled elevator (Saved by the Bell) or, in a car during a traffic jam (Blossom) — “My water just broke!” Despite its prevalence on television, most women will go into labor long before their water breaks. This trope sticks in my craw because I believe it does a real disservice to first-time parents, who, despite reading all the books, still don’t recognize that labor has started without the iconic (but relatively rare) rupturing of the membranes. Case in point: when I went into labor with my first child, it took me several hours to convince my husband that I was truly in labor. I kept telling him, rather undramatically, “I think I’m in labor.” And he kept saying things like “Did your water break?” and “The doctor said you wouldn’t have the baby until next week.” and “Let’s watch the end of So You Think You Can Dance.” I did watch So You Think You Can Dance, but I was totally in labor. Had we been trapped in an elevator and had I yelled “My water just broke!” I’ll bet my husband would have believed me. Stupid TV.
2. Where’s the Umbilical Cord?
Giving birth to a baby is an exciting plot event and therefore TV scribes like to stage childbirth in all sorts of wacky places: see # 1. The brave laboring woman will often yell to a scared bystander “Whether you like it or not, this baby is coming NOW!” Or conversely, a brave bystander will yell at the scared laboring woman, “Whether you like it or not, this baby is coming NOW!” Much chaos and sweating and fetching of hot water will then ensue, followed by the birth of the baby, who is immediately placed in her quivering mother’s arms. It is at this point that I yell at the TV “Where’s the umbilical cord? You people need to cut the umbilical cord! That baby’s still attached to the placenta!” I get so agitated by this omission that I can’t fully enjoy the melodrama of the moment. Please writers, next time have someone cut the umbilical cord. That’s all I’m asking.
3. Going to Bed/Waking Up with Lipstick On
On the Glee episode “Home” (2010), April Rhodes (Kristin Chenoweth) must spend the night at Will Schuester’s (Matthew Morrison) apartment. As she slips into bed, singing some song I can’t remember, all I can focus on is her lips. Her shiny, lipsticked lips. I keep thinking about how, the moment she rolls over in bed, that nice white pillow case will be covered in sticky lipstick. Then she’ll roll back and get sticky lipstick in her pretty blonde hair. Gross. No woman goes to bed with lipstick on unless she’s drunk and passes out before getting the opportunity to wipe it off. I hate this TV trope. It drives me up the wall. “Take off your lipstick!” I scream as characters slip beneath their crisp, clean sheets. I understand that TV shows like Glee, Desperate Housewives and Gossip Girl (all prime offenders in this regard) do not aim for realism. But it is possible to make a character look like she isn’t wearing make up and still make her look pretty good. At least take off the shiny lipstick, people. No one goes to bed wearing shiny lipstick. No one.
4. Children who Don’t Resemble their Parents
When two very good-looking humans have sex with each other and make a baby, that baby usually ends up good-looking too (see Shiloh Jolie-Pitt). When a very good-looking human makes a baby with a funny-looking human, the results are less predictable (see Alexa Joel). Thomas Jane and Anne Heche are both very good-looking humans so it stands to reason that their offspring would be hot, or at least, not too shabby. But on the HBO show Hung, the offspring of Ray (Thomas Jane) and Jessica (Anne Heche), played by Sianoa Smit-McPhee and Charlie Saxton, are pretty darn unattractive (sorry, I’m not trying to be bitchy here). My guess is that this is the point of this miscasting — to be funny. Ray lives in a dying city, has a job at a underfunded school, a catty ex-wife, and two sullen Goth teens who failed to inherit his dashing good looks. Hilarious! But I find this visual joke distracting since these children look NOTHING like their parents. It’s just too hard to accept that they’re related. I was also frustrated by the casting on a much better show, Six Feet Under. I love Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, and Lauren Ambrose, and I can’t imagine any other actors in their roles, but those three look nothing like each other.
5. Teenagers with Too Much Power
This pet peeve dates back to my 90210 days (the original, not the reboot). I was always amazed that Brandon Walsh (Jason Preistly), the student body president of fictional California University, was so important to the university’s daily workings. He was always meeting with the Dean and being asked to join task forces and to advise big university muckety-mucks on major decisions. In the Season 5 episode “Homecoming” (1994), Brandon is pressed to challenge the presence of a visiting dignitary, Quintero, who has been accused of torture. Brandon launches his own investigation into the accusations (conveniently meeting a gardener who was a victim of Quintero’s regime), and serves Quintero a subpoena. Because administering international justice is the responsibility of the student body president. On a related note, I also hate it when teenagers achieve things that it takes adults years of hard work and dilligence to achieve. For example, I scoff everytime a character on Gossip Girl mentions that Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) was published in The New Yorker. The odds of getting a story published in The New Yorker is so slim, and yet broody old Dan Humphrey gets his banal work published there.
6. Newborn Babies Who Are Actually 6 Month Olds
I understand why a television show cannot use a newborn baby when portraying the birth of a newborn baby. First, newborns are ugly. They are wrinkly, swollen, and many of them have coneheads (due to being pushed through the birth canal). Newborns are also highly susceptible to colds and infections and so it’s not a great idea to have them on a crowded television set. I get it. Nevertheless, it drives me bonkers when we are shown a fresh-from-the-womb baby and he is fat and bright-eyed and not at all smushy-faced. Once again, this trope does a disservice to novice parents, who, when handed their fresh-from-the-womb baby, are probably wondering “Why is my kid so ugly?” Friday Night Lights is one of the few TV shows that used a baby resembling a newborn. Gracie Bell Taylor, when she first appeared on screen, was bug-eyed, scrawny, and splotchy. Of course, as she got older, Gracie Bell continued to be bug-eyed, scrawny, and splotchy, so um, at least that kid’s getting some sweet royalty checks!
These were all of the pet peeves I could come up with before # 2 decided to take his signature too-short nap. He is currently offering me big gummy smiles and attempting to poke a slobbery finger in my laptop’s USB port. He is a productivity-disrupting super genius. But, I’d like to know what TV pet peeves you have — particularly the ones that don’t seem to bother anyone but you.
This week I was two-timing my blog by posting on another, far more critically incisive site, In Media Res. If you are not familiar with this site, here is its basic mission:
In Media Res is dedicated to experimenting with collaborative, multi-modal forms of online scholarship.
Each day, a different scholar will curate a 30-second to 3-minute video clip/visual image slideshow accompanied by a 300-350-word impressionistic response.
We use the title “curator” because, like a curator in a museum, you are repurposing a media object that already exists and providing context through your commentary, which frames the object in a particular way.
The clip/comment combination are intended to both introduce the curator’s work to the larger community of scholars (as well as non-academics who frequent the site) and, hopefully, encourage feedback/discussion from that community.
Theme weeks are designed to generate a networked conversation between curators. All the posts for that week will thematically overlap and the participating curators each agree to comment on one another’s work.
Our goal is to promote an online dialogue amongst scholars and the public about contemporary approaches to studying media.
In Media Res provides a forum for more immediate critical engagement with media at a pace closer to how we typically experience mediated texts.
This week’s theme is “Kids TV” and several wonderful scholars are curating clips including: Michael Z. Newman (on The Wizards of Waverly Place), Heather Hendershot (on Ernie and Bert slash), Elana Levine (on Aaron Stone), and Jason Mittell (on Yo Gabba Gabba). My clip and curator’s note, entitled “Ironic Muppets and Horny Houseplants: Sesame Street‘s Dual Address” can be found here.
I hope you’ll check it out and possibly join the conversation!
In the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris’ column, “TV’s Great Bad Mommies” was devoted to the “bad mommies” featured on Showtime’s Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara. These women “invite you to be appalled — because, as we all know, few guilty pleasures are as nastily satisfying as secretly ragging on somebody else’s parenting skills.” His column concludes with a nod to Mad Men‘s Betty Draper (January Jones), who “performs motherhood like a scripted role — and experiences parenting less as a fulfillment than as the steep price she agreed to pay for the life of privilege she once wanted.”
I both agree and disagree with Harris’ assessment of Betty’s approach to motherhood. While it is tempting to see her as an ice queen, as a woman who merely endures her children in order to gain access to club lunches, furs and a maid, I think this view also discounts the richness of Betty’s character. Because Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) childhood is such a compelling mystery, it is easy to forget that Betty also experienced a traumatic childhood. Her story, like Don’s, is only revealed to the viewer in pieces.
We have learned, for example, that the late Mrs. Hofstadt was a beautiful, regal woman, but that she was also a real bitch; Betty discusses her with a mixture of reverence, fear, and resentment. Furthermore, as we discovered in last night’s episode, “The Arrangements,” Ruth Hofstadt took rather Draconian measures to ensure that her “fat” daughter lost weight (and kept it off). While sharing a tub of chocolate ice cream (with salt?) Gene (Ryan Cutrona) tells Sally (Kiernan Shipka) about how her Grandma Ruth would take her mother shopping and then make Betty walk all the way home. This parenting left an indelible mark on the adult Betty, who rarely puts anything other than vodka or cigarettes in her mouth. Oddly, Gene finds the story to be amusing, colorful even, rather than disturbing. He also urges Sally to become something other than a housewife, explaining that her grandmother did drafting work for an engineer in the 1920s. Smart women, it seems, should do things.
While this exchange exists, in part, to show some of the disdain Gene harbors for his daughter’s shallow existence, it also illustrates that he is surprisingly progressive for a man of his age and time. He sees that Betty is living a life of unrealized potential (I can’t wait for the episode in which Betty receives a copy of The Feminine Mystique ) and worries that Sally, an intelligent and curious child, will grow up to do the same. “You can really do something,” he tells Sally with sudden gravitas, “don’t let your mother tell you otherwise” (I originally had a link to this scene below but it has been removed by AMC. Phooey).
After purchasing a bag of peaches for his beloved granddaughter, Gene collapses in the A & P. Sally is naturally devastated by her grandfather’s death–the only adult to take a genuine interest in her has died. Therefore, when the news is delivered to Betty by a solemn police officer, it is fitting that neither of these two adults acknowledge Sally or her grief. Instead they leave her outside to sob alone in her ballet outfit. Later, when Sally rebukes her parents and aunt and uncle for laughing over a joke (she is too young to understand that laughter is often a part of grief), Betty chastises for her for being “hysterical.” “Go watch TV, Sally,” she commands. During this exchange the mother in me longed to reach my arms through the television screen and embrace Sally. And I wondered how I was supposed to feel about Betty and Don since they did not.
Indeed, at these moments it is difficult not to hate Betty Draper. But we must remember the lonely childhood Betty must have endured walking home from the grocery store, wiping the tears from her chubby cheeks, wondering all the while how she might gain the approval of the cold woman waiting for her at home. Betty was raised to shut herself away from food and emotion–she can’t even bring herself to discuss her father’s will with him. “Can’t you keep it to yourself?” she pleads, “I’m your little girl.”
This is not an excuse for Betty’s approach to mothering, but it is an explanation. Meanwhile, Sally is left to mourn her grandfather alone in front of the television, while images of self-immolating monks dance before her eyes.
So what do you think? Is Betty meant to be a sympathetic character, or do the writers want us to hate her?