Brothers & Sisters: Some misses

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the new show “Brothers & Sisters” when it first came on. Overall, now, I like the show mainly for its array of complex characters and its portrayal of grown family members who love each other, but don’t always like each other very much. In terms of the female characters, however, it’s pretty much hit or miss. One recurring “miss” theme is the message I’m getting that women, no matter how intelligent, capable or successful, want more than anything else to be loved, any other priorities be damned.

Kitty (Calista Flockhart) is a Republican television personality and later political advisor to Rob Lowe’s Senator McAllister. She cheated on her jerky fiancé with the co-host on her TV show, who seemed to treat their relationship as way to regain power he’s losing because she’s a more likeable television personality. Her passionate and articulately expressed opinions are reduced to “cute” as soon as sex enters the picture. After that also falls apart, she moves on to getting involved with her new boss, the Senator. It strikes me as incongruous that a woman who takes her career seriously–and a political career, at that–would engage in such obviously unprofessional behaviour, and the message as presented is that deep down, she is just another flaky Ally McBeal-type who mostly wants love and male approval, because a career can’t make her feel warm and fuzzy. She often comes off as clingy and begging for attention and affirmation in these workplace romances (the episode in which she went to the Senator’s hometown and made a fool of herself with his highschool sweetheart was ridiculously painful for its display of her unprofessionalism).

Nora, the matriarch (Sally Field) is generally more hit than miss. But I hated her interactions with her creative writing professor in a few recent episodes (I put that in past tense in the hopes that he never comes back, though the last encounter was open-ended). This is the kind of smarmy guy who sleeps with his much younger students and behaves manipulatively in his role as their teacher as, again, part of a power game in the sexual relationship. I was extremely disappointed when Nora got some compliments on her writing and went back to tell her “friend” (Margot Kidder) how much she was enjoying this class, only to have it immediately turn into a giggly game of “He likes you! You should sleep with him!” I stupidly didn’t see that coming, thinking that Nora could just be enjoying her class and that the professor might actually be complimenting her work. This crap comes complete with this “friend” taking the scissors to a classic little black dress because Nora doesn’t have any clothes that say, essentially “I will have sex with you” (yeah she said that, because obviously, that’s what women’s clothes are for, and regardless of Nora’s reluctance to get involved with the guy at all). Needless to say, Nora ends up looking like an idiot by showing up at a wine and cheese for the stuffy Jack London society in this hacked-up outfit, including a ludicrously insensitive gentleman who asks if she’s going to “dance for them”.

That last one was a big, wildly swinging, embarrassing miss on the show’s part. None of this is enough to make me abandon it just yet, but one thing I would really like to see is a woman in a professional (or academic) environment with a man to whom she is not related in which the question of sex either never comes up or in which she refuses to compromise professionalism (or tolerate power games) for the sake of romantic affirmation.


  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    one thing I would really like to see is a woman in a professional (or academic) environment with a man to whom she is not related in which the question of sex either never comes up or in which she refuses to compromise professionalism (or tolerate power games) for the sake of romantic affirmation.

    But this is THE standard TV trope of the past decade and a half! If you don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you! 😉

    I’ve gotten to oversensitive to this one that I can’t watch anymore if I see a hint of it coming. Except House, which is like watching a 20 car pileup fall into the ocean just as volcano erupts offshore. I can’t turn away from that.

    If you were born in the late 80’s or early 90’s, the only message you’ve gotten all your life is, “Sure, women say they want jobs and don’t need men, but they find out only male approval can give your life meaning!” In a patriarchy, of course, in which 99.9% of women were until recently forced to service a man’s sexual needs in hopes of getting their financial needs met, this is sort of true.

    But there’s nothing intrinsic about it. It’s a carefully built construct, which TV seems determined to help prop up as its foundations slowly ooze out from under it like one of those Malibu landslides where your yard ends up on the Pacific Coast Highway and you wind up living in a palm tree until rescuers can get to you.

    Sorry, that metaphor got away from me and I just didn’t have the heart to reign it in.

  2. says

    Just playing off something that BetaCandy said/I read into re: House.

    What’s so refreshing about House vs. a majority of other T.V. shows is that all of his obnoxious discriminatory sentiments are right out there and actually act in the reverse. Yes, he says things he shouldn’t looks at parts that are considered taboo, but in doing so draws attention to the fact that these items are “wrong” and “taboo” and, almost in a sense, how over sensitized we can be to these things. I also like that he says exactly what is on his mind without editing. How many of us wish we could do that? Does he ridicule Dr. Cameron for being too sensitive, yes, but he’s also willing to look to that sensitivity to “solve” the case. Furthremore, House’s negativity often acts as a foil to the character’s own insecurities and insensitivities, thus making them stop and think about what it is that is driving them. I, for exmaple, love that Cameron is now struggling with the dual facets of her identity–yes she’s a nurturer, but she’s also trying to become (and prove) that she’s just as hardass as the guys via her rejection of Chase. Is is gonna work? Who knows, but it sure as heck is going to be interesting to see where it goes!

    As for Brothers & Sisters–I find most of the male characters storylines to be far more compelling. The gay brother struggling with his closeted lover, the druggie brother trying to connect with his half-sister…and I have no idea what happened to Balthazar Getty on that show. The women, on the other hand, are just smarmy. Kitty you can’t take seriously cause she doesn’t even take herself seriously, Nora’s a mess (although, I agree, a very compelling mess in terms of story and plot), and the older sister is just annoying in the sense that her charcter never seems consistently played–one day she’s a lush, the next a caring mom, the next career woman, which wouldn’t be bad if the struggles of being a modern woman and trying to balance multiple hates was more fimrly addressed. As is now, she’s just the older sister who gets annoyed at her obnoxious and irresponsible siblings. I liked this show, but can’t stand it now.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    The only reason I brought up House was I feel Cameron’s just like this Kitty character Purtek described. She could be a good doctor, but she’d rather stalk House and make googly eyes at him or sleep with Chase in an attempt to make House jealous because “House is da man!” and Cameron is, after all, just a widdle sex kitten for the male audience.

    But I didn’t mean to derail the discussion onto House. Just wanted to clarify why I brought it up at all.

  4. Purtek says

    I do know this is the TV (and real life) trope of the past 20 years. I was watching Grey’s Anatomy last night and trying to figure out why the workplace romances, bothersome though they are on that show, seem somehow different to me. Maybe it’s because I see so much potential in some of these female characters (I tend to disagree with tinapickles in that I still mostly like Sarah, mostly because I appreciate that her ability to be all of the things listed, particularly both a career woman and a caring Mom, is rarely called into question or seen as self-contradictory within the show).

    I think it’s the constant sense of power imbalance as an accepted part of a sexual relationship, with the woman, of course, in the low-power role. It comes both because the men involved can’t seem to handle their women being competent without them, and because those women, Kitty especially, are just so cloyingly affirmation-seeking. Where other shows might show career women suddenly blossoming into happiness only by finding a man, this one shows some who literally have no sense that anything other than finding that man gives them value. It’s not just about finding hearts and flowers love, it’s always about being loved, entirely passively, and they’d sell their soul to get that.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    I think it’s the constant sense of power imbalance as an accepted part of a sexual relationship, with the woman, of course, in the low-power role.

    Exactly! I know some relationships are like that, and that’s fine. But some of them actually involve equal partners or the woman having more power, and that’s what TV is scared to show us. Sadly, I think sometimes they THINK they’re showing us women in power with plots like Cameron wanting Chase just for sex on House, but then they overlay it with context (is she really just doing this to make House jealous? and apparently she can’t do her job while boinking her co-worker), and ruin it.

    Another problem is that the writers of this trope usually operate off flawed assumptions of what constitutes power. I’d need to think a while to give specific examples there (although the Cameron one above kind of works), but I’m wondering if that’s why Grey seems different to you. I don’t watch it, but I’m wondering if maybe they get female neediness and power surrendering RIGHT, so that at least it resembles real-life needy women.

    Because in real life, the women I would describe as needy of male attention or approval have a lot more going on in their lives than just this one guy and this one relationship. A lot of them are, for example, chronic cheaters (because if he starts taking them for granted, that compulsive need for attention forces her to look elsewhere). Give me a character like that, and I may wish you’d also given me a strong woman to go along with her, but at least I’ll recognize her as being like some flawed real-life women I’ve known and loved.

  6. Purtek says

    House is becoming this complete and total train wreck from which I can’t turn away for me, too. Between Cameron’s manipulation-masquerading-as-power and Cuddy’s inability to show any objectivity in order to perform the basic aspects of her job, I think my eyes spend more time rolled than they do in their base position when I’m watching it.

    What you’re saying about the difference in Grey’s is ringing true. A lot of people are annoyed by Meredith, but at least her neediness and “abandonment issues” regarding men are acknowledged by the characters. She also gets pissed when the male protective behaviour extends to preventing her from properly doing her job, and when it crosses into acting like she has no ability to make decisions for herself. Thursday’s episode actually also made explicit that Christina (I don’t know how not to love Sandra Oh) was playing dumb girl starstruck by her superstar heart surgeon boyfriend in order to make him feel more secure, and her ex gave her a lecture essentially saying that it was ludicrous to eradicate her own intelligence and personality to impress a man.

    So the women there are in positions where they have less power by virtue of the work hierarchy, and in Meredith’s case, by her neediness, but these are put out on the table and addressed in a way that makes them more real. And there, we also lack a Nora-figure who just buys into this idea that she should throw herself at her obviously narcissistic professor as soon as he shows any interest in her. Not because of interest on her part, but because if he shows it, she’d better jump at it.


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