Smart Girls Who Do Stupid Things


The Helen Mirren Hypothesis

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In Helen Mirren’s brilliant, moving, inspiring acceptance speech at a recent Women in Hollywood event, she delivered a forceful rebuke of Hollywood’s obsession with “the 18 to 25-year-old male…and his penis (quite small, I always think).” Mirren lamented the “fact that virtually every drama made for film, stage or television has 20 male characters to the one, two, maybe three if you’re lucky, female characters.”

I decided to test Mirren’s supposition against the recently released Golden Globe nominations. This is obviously not a cross-section of all that TV or film has to offer, but The Golden Globes represent an industry standard of perceived quality. Consequently, Mirren would be more likely to find roles of substance in these nominees, than in, for example, The Bachelorette90210 or The Back-Up Plan.

A word on methodology: The statistics below are based on the official cast lists presented on each show’s network website. Rather than using my own judgement (or the judgment of IMDB, Wikipedia, etc) to decide which characters merit inclusion, I wanted to see how each network officially depicted its cast. For example, AMC’s Mad Men site names 27 characters, 12 of whom are female, netting a “score” of 44%.

Best Television Series (Drama):

Boardwalk Empire (27% of listed characters are female)
Dexter (29%)
Walking Dead (33%)
Mad Men (44%)
The Good Wife (50%)
Best Television Series (Drama) AVERAGE: 37%

Best Television Series (Comedy):

The Big Bang Theory (20%)
30 Rock (33%)
Modern Family (40%)
The Big C (43%)
Nurse Jackie (44%)
Glee (64%)
Best Television Series (Comedy) AVERAGE: 41%

Yikes. One drama achieves gender parity in its casting, The Good Wife, a project from husband-wife team Robert and Michelle King. Michelle King is the only female “creator” of the five drama nominees. Even shows created by women (30 Rock, The Big C, Nurse Jackie) favor roles for male actors. Although the comedy category average is not quite as dire as the dramas, this average is hugely helped by Glee, the only nominated show with more female characters than male (without Glee, the category averages 36%).

On to the big screen:

Best Motion Picture (Drama):

Black Swan (80%)
The Fighter (40%)
Inception (22%)
The King’s Speech (22%)
The Social Network (29%)
Best Motion Picture (Drama) AVERAGE: 39%

Best Motion Picture (Comedy):

Alice in Wonderland (75%)
Burlesque (44%)
The Kids Are All Right (60%)
Red (33%)
The Tourist (14%)
Best Motion Picture (Comedy) AVERAGE: 45%

The differences in category averages between big and small screens are only a few percentage points, but the distribution within categories don’t line up. Film, it would seem, allows for one or two female-driven pictures. Black Swan, set in a dance studio, starring 4 women and 1 man, would be this year’s entry.

The point is not for all productions to reserve exactly half of their roles for women (or minorities, the elderly, or any other oft-neglected demographic). Some shows are aimed at women (SATC) and others at men (Entourage) and their casting reflects this fact. The problem is that what we identify as quality, via awards shows like the Golden Globes, distinctly favors male actors. This creates a cycle in which male-dominated productions are considered the “norm,” and gender-neutral casts or female-heavy casts are relegated to niche markets or less popular networks.

One could argue that Hollywood reflects reality…most police departments are male-dominated, as are boxing rings, and tech-start ups. That is both true and problematic. Yet, the question remains; why are the male-dominated arenas the ones in which people prefer to play creatively? Because women (self very much included!) will watch a show or movie set in a “male world,” but men will not reciprocate? Projects set in traditionally female worlds (say a preschool or an ice skating team) either don’t get made, don’t get made well, or get made well and don’t get recognized. Any way you cut it, Helen Mirren has a point.

Middle Ground

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A recent spate of articles have lambasted Hollywood projects from The Social Network to The Town for propagating the slut v. prude dichotomy. One type of girl wears too much make up, has sex in bathrooms, gets crazy jealous,  and applies minimal (if any) standards to her choice of partners. The other wears conservative clothes, only sleeps with men who “care” about her (missionary only, obvi), in a bedroom with sufficiently hazy lighting so that you might not actually notice the boning going on.

Hollywood obviously has a difficult time with the hump (ha, pun intented) of the bell curve, that seemingly elusive space between Slutville and Prudeland. Think about all the women you know (men too, but let’s talk about the ladies), most of them probably land somewhere in the middle of that hump, right? So where are my sexually-sane models of what a healthy adult sex life can look like? Kate and I did some brainstorming, and below is a summary of how our conversation went:

Emily: what about X… no, wait
Kate: yeah…no, what about… no, never mind
Emily: Oooh, how about, um… you know, nah… she’s crazy

Much like there is no one way to get to the center of a tootsie pop, there is no one way to portray a healthy, sexually fulfilled character. All I’m after is a character that a) confounds the extremes of slutdom and nunnery, b) depicts sex as a varied, pleasurable activity between consenting adult partners, c) includes presentations of female pleasure and participation. We came up with a few:

Deb Morgan (Dexter) – Bad ass Miami Metro detective. Uses sex for… pleasure (hey! that sounds about right!) Has some one night stands, some relationships, some FWB situations (like what actual people do!) Asks for what she wants, usually gets it.

Nancy Botwin (Weeds) – Pot-dealing suburban mom on the run. Maybe because it’s written by a woman (Jenji Kohan), Weeds has always had a pretty pro-female view of sex. Women masturbate too! Oral sex for girls, hey, that’s a real thing! On the kinkier side of TV sex, folks on Weeds happily (and graphically) let freak flags fly.

Robin Scherbatsky (How I Met Your Mother) – On other levels, NYC’s favorite crack-of-dawn anchor might not make any of my favorites lists, but it’s hard to argue with her sex life. She’s uber-confident, refreshingly forward and doesn’t feel the need to justify every time she gets laid. In fact, sometimes she high-fives.

The fact that the three we came up with are all TV characters is probably not accidental. An arc of 13 or 22 episodes is a lot more time to work with than a mere 120 minutes. That’s not to say that TV is in the clear (Glee’s Brittany/Rachel, for example) or that there aren’t quality examples on the big screen (Hm…), only that TV is perhaps a more character-development friendly medium.

How great would it be if big and small screen alike could find a little room for complexity in adult sexuality? Let’s look at the slut-prude bell curve, ignore the outliers and spend some time riding the hump! Pun definitely intended.

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