A Bechdel Rant

Television -- comic-styleI’ve just been sitting on a rant about portrayal of women (not to mention minorities, basically anyone but hetero white males) in American television series. Sure, I can extend that to other countries, books, movies, etc., but let’s stay focused.

Thanks to the magic of Netflix, Hulu, and similar services, as well as our friends’ DVD collections, Edmund and I like to try TV shows we have not seen before, new and old. (Again, books and movies too, but out of scope for this post.) We don’t have a television, so our access is haphazard, but in recent years we have been able to catch up with a lot on DVD or streaming. In a way, it’s like we’re catching up to modern day in our little time machine.

There have been good surprises, a lot of indifferent stuff, and a number of major disappointments. One is the oft-recommended “Mad Men,” which a lot of my friends love. While I knew that it explicitly featured 1960s attitudes which are now (supposedly) unacceptable, I was very disappointed to see that the series both deliberately attracted attention to, in particular, misogyny without showing the battles and heroes that allowed us to move past the worst of it. It feels like the show is just wallowing in gratuitous misogyny as a nominally forbidden pleasure along with the smoking and drinking. Watching it, you can pretend that, ha ha ha, it’s all thing of the past, boy, you sure couldn’t get away with that today, right? Except you can. And except that instead of taking on the ugliness of the setting and transcending it, the show just revels in it. Nope, not gonna watch the rest of it, I can just watch the news and the Republican primaries.

Another disappointment is “Justified.” This one doesn’t even have the excuse of being set in the past; it’s in current-day Kentucky. No cheap jokes at the expense of Kentucky — I think the show already does that sufficiently, serving to sophisticated HBO viewers the hicks and rednecks they expect to see. The cast is even generally quite decent, and Elmore Leonard is usually a good writer, but the whole series never makes it past the daddy issues of the hero Mighty Whitey. We’re seen all but the last of the first season’s 13 episodes, and the show has yet to pass the Bechdel test. What’s the excuse? And like in “Mad Men,” though a bit more subtly, we’re treated to explicit exploration of how sexist and misogynist the setting is, but never is this confronted. Again, the show simply wallows.

To cleanse my brain, I’ve been viewing “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.” I’ve read the first few books of the series, and I think the show makes it pop just wonderfully. The casting, acting, dialogue, music, and magnificent photography are just a delight. I feel just so refreshed when watching this show, I’m sure it’s doing something good to my mind.

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