Welcome to the Working Week: “Enlightened”, Labor, and Feminism

For weeks I’ve been stewing over a New York magazine article, “The Retro Wife.” It was published back in March and it seemed like such purposefully incendiary click-bait that I had a hard time balancing my revulsion at the content with any real attempt to take it seriously.  The article is a “trend piece,” though what it charts is no trend whatsoever.  The article attempts to discuss modern young women who have decided to forego joining the workforce, opting to be stay-at-home moms while also claiming to be feminists. The central example in the piece is Kelly Makino, a woman who gave up her job at a non-profit in order to stay home in New Jersey and raise her two children while her husband worked and earned all of the money necessary to maintain their upper-middle class lifestyle.

I suspect author Lisa Miller chose Makino precisely because she’s such an extreme and unpleasant version of this story, a woman with such privilege and delusional gender politics the reader is set up to dislike her: mission accomplished.  Take this example: ‘”Alvin benefits no less from his wife’s domestic reign. Kelly keeps a list of his clothing sizes in her iPhone and, devoted to his cuteness, surprises him regularly with new items, like the dark-washed jeans he was wearing on the day I visited. She tracks down his favorite recipes online, recently discovering one for pineapple fried rice that he remembered from his childhood in Hawaii. A couple of times a month, Kelly suggests that they go to bed early and she soothes his work-stiffened muscles with a therapeutic massage. “I love him so much, I just want to spoil him,” she says.”  Is there any person out there–working or otherwise–who doesn’t want to shun such a fool?

Last year Forbes published a piece with a similar tone. So perhaps the “trend” in these trend pieces is that about once a year, a bourgeois media outlet focuses on a few white straight married women with the privilege to “opt out.”  But the numbers don’t bear out this supposed trend.  According to Gallup, only %14 of women are stay-at-home parents, which is a small but not insignificant number.  The Gallup numbers also reveal that a large majority of women who stay home to raise children do so for economic reasons, in that poorer women can’t afford pre-school, child care, etc. and therefore stay at home as a result.  This leaves them with less money overall, but working would not significantly contribute to their overall household income once other costs were factored in.  This isn’t “opting out” as Makino and other understand things.  And pieces like those in Forbes  and New York are only interested in wealthier, college-educated women, who have an excess of choices to make, and therefore reveal very little about being a stay-at-home parent or economic realities in general.

One of the goals of modern American feminism (but not the only one) has been about making the workplace better for women–eliminating harassment, equal pay for equal work, fair leave time, etc.  The logic seems to be that greater economic independence for women leads to greater independence overall. But the recent passage of the “Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act” of 2009 and Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In reveal, being a working woman still kind of sucks.  Very few jobs, even high-paying executive work like Sandberg’s, consider the needs of working women, both as mothers, caregivers, friends, and pretty much everything else.  Women are limited in the workplace in ways both implicit and explicit, and hey, if you’re husband makes six-figures and you’re tired of getting paid .70 cents to the male dollar, why not just pack it up? Makino is odious, but one can’t help but feel a little sympathy for her situation.

Part of the problem seems to also stem from our cultural imagination for women.  First, the most obvious: we have a hard time picturing women who aren’t white, heterosexual, and straight–that’s already a serious limit of women’s experiences. But even within that narrow context life looks even smaller. For the most part, television still parades women as mothers, and usually stay-at-home mothers (though that seems to be shifting).  I have always loathed Everybody Loves Raymond, but mostly for its portrait of women–the two women on the show are homemakers who hate one another, and spend their energy either on their children, fighting with one another, or complaining about and to their husbands. In a slightly different register, Raymond might be an Edward Albee play.  But the show’s burlesque of domestic dissatisfaction represents a large majority of women’s representation in the media.  Then there are other shows like Scandal or The Good Wife, that focus on working women (in admittedly exceptional workplaces) and the professional competence of these women are held up as models of feminism and independence.  They are that, but it still seems to leave women with a couple of options–stay at home, or work.  Those are the only two places where self-fulfillment can possibly happen.  The fantasy of “opting out” is predicated on this failure of imagination.

There have been alternatives to this, though few: Sex and the City was totally unconscious of its class politics, but created a world in which women spent time socializing, dating, fucking, talking, etc. They had jobs that were part of the show, but the show didn’t buy into work as an exclusive form of liberation. Girls does this is a less romantic key, and with a bit more awareness of how money still plays a role in its characters lives. But to me Enlightened offered the most fully realized alternative to the work/family dichotomy that plagues our representations of women. It was of course canceled after two low-rated seasons.

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Enlightened was co-created by Mike White and Laura Dern, who stars as Amy Jellicoe, a woman who suffers a nervous breakdown while working for Abaddon Industries.  She goes to a Buddhist-inflected retreat, and returns to work and life in general with a new goal to achieve inner peace and work for good in the world.  But Amy soon learns that Abaddon is not interested in her revitalized self and she is demoted to a thankless basement job with other corporate misfits.  While working on the job Amy learns of the various environmental and human rights abuses her company takes part in, and thinks (somewhat naively) that she can right the corporate ship and its capitalist ethics.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the show–though it has been canceled and won’t return to air, I hope that some who have not watched it will still find the show.  But I do want to point out some key features that make the show pertinent to this discussion about women in the workforce.  The show balances Amy’s work and personal life, but neither are held up as an ideal.  Her mother is distant, even dissociative, and Amy’s attempts to forge intimacy with her rarely work out. She is focused on her ex-husband, but this goes beyond trying to piece their relationship back together and resume some kind of hetero-domestic normalcy.  And Amy’s attempts to bring ethical consciousness to her workplace unsurprisingly do not go over well.  Left without the traditional comforts of work and home, Amy attempts to find new ways to fulfill herself as a person, to live out her new found ethics, and to be a better person in the world. The show beautifully navigated this course over its brief run, and extended its insights into Amy’s mother (Diane Ladd), her ex (Luke Wilson), and her coworkers, most specifically Tyler (played by co-creator and writer Mike White).

Amy’s failed home life sends her to find meaning in work; when work doesn’t provide this, she attempts to revitalize her home life, with a similar lack of success.  Once Amy sees both sides of the binary fall apart, she attempts a new life course.  She is not an idealized heroine (some have incorrectly labeled her an anti-hero), but the show respects and admires her attempts to make a better world for herself and others. Women who choose to “opt out” cite their children or family’s well being as motivation, but this often times feels self-interested to me, despite its veneer of care.  And such self-interested decision making doesn’t seem to be the heart of feminism, which looks to make a more equitable world for all women, dismantling structures that give women limited choices in the first place. Though there’s nothing idealized about Amy’s searching, the show makes  her vision of a better world its central feature, and refuses to believe in the comforts of home or the belief that work can liberate.

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Hell is Other People: Under the Dome

CBS, the network your grandparents fall asleep to, has been a ratings juggernaut for over a decade. And except for fans of The Big Bang Theory, this might come as news to anyone under the age of 40. CBS excels in baby boomer targeting–producing the kind of police and legal procedurals that haven’t deviated from a template developed decades ago. Their sitcoms are similarly banal, relying on the traditional 3-camera, studio audience based, family comedy that most younger viewers have been ignoring for awhile. Although they occasionally produce a hit that is also a critical favorite (such as The Good Wife), the bread and butter of the network is NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: Knoxville, and NCIS: Quad Cities. If it ain’t broke.

But in a pique of originality, CBS decided to get on the Lost-bandwagon that proved so reliable for shows like Heroes and V: high-concept, hour long sci-fi programming. The gamble has paid off, and Under The Dome is a #1 hit, according to Nielsen. The show is based on a Stephen King novel of the same name, and enters the pantheon of questionable television translations of King’s work. The show is also being distributed by Amazon’s video service, proving that, like getting a text from your grandmother, even CBS is capable of adaptation.

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Here’s the premise: someone or something drops a dome on the town of Chester’s Mill, Maine.  And the town is under it. Hence the title. There are several initial casualties, including a cow (now two cows) and a truck barreling unknowingly towards the invisible barrier.  The drama is two-fold—figuring out what the dome is and how it got there, and how the town reacts to being sealed in together.  Secrets are revealed in the hot-house climate of being trapped with friends and neighbors in a crisis, giving the show a Twilight Zone-like quality, such as the famous episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” Stephen King has always reveled in exposing isolated small towns as hotbeds of psychopaths, wife-beaters, and religious fanatics, and Under the Dome is no exception. The show’s initials episodes have an almost frenzied quality–without giving too much away, we see latent psychopaths bloom, fires burn, epidemics, power struggles, corpses, etc. And we’re only four episodes in.

The show is a mixed bag–the pacing is frantic, with a conflict/resolution cycle that makes it seem that the show can’t quite commit to being truly serialized. It makes me long for the first season of Lost which excelled at a slow-burn of mystery and dread. But the central premise is undeniably compelling and even when I watch in exasperation, I patiently wait for the next episode.  The performances also run the gambit. At one end of the spectrum is Dean Norris (of Breaking Bad) as ‘Big Jim’ Remmie, elevating the material as best he can; at the other end is his son Junior, played by Alexander Koch. Koch is an undeniably handsome face on an undeniably awful performance. But the writing is helping him much either.

I mentioned The Twilight Zone as a touchstone for the show, but we have a long cultural tradition of digging under the surface of small town life, particularly in their moments of peril. David Lynch did this with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks and Shirley Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery” takes a small town’s love of tradition to its ugly and perhaps logical extreme.  Under the Dome is then part of America’s love/hate relationship with its quaint small towns. On the one hand they are an idyllic place of tradition–places where people still shop downtown at local stores, manufacturing, farming, and commerce are united in a holistic balance, everyone knows your name, etc. But everyone also knows your name, which leads to gossip and backbiting. Those small town shops are full of the same crappy goods as last year, and everyone seems so boring. Many of our classic cultural productions either celebrate the small town (The Andy Griffith Show) or celebrate the escape to more exciting places. In Under the Dome we have a town ready to both come together in crisis, while also perhaps tearing each other limb from limb.  It’s to the show’s credit that it manages so far to keep that balance.

But what might be most interesting about the show at this point is something else it reveals about America’s out-of-the-way places: they aren’t really out of the way.  As I’m based in New York City, I often think about what it would be like to move to the country, perhaps up to the Catskills in a little cabin shaded by mountain. Because sometimes you just want to get away from it all. The privacy and intimacy of small town life is a big part of its appeal, but it is also a fiction. Your small town doctor might have cared for your parents and will care for your newborn too, but she got her degree at NYU, and her medical equipment (including the medication we so often need) comes from across the country and the globe.  No grocery store is truly local, and the fact that I can eat an avocado salad in January in the upper-peninsula of Michigan reminds us of the globalized world we have always lived in, even if we choose to ignore it.  Even those quaint towns along the Great Lakes or the Hudson River, with their small town atmosphere, exist because of the waterways and railroads that have been moving human beings and our goods around for generations. To live in the developed world, even in its tiniest corners, is to be globally connected. Our retreats from the world are merely tactical, and we return materially to it in order to survive with even modest comfort and security.

Under the Dome undermines all of this with its central premise–this town, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world, is literally cut off from the rest of the world. The epidemic that spreads in episode three produces a crisis not only because a domed community is a great place for communicable disease, but because, when cut off from the world, the community has to ask if it has enough medicine to survive. No doubt the town will soon have to face shortages of food, clean water, and, soap.  Perhaps, like Lost, they will find hidden resources under their own noses.  But unless some shady European science project has been using Chester’s Mill as a secret base, that seems unlikely. Under the Dome pushes us to think very critically about what it means to just get away from it all.  It’s not just being trapped with people who will reveal themselves to be more selfish in a crisis than you might have expected, but what happens when the resources we take for granted suddenly disappear.

I don’t know how hard Under the Dome will push on this idea, but the show’s greatest terror for me is the terror of scarcity. Previous shows have addressed these terrors, but Lost set the problem on a desert island and Revolution in a post-apocalyptic world. Under the Dome places the problem in our home towns, one of the central myth-making locations of American culture.

Sad Men: More Thoughts on the Antihero

Why so sad Don?

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A word that gets thrown around a lot, and incorrectly, is “deconstruction.” What began as a controversial philosophical mode out of France in the 1960s has become an indelible code word in modern cultural criticism.  For example, The Hollywood Reporter‘s episode re-cap series for Mad Men is called “Mad Men Deconstruction.” This usage is wrong in a common way: it confuses the practices of close reading and analysis for the process of “deconstruction.” It also has certain political implications in the world of pop culture analysis that I also want to think about.

I suspect our popular usage of the word stems from a generation of cultural critics who received liberal-arts educations in the 1980s and 90s, and who often found some of the central terms and ideas of literary and cultural theory in philosophy, literature, and other disciplines. But if those critics were anything like me, they probably didn’t understand things too well, or perhaps lost some of the precision of those terms in the years following graduation. But those terms remain in our heads, and inform our thinking, however imprecise.  So it’s worth going back to the origins of the term and to think about what it means, particularly in our current pop culture discussion of the “antihero.”

And what better place to turn than Wikipedia? The entry on “deconstruction” will serve nicely enough to get us through, and those who would rather go back to Derrida’s Of Grammatology or turn to a more thoughtful writer than me should do so. “Deconstruction” means first to disrupt the binary oppositions that overwhelmingly structure Western thinking, binaries such as male/female, reason/emotion, writing/speech. As Jacques Derrida (from whom the term comes) tells us, those oppositions are never between equals: one is always privileged over the other. The purpose of deconstruction is to dismantle those oppositions, to take away the privilege and power that always resides disproportionately on one side of the binary.  In this regard deconstruction is an intensely political project, one that seeks to move beyond analysis of the binary to change the way we think about power in the world.  This is why deconstruction has been a major weapon in the arsenal of late 20th century feminist thinkers like Judith Butler and others. The political implications of deconstruction are what make it so vital, vital enough to get many of us through the dense and sometimes turgid prose of writers like Derrida.

Shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos, and others rely on extreme portraits of male privilege–the Mafia, 1960s advertising, etc. They focus on white straight men with dubious morals who behave frequently and unapologetically in repulsive ways. But we are often told that these portraits are not celebrations of male power, but critical analyses of them, and that these alpha males are being “deconstructed” by their own narratives: by placing Tony Soprano on the therapist’s couch we have already dismantled the masculine power of the Mafia don. As I alluded to in a previous post, I’m suspicious of this logic and the way it seems to absolve viewers of the pleasure they take in watching such men flaunt their power. That post was spurred by the release of Showtime’s Ray Donovan, another criminal antihero with premium cable sheen. And this is where our popular usage of “deconstruction” gives me pause: when are we done “deconstructing” these men? Have they not been figured out yet? Are they really so complex?

I want to focus on Don Draper and Mad Men in particular. The show has an increasingly obvious but elegant arc, as the suave Don of season one sinks further into his own morass, as the world changes around him, his drinking consumes him, and his pathological lies catch up to his conscience. This is all very artful and perhaps he is being “deconstructed” by the show.  But if we turn to one of Mad Men‘s touchstones, we will see that there’s not a whole lot that is new to this story.  Show creator Matthew Weiner has cited writer John Cheever as a major influence on the show–the Drapers lived in Ossining (the adult home of Cheever), and I even saw Draper fill in his street address as “Shady Hill,” the name of a fictional suburb Cheever centered many of his stories. I love Cheever’s work and have reread all of his stories multiple times. Cheever is hailed (and occasionally bemoaned) as the preeminent chronicler of a particular type, a mid-century white community, orbiting around New York, affluent, and in the end, morally bankrupt. His stories reflect the very people who were reading them in The New Yorker in the 1960s–Cheever’s fiction is the Ur-text of Mad Men.

Daniel Mendelsohn wrote a well-circulated critique of the show, citing its high-handed relationship to the past, in which 21st century creators and audiences could look down on the benighted 1960s. Mendelsohn is on point, and I think Cheever’s fiction tells us even a bit more. Anyone who has read Cheever will note that his stories are filled with Don Drapers–affluent, adulterous, drunk, chain-smoking, and wallowing in a kind of comfortable existential malaise.  This makes the “deconstruction” ostensibly on display in Mad Men then seem a bit odd–if Mad Men seeks to expose the failures of that generation what does it mean that authors and readers at the time were already quite aware of it? If they could acknowledge their own dissipation while thumbing through The New Yorker, what does Mad Men really contribute?  Can you deconstruct what is already foregrounded? Does Mad Men dismantle the binaries of the 1960s beyond what was done at the time?

What Mad Men does pile up (as did The Sopranos) is the melancholia.  When critics and creators think they are deconstructing these alpha males, what they actually mean is that, in their three-dimensional portraits of these men, they are so very sad. Tony is so distraught he turns to therapy; Don is so unhappy he turns to women and the bottle. But these dimensions don’t ultimately dismantle these men, they reify them. They produce sympathy for their dissipation and (especially in the case of Tony Soprano), their evil. But producing complexity isn’t deconstruction–men have always been unhappy, and powerful men have often been very unhappy. To truly “deconstruct”, to dismantle these archetypes and the power they have both in the media and in the real world, is to find new ways forward, new places to look at, and new ways of looking.  But to follow The Sopranos with Mad Men, then Breaking Bad, then Sons of Anarchy, then Ray Donovan might take us through various levels of quality in television, but not much new in the ways of such men.  And the endless iterations of this type prove that creators, networks, and audiences are in fact unreconstructed.

(My thanks to friend Justin Rogers-Cooper, from whom the ideas of this post were inspired.  He can tell you a lot about the world through his blog.)

British Antidotes to Antihero Fatigue

The premier of Showtime’s Ray Donovan seems to reveal our premium television saturation point on the “antihero.”

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June Thomas of Slate recently wrote a great piece about her exhaustion with this archetype, and the guys over at Grantland described a similar fatigue in their recent podcast. The fact that this exhaustion comes on the heels of James Gandolfini’s death also seems particularly telling.  Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano will stand as one of the great achievements of modern television, and writers and commentators raced to describe the brilliance of the performance and the sadness of his untimely death.  But (with the exception of Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad and Ian McShane on Deadwood) no other antihero has been nearly as compelling, and the type has become so overused and overwrought that television audiences (or at least critics) have had enough.

At another point in history we might have simply called such men “assholes” and left it at that. But The Sopranos, and premium cable overall, gave such assholes a veneer of respectability, as well as the titillation audiences could experience seeing such men behave badly. With each new iteration, the premium cable antihero became more flat, less interesting, like an image that fades with each additional copy.  Though I am in the minority, I find Don Draper a tedious bore and the only thing that holds my interest in Mad Men comes from the rest of the show, especially the female characters. And I find it hard to believe that playing such outlandish displays of male privilege, mixed with sociopathy, is really much of an acting achievement.

I have not read the recently published Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos to The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bada text Thomas endorses in her article, but the title alone reveals just how much of our prestige television has relied on this type. And I too am sick of it.  Yes, it has been done well in most of the shows named in Martin’s title, but it can’t be that difficult to produce or consume if we go back to such a well so often.  And even as those shows ostensibly deconstruct such abhorrent men, they also rely heavily on the violence and sexism of such characters in ways that can feel more prurient than enlightening.  In many instances they give audiences the titillation of traditional forms of violence and exploitation, while seeking cover under the “antihero” moniker to raise their shows and characters to the level of art.  Sometimes this produces complexity; often it produces complicity. You might still see a portly Sopranos fan walking around in his faded “Bada Bing” t-shirt.

It’s summer, and that means their are fewer television options coming your way, and that’s good news for streaming services like Netflix and others.  So let me take a moment to endorse two shows that satisfy many of the cravings we have for prestige drama that also move us away from brooding straight men in all their complexity: Top of the Lake and The Fall. Both shows are BBC co-productions.  Both are police procedurals that feature female detectives and female crime victims.  And each in their own way do something interesting with their genres and their attendant politics.

Top of the Lake is a miniseries directed by Jane Campion, about the disappearance of a young, pregnant Maori girl in New Zealand.  Elizabeth Moss plays police inspector Robin Griffins, visiting her ill mother in New Zealand at the time the crime takes place.  Moss takes charge of the investigation (which is odd, as she’s a police officer in Sydney Australia; no matter) and much of her early suspicion falls on the girl’s shady father, Matt Mitcham. But the most compelling and odd elements of the show is Holly Hunter as GJ, a woman who has recently moved to the community with a group of other women, forming a compound of shipping containers at the lake’s edge. GJ is a kind of guru to these women, all of whom have been broken by men and the world at large, and are creating a female-centered communal life together.  Their commune produces friction with Mitcham and the other men in the town.

Top of the Lake bears some resemblance to Twin Peaks, the classic David Lynch/Mark Frost series with its own troubling gender politics, especially its fetishization of the dead body of young Laura Palmer and her secret sexual life. The missing girl in TOTL, Tui Mitcham, is also a young woman with her own sexual secrets–who impregnanted her?–but Campion refuses to play this in the traditional way.  Instead, her victimization is a sad mystery, one that Griffins takes upon herself to solve while the rest of the community, including her father, seem almost troublingly uninterested in resolving.

The Fall is a more conventional serial killer narrative, hitting the  predictable beats of the police procedural.  In it,  Gillian Anderson plays Stella Gibson, a detective called to Belfast to review a murder case.  While there, the murder turns out to be part of a larger serial killing, in which beautiful brunettes, professional and in their 30s, are being ritualistically murdered and posed in erotic ways.  The show plays Gibson’s detective work off of the movements of the serial killer.

Both shows feature female detectives who are outsiders to the communities in which they are working, and who face in various ways forms of sexism that make their jobs and lives more difficult.  In a particularly telling scene from The Fall, Gibson reveals that she has had a one-night stand with another police officer, one that her colleagues feel might compromise her position on the case.  But the men who question her are also more troubled by the nature of the affair, in which she instigated the encounter and to which she feels no particular remorse, even when later finding out the officer was married and had children.  What makes this scene so compelling (despite some clunky dialogue meant to underline the scene’s feminism) is that the show does not use this moment to make her an “antihero.” Her sexual life has complicated her professional life in ways she could not anticipate, but the sex in not exploitative, she feels no regrets, and it does not reveal some inner dysfunction to her character.  In fact, the way she both instigates the encounter and the fallout show just how hyper-professional she is.  Though the show is tawdry, certainly more so than the ethereal Top of the Lake, it refuses to rest upon antihero dysfunction and the exploitative behaviors those men so often take part in–The Fall leaves that for the serial killer.