The Bland Perfection of Token Women

I was flipping channels a few nights ago and thought I’d give a mystery crime procedural called Durham County a go. Fifteen minutes later, I gave up for just one reason: the female characters kept breaking my suspension of disbelief (SOD).

Why exactly? Because the show is set in a small rural town in Canada, but every female character in the fifteen minutes that I watched was not just beautiful but stunningly glamorous, and the male characters they were surrounded by were very ordinary-looking men with ordinary grooming. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t object to actors who are ordinary-looking men on screen, and certainly ordinary-looking men do occasionally cross the paths of supremely gorgeous women, but if you set your story in a small town where all the women are Stepford Wife stunning, without commenting on the unusual “perfection” of women in the town as Stepford Wives actually did, then that mismatch is simply so unrealistic that I can’t take any interaction between the characters seriously.

Why the glamorous hair and make-up for Durham County? Why not a more realistic neat/tidy small town look? All I will be thinking is “why is she working in that laundromat instead of trying to be a Hollywood actress?” when of course the answer is that the real woman is indeed trying to be a Hollywood actress, and the director/producers have, for some reason, chosen to highlight this Tinseltown glamour instead of costuming their female characters as typical inhabitants of a small town. I simply could not concentrate on the narrative (that I’d not long ago read this brilliant Hathor Legacy post about the bland perfection demanded by Hollywood of women characters probably didn’t help).

So I flipped onwards to a different crime procedural show, Scotland’s long-running Taggart, and rapidly became absorbed by the unglammed attractions of the hawkish Blythe Duff and the much more believable women characters her detective character meets in the course of her investigations of homicides in and around Glasgow. Interestingly, Taggart regularly passes the Bechdel test albeit in a very limited way, because although Duff’s character is the only woman in the squad, she does regularly interact with women witnesses and/or suspects where they have a conversation about a murder rather than about a man (at least in those cases where the corpse is not a man). The show tends not to do any deeper female interactions/characterisations than that, so it’s a very low bar that has been hurdled, but at least Taggart doesn’t make the female actors spend 4 hours in the makeup van before these interactions happen.

Maybe the 15 minutes I saw of Durham County weren’t representative. Maybe there was a big town shindig happening that night that was part of some backstory I missed, and maybe those women had all been to the hairdresser already and were on their way home to change into their ballgowns when their paths crossed those of our ordinary-looking male protagonists. But the reason I switched away remains: the glamour factor mismatch is something that I notice on too many US television shows (I was mildly surprised when the Google showed me that Durham Country was Canadian) and I find that it interferes with remaining absorbed in the narrative.

Not all US TV shows fall into this trap. At least many other shows featuring stunning women do attempt to balance them with a few stunning looking men, so that even if there is still some glamour factor mismatch going on, it’s not as SOD-jarring when at least a few of the men are gorgeous too. But there’s a reason my favourite US TV shows of the moment are Dexter and True Blood: these productions acknowledge the reality that the humid heat of Miami and Louisiana respectively are no friends to glamorous grooming so the major women characters sensibly dress for the climate and for their jobs. Additionally, True Blood in particular is full of supporting women characters who are more ordinary-looking women and who aren’t shamed for that. On the Bechdel ratings, the first few conversation I remember between Debra and LaGuerta in Dexter was about Debra’s desire to transfer from Vice to Homicide, and the first conversation I remember between Sookie and Tara in True Blood was about Tara getting fired from her job for mouthing off (aka being “uppity” in response to condescension). Both shows do centre relationships, so there are plenty of conversations between women characters about relationships, but at least it’s not the only conversations they have (except for maybe Rita).

It’s frustrating to realise that the positive fan response to friendships such as Sookie/Tara and Debra/LaGuerta (especially when the producers of both series have deliberately beefed up Tara’s and LaGuerta’s parts from the original novels and fans of the books are full of the squee that this has happened) is going to get spun as how viewers are all really only interested in Dexter, or really only interested in Bill or Eric. Because that’s what keeps on happening, again and again, every time women are written as interesting in themselves rather than solely as adjuncts to men and the result is popular with the audience. Producersplaining. What we really loved wasn’t Ripley, it was the monster effects, and what we really loved wasn’t Sarah Connor, it was Ahnuld (and the liquid-Terminator effects). Arrrrgh.

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism

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13 replies

  1. Ummm….I read the Stepford Wives, book, then saw the movie. Perhaps it’s because I am forever grateful to Sassoon for making straight near-black hair OK, just cut and blow or “finger” dried, but I didn’t think those hairdos made the plastic “ladies” look wonderful. I remember blond, teased, frozen hair styles. My memory? Your point is well taken, though: men in film (I don’t watch tv) can be much older than any woman in the film. And sometimes a character’s mother is real life age, nearly the same age and the man. Double standard has not gone anywhere. And if we add in disability….disabled women are nearly invisible in media. Although I had some good laughs today at
    both the Mail OnLine and the Independent writing about a store’s first adverts using a woman who is real life disabled as a model: laugh because first they
    have her, a wheelchair user, who is paralyzed, they report, posing upside down, with her head on the ground/or grass and feet in the wheelchair. The Daily Mail website calls her “confined to wheelchair”. (I’m not so great on
    names, but it’s the same website Daily Mail, Mail OnLine. I’ve turned into
    my mother Ms Malaprop,too.) I just recommended this website, again, to a
    person who said her/his mother who just got on facebook is age 60. Sanda

  2. I love True Blood for that – there are some LUDICROUSLY toned and honed bodies on display, but they are male *and* female for once (Eggs, Lafayette and Jason in particular – how often do men experience how it feels to see bodies unobtainable for most, and only obtainable by strict diet/exercise regimes being represented and sexualised on screen – it’s very easy for them to tell us it’s ‘just tv’ when it’s US who has to cop the continual unrealistic images), and the sexuality of other bodies – more akin to the ‘average bodies’ of viewers – is overtly displayed. Sex and desire are also presented in different ways in True Blood than most other tv. There is the ‘conventional love’ of Sookie and Bill (though that ‘conventionality’ is called into question regularly) but there is a lot of sex for the sake of sex, a lot of women assertive about the ways in which they enjoy sex and confronting Jason’s judgments about that, a lot of female characters acting in quite ‘aggresively’ sexual ways. I don’t think it’s perfect by any means but I love the messy visceral representations of physicality, desire and sex, even in the opening credits…and I whooped for joy to see a woman’s thigh (though not ‘large’ by any means, at least bigger than those usually presented as sexy in cinema) dimpling as thighs do as it’s wrapped around another, and presented as sexy. I wish non-hetero sex was more well represented, but it does some great things. And Tara’s body though thin is STRONG and she’s loud and defiant and wonderful and Sookie just when you think you’ve got her ‘pegged’ as sweet gives someone a vociferous mouthful.

  3. Spot on about a lot of American TV shows – they seem to order in the token females from a hollywood femebot factory. There are some great exceptions too; United States of Tara, True Blood, the female characters in The Wire were fascinating….
    Although so called arty French films give me the shits as well – stereotypically some manky old dude getting hot and heavy with a 17yr old goddess. Jeez it wasn’t original 40 reincarnations ago.

  4. I can’t remember either of the actors names, but I do remember a famous Hollywood story told by the woman that when she first started her career she played the daughter of this famous actor in a movie, later in her career she played his wife and as her career drew to a close she played his mother while he, like Dorian Grey, never seemed to age.

    • Mindy, that was Lilian Gish on Lionel Barrymore, although you’ve not quite remembered it right:

      “You know, when I first went into the movies Lionel Barrymore played my grandfather. Later he played my father and finally he played my husband. If he had lived I’m sure I would have played his mother. That’s the way it is in Hollywood. The men get younger and the women get older.”

  5. I knew someone would know it! Thanks for that TT.

  6. *spoiler and trigger warning*
    I love Taggart and yes a lot of it is due to the actors looking and sounding like real people. I saw nearly all the first episode of Durham County in the hopes that I could add it to my stable of much enjoyed Muddah Drummah but the opener was rape, followed by torture, then necrophilia. Uh yeah no. Switched off never to be seen again. *shudder*

  7. Sally Field went through that transformation too – in “Stand up” (I think that’s the name of the film), she was Tom Hanks’ love interest, and in “Forrest Gump”, she was his mother.
    One of the things I remember about “Cagney and Lacey” was how non-glamorous they both looked compared to the TV women of the day. I can’t even think of a show now where the female characters aren’t all stunning.

  8. Lots of British shows are great for having more ordinary looking women instead of models. Even their versions of the hot characters often aren’t as blandly perfect as they are in US shows. They also must use a different lighting, I think the US uses a softer lighting, or maybe it’s the film. But it just looks softened, whereas, British/Australian shows have a crisper more realistic look to the image.
    I also remember hearing a US critic review Muriel’s Wedding, saying they enjoyed it, but complaining that Toni Colette had bad teeth – ie not perfect, doesn’t cut it as a leading lady for Hollywood.
    Hollywood’s version of an imperfect female character is Ugly Betty – ie very attractive but with glasses and braces.

    • Speaking of Toni Collette, I remember Lucy Davis, who played Dawn in The Office (UK) reportedly turning down in high dudgeon a role as Cameron Diaz’s “fat, ugly sister” in In Her Shoes, a role that was eventually played by Collette (who isn’t fat or ugly either). This was probably not Davis’ cleverest career move, because they meant fat/ugly by Hollywood standards, which basically translates to Julia Roberts playing Catherine Zeta Jones’ less glamorous sister, with an excuse for flashback scenes with a fat suit. But I can totally understand her reaction.

  9. Ooooh, Taggart! Love that show, and yes, the people in it look like actual folks in a town where the main industry is NOT beauty being sold as a commodity.
    One of the things I remember about “Cagney and Lacey” was how non-glamorous they both looked compared to the TV women of the day. I can’t even think of a show now where the female characters aren’t all stunning.
    And yet they were both beautiful in their own unique ways. You couldn’t mistake either of them for any other actress with similar coloring – back then, it was still good for each popular actress to have her own look. Now, not only do they all look blandly beautiful, they tend to all look alike.
    Lots of British shows are great for having more ordinary looking women instead of models. Even their versions of the hot characters often aren’t as blandly perfect as they are in US shows.
    I second that!

  10. I can’t even think of a show now where the female characters aren’t all stunning.
    Stunning as in the woman herself or the whole ‘look’ (ie hair, clothes, makeup etc)?

  11. Heh. “Stunning” as in dolled up to the nines – I was shorthanding off my use of “glamorous”, which isn’t the same as beautiful in my book. Both Sharon Gless and Tyne Daley are beautiful women, but they were not heavily glitzed, the way many female detectives are now on US TV. And don’t even get me started on the US “CSI:” franchise – the women are impossibly made up and dressed for the job – frequently, their clothes are far too revealing for any workplace, so the viewers get a good long look at their cleavage. 😡
    I was watching Steven King’s “The Stand” (the 1994 miniseries) last night, and both of us (me n’ husband) remarked on how Frannie (played by Molly Ringwald) is very inappropriately dressed througout – in a miniskirt for riding a motocycle, in soft flowing gowns – and very overdressed and made up in most of the scenes. It was irritating and distracting. King’s books are often big on the feminist fail, but the character in the book is a *lot* better than the way the part was written for TV.

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