By Kelsea Stahler, Hollywood.com Staff
In the realm of television, girl power is at an all-time high. And not in the way that your middle school notebook promised, with visions of pink sparkles and psychedelic daisies, but in a very real, almost tangible sense.
Female showrunners like New Girl's Liz Meriweather and The Mindy Project's Mindy Kaling are few and far between, joined by a cluster of notables like Girls' Lena Dunham, Don't Trust the B's Nanatchka Chan, 2 Broke Girls' and Whitney's Whitney Cummings, among others, but the good news is that the number of female showrunners is relatively high and growing. We'll soon add The Carrie Diaries' Amy Harris to the lot and 2013-2014 pilots offering up a few opportunities as well.
Now, besides the obvious idea that adding more ladies-in-charge to a televisual landscape that is run almost entirely by men is wonderful because of its steps toward the simple notion of equality in the industry, the shift offers a second, speedier effect: the presence of more and more female television characters who feel like the women we are instead of the women some writers think we should be. Fox's unofficial ladies' hour, the strong pairing of hit sitcom New Girl and newbie The Mindy Project, offers the promise of an empowering hour of television in which women are more than vehicles for a romantic plot, but rather, the fascinating subjects of hilarious plotlines that feel less like an opportunity for being adorable and desirable and more like a true comedic spin on what life is really like as a grown-ass woman. However, that's a promise that's not always easy to keep. Does Fox's ladies hour help or hurt the plight of the TV woman?
Last Tuesday, Zooey Deschanel's doe-eyed darling encountered the age-old lady problem: PMS. And while the episode, titled "Menzies," attempted to use PMS as a device to help Jess realize her stagnancy post-teacher-layoffs, the plot eventually devolved into a living set-back in the form of menstrual-shtick. While Nick (Jake Johnson) got his zen on, Jess devolved into the premenstrual monster, spending all day in pajamas and taking down every innocent male in her path. At first, this was a hyperbolic outpouring of her frustration with her continual joblessness, but by the time we get our girl into an interview for a night school teaching position, she's uncontrollably crying at the sight of a puppy in a teacup - and that's before her potential new boss says the poor pup had passed away.
What was happening on this progressive new show? Wasn't this where the line between male problems and female problems blurred? (And no, giving Winston sympathy PMS for an episode does not count as "blurring the line.") Why is Jess, the best laid off school teacher ever and extraordinary weirdo, reduced to a puddle of emotions in the one place most humans can manage to pull themselves together? And why was she reduced to such madness by a picture a seven-year-old girl might slap on the front of her trapper-keeper? Sure, we can argue that what Jess was really feeling was the inadequacy of being unemployed and spending her days watching Family Matters reruns and that the puppy photo was merely the tipping point, but that's not the point.
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It's about a relatively realistic TV heroine being taken from her unique spot as a person on television, and not just a woman on television, and placing her back into the TV female grab bag. Unless a series is going full Liz Lemon with a period joke ("Oh no, my period! You're all fired!" or the far stranger "cold tampons" request), it's really difficult to handle it in a way that doesn't devolve into detrimental female stereotypes. It's basically the female equivalent of being kicked in the family jewels: a cheap laugh born from a simple anatomy lesson. Can we move on now?
But was this period fumble just a one-time thing? Have New Girl and The Mindy Project been letting us down this season? Let's start with Kaling's series, which implies in its name that the titular Mindy has some learning to do. And she does: She battles the desire to have a mental breakdown when her ex-boyfriend posts his wife's sonogram on Facebook, she learns the hard way that creating a fake "desirable" persona on a date isn't actually going to find her love, she battles the rampant sexism in her office by refusing to "man-up" and prove that she can still love chocolate fountains and Sandy Bullock and be great at her job, and she aims to correct the over-specific phrase that is "girl crush." No one's going to think you're a lesbian if you just say you have a crush on Tina Fey.
So far so good, right? Right. But then we get into murky territory. Kaling's Dr. Lahiri makes progress towards a life in which she doesn't totally base her behavior off of her favorite early '90s rom-com, but there are a few unflattering female stereotypes she's not quite ready to get rid of: First, she's a fan of the vindictive retort. How many times can she return one of Danny's (Chris Messina) insults with a hurtful comment about his wife leaving him before we cry "b**ch"? And not in the fun, Krysten Ritter sort of way.
Second, Mindy is a doctor - as in someone who spent their 20s in school while the rest of us were learning how to manage a Wednesday morning hangover - yet she spends almost all of her time onscreen worrying about men: when she'll meet one, how to impress one, what to say to one when she finds him, how much longer she has before one can't get her pregnant anymore, etc. One would expect that a highly-educated, successful protagonist would have plotlines that didn't only revolve around her romantic prospects - even her professional rival has all the makings and foundations of the future Ross to her Rachel. This show is in danger of becoming the TV version of that girl at brunch who keeps insisting you talk about boy problems when you're trying to discuss the last book you read or how to approach your boss about a raise. Yeah, we've all got man/boy issues, but let's make sure we're more than that too.
Third, Mindy is hyper-aware of her body shape. Yes, most women are excruciatingly cognizant of all the things that are supposedly "wrong" with their bodies. It's the society that we live in. But Kaling is refreshingly normal in a world of abnormally, and almost universally stick-thin actresses. We could just thank the TV gods that we've got a realistic woman in a leading role, but instead, we have to constantly confront it. Danny tells Mindy she needs to lose weight. Even Mindy tells Mindy she needs to lose weight. She flips out when her boyfriend wears her jeans as a joke, because she's insecure about her body and in theory, we're supposed to be laughing. But as a PLOS One study discovered, the key to changing our perceptions of "perfect bodies" comes from simply being exposed to varying body types on a regular basis. Not from mocking them. Why ruin that by bringing up the same insecurities about one of those body shapes that we're aiming to remedy? Why not let Mindy's "Beyonce Padthai" alter ego lead her to power over stereotypes, and not just over the character she's totally going to end up as the questionable recipient of unrequited feelings by the season finale?
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New Girl hasn't done much better. In a season that started with one of the biggest life changes a person can go through - being laid off - we've spent most of our time watching Jess learn how to hook up with a sex friend and that allowing Nick to be her emotional fluffer is fine, even it's "breaking" some arbitrary law of the sexes. It wasn't until November that the series finally made a storyline out of Jess' unemployment, and even then that only came after the romantic interest is out of the picture and she only comprehends her predicament because (ack!) her period is driving her to dangerous levels of emotion. We can put up with the fact that Jess suddenly falls for her friend with benefits, despite his apparent diztiness and his love for Creed (yeah, that Creed), because he's a pediatrician - she was a school teacher, after all. But the fact that she's gone six whole episodes without a single reference to her career being in utter shambles, aside from a quip here or there about her temp job of the week, is problematic. Jess likes sexing her FWB, but the Jess we know would not be that complacent about her aimless life for that long. In fact, what woman would be?
Yet, that's exactly what Jess does. Our plucky lady takes detours down sexist lane when she berates Cece for being a "dumb model," a stereotype Cece's dumb roommate Nadia certainly doesn't help to dispel. She stops at Sexy Makeover Point, where she gets a new set of heels and a slinky new wardrobe for an episode or two. She gives up her own name in order to keep sexing the Creed fan (and thankfully eventually takes it back). She spends six episodes doing little more than sexual somersaults, when any normal, functioning human (male or female) that resembles Jess in any way, shape, or form would be panicking over his or her lack of direction.
But do these traits indicate the series' flaws? Or simply that the characters within them still have some growing to do? Only future episodes can answer that question (as long as they no longer include ladies weeping at images of cute, cuddly creatures), but unfortunately for these ladies, the stakes are high. It takes a great deal of work to combat the versions of women we've come to know on television. We all fall prey to superficial questions about our bodies. We all tumble into phases of our lives in which a man-problem is all we can think about. It's a condition of being human. As long as Mindy and Jess manage to dive into the wealth of other aspects of their personalities or in Jess' case, delve back into them all will be well. Don't let us down, ladies.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Fox (2)]
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