Further proof we’re regressing

Noah Brand has guest-blogged on Inside Out about Etta Candy, one of Wonder Woman’s past sidekicks who was unapologetically short and fat (because she loved to eat candy). She led a group of college girls who liked to help Wonder Woman when she got into trouble because it was just so damn fun going on adventures and stuff. The article contains a lot more detail (and some great scanned panels) about how she never seems to be embarrassed about her body, how the text actually contained messages about true empowerment, and so on. Very good read, even if you couldn’t care less about comics.

Because it’s just what we’ve been talking about: we’re moving backwards, not forwards. Etta Candy must’ve been long gone by the time I read Wonder Woman comics as a kid. I utterly failed to appreciate how revolutionary shows like Cagney & Lacey – hell, even Kate & Allie and Who’s the Boss – were, until I saw what came later.

Currently, there’s little chance of getting a female lead that doesn’t look like a model. If you’re really lucky, maybe she won’t push every female stereotype button in existence. And when she doesn’t, we tend to think there’s progress here. There’s not. And some days, I just want to write up about 100 posts, each titled with a TV show’s name, each containing only the following sentence:

“Same shit, different day.”

But why? What is it that drives this desire to make every fiction all about men, and include women only for decoration? We got enlightened about this in the late 70’s and 80’s, but then the suits made the startling discovery that young white men control the world economy (still going “WTF?” about that), and white men just want to watch other men, and occasionally see a little T&A.

Is that even true? I mean, yeah, I’ve known my share of men who are threatened by any suggestion that women are people. They exist. But are they really so numerous as to control the market? I grew up in Redneckland Central, people, and even I don’t think most men are so offended by women that a clearly non-decorative one will make them switch channels in disgust. From what I can tell, most viewers are somewhat indifferent to gender. The problem is more that actresses are less able to deliver compelling, believable performances because the network is more concerned about them looking like models. Because that’s what the networks think they’re for. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: the networks neglect to offer female characters who can believably engage in an active storyline (but damn, don’t they look pretty sitting still), and so people naturally don’t like women characters so much.

The myths continue despite the fact that shows (conveniently dismissed as anomalies, every time) keep proving all this stuff wrong. 24 features a lot of women who don’t look like models, and a lot who aren’t white – I’d rate the male and female cast on there as equally good-looking. And men watch, don’t they? You can’t have a discussion about this without bringing up Aeryn Sun, who single-handedly proves even the sci-fi world contains plenty of men who can find a woman sexy for what she does more than for how she looks. (Claudia Black is easy on the eyes, but from what men have told me, it’s her convincing delivery of a badass character that made them crazy.)

But the dominant voice is the one claiming men just don’t like women who do stuff. And the second most prominent voice is the one that shames women for thinking men could possibly reject them for their less than exciting looks or their too-exciting successes (like they do on TV all da time) by yelling, “But not all men are like that!” Yeah, well, not all men are making their voices heard.

Thanks, Noah.

(Feel free to use the comment section to make your voice heard.)


  1. Patrick says

    What this reminds me of is how my list of favorite actors, people who are so good that I’ll watch anything they’re in even if it doesn’t sound appealing, is almost all men. Why? Probably because male actors of great skill can get careers even if they look like, say, Willem Dafoe or Paul Giamatti, but great female actors can only get careers if they look like supermodels in addition to being great actresses. (The exceptions to this rule can probably be counted on one hand.)

    So the emphasis on women’s looks both makes it so there aren’t as many great roles for women, and the pool of actresses that will be considered for those roles is much smaller than it should be.

  2. scarlett says

    You think men like Tom Hanks or Woody Allen would ever have gotten their careers off the ground if they’d been women?

    I’m in the process of working through the first five seasons of All Saints while watching season ten concurrently and it’s been interesting watching. The show started in 1998 and had these awesome strong, intelligent, capable, confident women, all with their own distinct personality, something which seems to get eroded a little each year until we’re getting stuff like ‘the two blonds and their ongoing catfight’ and ‘lets have every female guest character serve no point other than facilitate Jack’s abuse storyline’.

  3. says

    Maybe all of the intelligent viewers have switched to getting their entertainment from the Internet… 😉

    I’m only half-kidding — I think part of the problem is inherent in the medium (both film and television) where only a very small number of new shows/films get wide distribution to millions of people and the “go or no go” decisions are made by executives who want to stick with what they’ve decided are “tried and true” formulas. Instead of real two-way feedback, viewer basically just get to say whether they like it or not.

  4. Baba Fats says

    I’m going to make you work just a little. I don’t disagree with the symptoms you describe, but I have my doubts about the cause. I don’t think we’ve lost strong, complex female characters because the young white male demographic doesn’t like them, or even because network programmers believe that YWM’s don’t like them. I think we’ve lost them because advertisers just don’t want the kind of males who do.

    “Dark Angel” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” always had a strong male fan base (and still do). So do BBC imports like “Torchwood” and “Dr. Who,” both of which filled leading female roles with women who are beautiful without being Hollywood silicone pretty. But given the choice between these fan boys and the kind of guy who’d rather watch “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which do you think is more likely to be vulnerable to a slick media campaign?

    It takes a confident, intelligent man to appreciate a confident, intelligent woman – in fiction or in real life. Unfortunately, confident, intelligent people know how to use the mute button on their TV remotes, and aren’t looking for a beer, a car, or a hair care product to boost their self-esteem. Geeks like me do make our voices heard once in a while – fan support kept Buffy going, though it took a change of networks. But most of the time it’s a losing battle, because no one has figured out how to tap the geek market with a 30 second ad. Consequently, network programming just gets dumber and dumber every year.

    “Don’t you wish there was a knob on your TV that you could use to turn up the intelligence?” asked the comic Gallagher. “There’s one marked ‘brightness,’ but it don’t work.” Do you think that’s why geeks went out and invented the Internet?

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s a definite possibility, Babs. In fact, it’s one of the “excuses” the industry hands out for why their hands are tied and they simply must go make more rehashes of Charlie’s Angels and Everyone Loves Raymond, and why we should all shut up and accept “reality”.

    I do think a lot of this is driven by advertisers who lack the talent and intelligence to come up with ads that appeal to geeks like you or me – example: those Emerald nuts commercials with Robert Goulet. The commercial got me to try them; the product made me a loyal customer. Just like it should work. Companies with crap products make crap ads and then look for even crappier TV to surround it with in hopes it’ll make their shit look good.


    When people like the Wall Street Journal start wondering why on earth the film/tv industry doesn’t pursue women when women are involved in 80% of all purchases, including the majority of the ones they need from susceptible male TV viewers, you’ve got to wonder how much sense any of this is making. Business Week asked about this too – in the 90’s. Advertisers and their apologists handed out a mass of contradictory excuses, none of which could all be true at once… and that leads me to wonder.

    Could it be pursuing the female dollar is just a bit too much like begging Mommy to buy you a toy? Could it be a knee-jerk reaction – like you said, it takes an intelligent confident man to approach an intelligent confident woman. Could it just be there are so few intelligent, confident men involved in advertising that this is the real reason we get one Emerald Nuts commercial to every stupid commercial for a crap product, and one Cagney & Lacey in over 50 years of American television?


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