How to become a heroine addict

The doors of the deserted bingo halls are thrown open, the stained scarlet carpets are rolled out into the freshly weeded parking lots and a public, battered chips in hand, gags under the splitting sky for the opportunity to reach over the steel grating and shake the manicured hands of Television’s glitterati. Yes, it’s awards season. It is once again that glorious time of the year where everyone who is no-one falls to their knees to praise the almighty powerhouses of the tarnished silver screen, clapping on in their apocalyptic pit of botched face lifts and diamonte lined suits as the stars of _Benidorm_, _The X Factor _and _Waterloo Road_ scuttle up to the stage to collect their plastic trophies, thank God and their dogs for the favour and retch themselves, for thirty seconds, out of their perpetual state of irrelevance. When the dust from the hoardes of nameless celebrities’ moth-ravaged dresses finally settles, the world is left assured that there are GreatThings happening in that flickering box in the corner of our sitting rooms. However, behind all of the sequins, babycham and Superdrug sponsored glamour is a deeply unsettled industry whose gender tensions threaten to split the very plasma screen that _The British Soap Awards_ and the _TV Quick Awards_ are watched on.

I imagine that ex-_Countryfile_ presenter Miriam O’Reilly, the invigorated face of the continuing agism row rocking the BBC, would hardly be applauding the successes of the corporation that warned her to be “careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in” and advised that it was “time for Botox” before firing her and three other women in their 40s and 50s in favour of a presenting team that would appeal to a young, supercool demographic. Although O’Reilly wasn’t considered beguiling enough to distract their intended audience of sugar riddled, sex crazed youths for long enough to force them to watch a program about wild berries and caribous, the BBC decided that 68 year old John Craven’s rugged charms were seductive enough to not worry about the state of his wrinkles at the advent of high definition. Although the tribunal which decided that the BBC had been agist against O’Reilly also ruled that there was insufficient evidence of sexism, the fact that John Craven stayed on the show while his female co-presenters were booted off unceremoniously indicates a clear and disturbing double standard in the television industry.

{{ image 1144}}

This double standard has always been startlingly obvious in Hollywood. Look at the ever popular _Desperate Housewives_, for example. The women cut a startling figure in the leafy, fictional suburb of Fairview. Their bodies are cut down to supermodel proportions, their make-up is always perfect, their clothes are always incredibly well styled and their attitude behind the scenes is as exemplary as their smiles are plastic. Any deviance from this model of peachy perfection is intolerable. When Nicollette Sheriden asked to be paid as much as her co-stars, she was kicked off the show and replaced by another emaciated woman desperate for the limelight. And the show’s husbands? Sure, Mike’s a handsome fellow who would probably be expected to maintain his figure so the show’s lusting audience can have some male eye candy, but the rest of them don’t look like they spend a hell of a lot of time fretting about their appearance. Then again, in the context of the show, why should they? Although the show was originally a caustic parody of a middle American picket-fence utopia, after seven years its mordancy is morose and the weight of the show’s title is crushing whatever independence the female protagonists had sought to garner, continually reducing them, ultimately, to being nothing more than simply housewives. Susan’s forays into the world of work (as an art teacher, stripper, and soft-porn star) all failed miserably as she was forced to be a stay at home mum. Lynette’s whole schtick is that she’s a workaholic mother, but the tension between the two roles has led, uncomfortably, to her continually abandoning her ambitions as a businesswoman to be, you guessed it, a stay at home mum. At some point in the program, every housewife has abandoned their attempts at self-sufficiency to retreat to the comfort of a domestic idyll most feminists abandoned in the 1960s.

Pick any American drama at random, and you know that the female lead will probably look like her skin’s been shrink wrapped and her body has been squished through a generic thin woman play dough machine before being forced into knife sharp high heels and whatever dress Anna Wintour thinks that every decent woman out there should be wearing this season. It’s almost become a tired argument to gripe against this normative view of feminine beauty and domesticity in the distorted world of the media, and I’m not usually one to scream, “God! Why won’t someone please think of the children!”, but when young girls are presented with impossible impressions of what it means to be a woman and to be attractive, it’s hard to see how the promotion of an absurd perception of beauty can be beneficial to their emotional development.

This problem appears to be particularly prominent in teen dramas. The ‘teens’ in shows like _90201_, _The OC_, _One Tree Hill_, _Gossip Girl_ and _Glee_ are all, with the exception of _Gossip Girl_’s Taylor Momsen, in their twenties, with the characters getting as old as _Glee_’s Cory Monteith (Finn), who is 28. The average age of the TV schoolgirl is 24. These women are being held up to teenage girls as models of what they should look like despite the fact that they, unlike their audience, are not in the throes of puberty. They don’t have spotty skin, reams of toilet paper in their bras or growing pains because they are fully developed women. Even though no-one can kid themselves that dramas are wholly reflective of real life, it helps if the actors in high-school dramas are identifiable as figures who you could possibly find wandering around the dank corridors of an inner-city comprehensive, and it is to the credit of _Skins_ that they use teen actors. Although one would hope that young people wouldn’t actually want to aspire to a life of drug fun that incontrovertibly descends into drug hell, the characters are nevertheless believable and, even if perversely so, attainable.

Putting the contrariety of producers not wanting both younger girls and older stalwarts on TV to one side, it is important to state that TV is not a completely anti-feminist wasteland. There are programs hidden in the ether which are, shockingly, pro-woman. So who are the women on TV who everyone can aspire to emulate, if not the supercool Countryfile watching crazy kids on Skins or the identikit faketeens on 90210? Who actually deserves to wallow for a few minutes under the salamander light on the hallowed stage of the BAFTA TV Awards?

The first answer to these questions emerges from the autotune hell that engorges most of its prey like an amorphous, flesh-hungry blob in the pristine halls of Glee’s William McKinley High School in the formidable form of Sue Sylvester. Jane Lynch balances Sue’s extreme egotism, arrogance, viciousness and occasional vulnerability with aplomb. Whether she’s trying to rip the heart out of New Directions, promoting a tendentious cause on her spot on the Local News or getting married to herself, Sue is never portrayed as anything but, to use the clichéd adage, a strong, independent woman. Sue would dismiss the kitchen sink dramas that the Desperate Housewives obsess over with a single pithy remark. She gives less of a shit about being at the side of a man than the girls of 90210 do about getting a decent education. She’s more Chuck Norris than Chuck Norris could ever be. She’s the perfect example of a rare commodity on TV: a completely unique character. Sure, she’s the bastard love child of Cruella DeVil, Miss. Trunchball and that fitness guy from Fat Camp who made Rick Waller cry, but she is far from being a stereotypically power hungry woman. In the tender scenes between her and her disabled sister, the inflated pantomime elements in her performance completely dissipate. TV history is littered with various depictions of the evil matriarch, and although Sue is doubtless the specter that haunts the halls of William McKinley High, forever screaming vicious advice like “you do with your depressing little group of kids what I did with my wealthy, elderly mother: euthanize it. It’s time”, her place within this history isn’t alongside Dallas’ forever sequined Alexis Corrigan, Futurama’s antediluvian Mom or Prison Break’s emotionless Gretchen Morgan because her character is not limited to the single dimension of being vicious, introducing a whole new pluralism into the character type: that an evil woman’s got feelings too. And it’s not like her femininity is ever drawn into question, unlike the eternally abused Coach Bieste, tentatively the face of true beauty in the show but who is, on balance, treated more like a spectacle at the freak show than a woman.

Next on the freshly polished plinth is Mad Men’s image of female ambition, Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy Olson. Olson’s not the woman that most of the media cluster around, being far too distracted by Christina Hendricks’ voluptuous body to take time to notice that just because an actress isn’t chucking up her guts in her trailer in between takes to maintain that fresh carcass body shape doesn’t mean that she is, in the eyes of Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone, the perfect physical role model for British girls. Just because she isn’t stick thin doesn’t mean that her beauty is obtainable for the vast majority of girls. Hendricks’ Joan Holloway sashays between the offices with a perfect hourglass figure, one that is as much lusted over now as it was in the 60s. Even though Featherstone was clearly trying to promote the ‘bigger’ lady as a more natural physical role model than the anorexic models that stare gaunt out of the pages of fashion magazines, she inadvertently promoted another body type as a prescriptive model of beauty, which can never be a good thing. Hendricks has admitted that it takes a hell of a lot of work to maintain her body shape and is as obsessed with looking beautiful as your average supermodel is with having a shadow underneath each of her ribs. She is so much the model of the archetypal 1960s woman at work that Mattel have brought out a Barbie doll in her honour. Peggy Olson, on the other hand, is a completely different creature altogether. In the masculine dominated world of 1960s Ad-Land, Olson takes society’s skewed standards of permissible vices that men and women should enjoy, chews them up and spits them out before giving the creative presentation of her life and, once more, saving the company. Olson is the sated face of sexual liberation. Following her unexpected pregnancy in the first season, Olson has systematically devoured young men to satisfy her sexual needs. She’s not the horrific preying mantis that lurks in the corner of gal-time with the other Sex and The City girls talking about her sexploits with grotesque and unnecessary detail, but rather a woman asserting her position in a man’s world, a woman with startling ambition and a woman who expresses no desire to be wed off to someone who will expect her to be subservient to him.

Accepting the award for most socially divisive reality TV star is Nicole Polizzi, aka Snooki from MTV’s Jersey Shore. Jersey Shore is a program about excess, vanity and idiocy. It follows a group of eight ‘juicehead’ guidos and guidettes on holiday at the Jersey Shore as they shag, drink and muscle their way around the chthonic nightlife of the New Jersey boardwalk scene. Snooki has emerged from the cesspit as the show’s stand out star. She is the most excessive, most vain and most idiotic of them all. She has been parodied in South Park as a sex obsessed monster and she’s ‘written’ her own New York Times bestselling book. Her constant craving for penis and alcohol are clearly not attributes that we would want the young people of today to emulate, but there’s something incredibly oddly captivating and liberating about watching the deranged exploits of a wasted, fake tan drenched modern day cthulhu. She doesn’t give a shit about anything. Absolutely nothing. She has no shame whatsoever. If her tampon fell out in the middle of her slurred acceptance speech at the MTV Awards for Awesomeness, I doubt she’d even notice, let alone make a huge deal about it. She’s a celebration of the fact that, stuff it, there is no ideal woman, that regardless of society’s demands for her to act like a woman, goddamit, she still goes out and gets absolutely trolleyed. I fricking love her.

Although many shows persist with promoting an anarchic view of femininity and the gender tensions in the industry aren’t going to be resolved by a hodge podge team of Keith Richards imitating, copywriting, soul destroying, supercool young kid detracting heroines, maybe if the doors of those deserted bingo halls are thrown open to these truly great women, our tarnished TV screens might shine just a little bit brighter.Some of the very best performances on TV this year have come from female actors. Tina Fey is consistently hilarious as Liz Lemon in the brilliant 30 Rock, Glenn Close continues to astound audiences as formidable lawyer Patty Hewes in Damages and, this side of the ocean, Vicky McClure perfectly encapsulated the angst of England’s disaffected youth in her portrayal of Lol in This Is England ‘86. Despite this, the industry is still plagued with unacceptable gender divisions. Just 9% of sports presenters are female, for example. 85.9% of all voiceovers on TV (in adverts and in show indents) are announced by a male voice. In children’s cartoons, there are as many as 10 male characters to every female character. In a world that tends to value looks over talent, women are always going to be marginalised. And until society grows up and realises that the bejewelled figure that throws herself at the photographers on the awards show red carpet isn’t the embodiment of the real woman, TV’s not going to change.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.