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.