What does it mean to be a modern woman?
July 6, 2016 3:28 PM   Subscribe

"What, exactly, is a women’s picture? It’s a genre that lasted from 1930 to 1960 during Hollywood’s golden age. [...] for less than a buck, you could go to a theater and watch Hollywood’s greatest actresses transgress the ever-present social norms that suffocated women in real life. [...] Hollywood’s film industry is no longer interested in producing the sort of films the genre turned into a curious art, or backing stars like Bette Davis, whose prowess and willingness to portray female anger still frightens audiences when they discover her. Instead, a new form of the genre is emerging on television." Including The Good Wife, UnREAL, Jane the Virgin, Outlander, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Scandal, Orphan Black, and more. posted by Eyebrows McGee (23 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
 
shows like Supergirl, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, iZombie, and The Americans, for example, aren’t. They don’t quite fit the definition for a number of reasons: male co-leads of equal or greater importance, the lack of interest in costuming as character, and, most crucially, the inconsistent use of the genre’s most defining trait — what it means to be a woman.

I refute the first thingy (important male co-leads) for Buffy and iZombie! Refute!

(Costuming was often doing something crazy and baffling on Buffy, but I'll grant it wasn't communicating character arcs.)
posted by Squeak Attack at 3:43 PM on July 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


I'll grant it wasn't communicating character arcs

Dark Willow would like to have a word with you.
posted by thivaia at 3:50 PM on July 6, 2016 [20 favorites]


Good point!
posted by Squeak Attack at 3:52 PM on July 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


I refute the first thingy (important male co-leads) for Buffy and iZombie! Refute!

crucially, the inconsistent use of the genre’s most defining trait — what it means to be a woman.

The entire last season of Buffy was about women, power, and the relationship between the two.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:07 PM on July 6, 2016 [12 favorites]


I really liked the whole article; I've long loved these sorts of old movies without ever realizing they were a genre unto themselves. (And now I'll have to read the book!) But I did particularly like the discussion of costume-as-character in these women's pictures/shows; well- and thoughtfully-costumed shows/movies are one of my favorite things in general, whether it's Game of Thrones or Legally Blonde or Mad Men, so it was extra interesting to read about its link to the women's picture genre and realize how many of the "chick shows" I really enjoy use costume-as-character and to read about the continuity of that mode of expression. Which is culturally coded as a very female mode of expression (clothes in general) but can carry so much meaning and information and convey so much character, while also being glorious to look at!

I don't generally get much into fandom but the one thing that really reliably draws me in is fan costuming blogs that discuss and deconstruct costume choices in these "high-costume" shows, and I will always 100% of the time read interviews with costume designers on these sorts of shows.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:25 PM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I keep hearing that "The Good Wife" is worth checking out. Relatedly.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:47 PM on July 6, 2016


The Good Wife is the best network tv show of the last ten years. Watch it - guarantee you will not be disappointed.
posted by tzikeh at 4:57 PM on July 6, 2016


(NETA: except Friday Night Lights)
posted by tzikeh at 4:59 PM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Good Wife is definitely worth checking out, and just as a thing that constantly pleased me, the Illinois politics and law details were consistently lifted from real life. My husband and I are both lawyers in IL and there was one episode about wiretapping where the character was like, "You can't use that, Illinois is a two-party state" and we both objected, "No it isn't! Not since that IL Supreme Court case threw the law into chaos!" and two scenes later a more senior lawyer goes, "Uh, you can totally use that, the Illinois Supreme Court just threw the law into chaos!" and then the rest of the law in the episode was a gorgeous, thorough development of the actual state of the very contentious Illinois law on the issue. In lots of episodes there were insider statehouse jokes that made us laugh hysterically (especially about Quinn, they definitely had a Quinn insider on the writing staff at some point). When Illinois legalized gay marriage, they didn't specifically call it out because the script had been written and filmed so much earlier, but in the episode that aired that week, they had Alicia talking to another lawyer at the Daley Center (I think it was) and they showed two men in wedding suits come out of a courtroom behind her, holding hands and kissing, having obviously just been married (which I believe I read was rapidly filmed in reshoot so they could do the subtle tribute).

So, yeah, not just some of the most interesting, complex female characters on television, and a satisfying seven-season plot arc, but lots of lovingly specific, very smart details about Illinois and Chicago (as long as you leave aside the improbably travel times between different sites, and the occasional confusion about which suburbs were in Cook and Lake Counties). My husband agrees from the other end of the couch that it's probably the smartest law show we've ever watched, with actual live legal issues developed in interesting and realistic (and sometimes very funny) ways. It's the only show where we were sometimes frantically googling to see if we thought their interpretation of the specific case law was warranted.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:02 PM on July 6, 2016 [26 favorites]


How to Get Away with Murder is good on the point of women being allowed to be central while still being "mercurial, selfish, unlikable, and sometimes even cruel", though too many men to qualify outright for this. Leverage also doesn't fit due to having too many men, but I'd argue Parker's character arc over it's five seasons is THE central character arc of the entire series, and a fascinating look at a type of woman not often portrayed even on television (I'd expand on that but - spoilers!).

I'm wondering about the role of anger and women, though. Like, Jane in Jane the Virgin isn't often angry - and certainly not in the powerful manner depicted by Midler. Orphan Black did have some aspects of the frightening nature of women's rage depicted within a relationship, but there were ways it was glossed over which worried me in terms of how domestic violence is represented when the abuser is a woman (further muddied by the fact she was right to be suspicious). Most of the anger I remember Olivia displaying was sort of a cold rage instead of hot anger, freezing people out instead of blowing up, which is appropriate for the character but which highlights (I think) the ways in which we expect women to manage our anger now, at least within media franchises.

I feel like women, especially women of color, are still pressured to be reasonable in rage - something which men are not necessarily expected to do, and that this pressure comes from the cultural need for women to be likable on some level if they are the main character and the cast is woman-centric. I also think the need for women to fit narrow physical requirements also causes issues, but those thoughts are not even half formed; I know I'm bothered, but I couldn't lay out exactly how and why.

I've not seen half these shows, though, so I might be missing something big?
posted by Deoridhe at 5:13 PM on July 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Oooh, Leave Her To Heaven! Leave Her To Heaven is bananas and amazing, both the book and the movie. (You have to read the book because it provides an excellent feel for America's post-war crisis of masculine identity in the 1950s, same as James Jones' Some Came Running.) I feel like Gene Tierney is the patron saint of the women's picture between her turn as Ellen Brent Harland in Leave Her To Heaven and the movie's namesake in Laura.

Women's pictures are the greatest. Bette Davis's work in All This, And Heaven Too is overshadowed only by Barbara O'Neill's turn in that movie; O'Neill's work in the absolutely ludicrous The Toy Wife is second only to Louise Rainier's work ... I love women's pictures because they treated the landscape of the female experience as a legitimate cinematic topic and not, say, a subject of horror (hello, Sunset Boulevard). Anger and pride and self interest are all seen as legitimate and understandable; even if there's the "good girl" thrown in as a corrective, the movies generally portray her as drippy and the man who chooses her after having his fling with the full-bodied, full-feeling, full-brained woman as no prize pig worth having.

One more before I stop myself: watch Joan Crawford absolutely own The Best of Everything. (Another one where you should read the book by Rona Jaffe in addition to watching the movie; seeing what was left in and what was altered is a marvelous window into the commercial sensibilities of the time.)
posted by sobell at 5:16 PM on July 6, 2016 [15 favorites]


Jessica Jones. 'Nuff said.
posted by eamondaly at 5:25 PM on July 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


eamondaly, you've just touched on a whole new genre -- the women's pictures of comics. Jessica Jones is the only one that's made it to a screen, but holy cats, the possibilities are endless -- Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise is tailor-made for serial drama.
posted by sobell at 5:46 PM on July 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


I had some resistance to the article because of the very term "women's picture", though. I mean, I understand it's a genre and she's using it to analyze these TV shows, but I still bristle at any implication that a tv show about men is just "a tv show" but a tv show about woman is "a woman's tv show."

For the past few years I have been mostly disinterested in television about men, and luckily I'm watching in an era where I can gorge on female leads, and co-leads. I don't even watch a bunch of the shows she lists and I still have plenty to watch.

I watched about 5 seasons of The Good Wife but then was too bored and bailed. I have to admit I am a genre addict though - I can't do regular soaps and dramas. I need spaceships or supernatural demon killers, or zombies, or clones, or whatever. This is also why making it through the first season of Jane the Virgin was a chore for me, although I could appreciate what it was doing.

Jessica Jones was total catnip for me - Jessica just my type of hero (bitter, snarky, alone, finding her way to making her new family). I also just fell in love with Wynonna Earp, to my surprise, because I didn't think I would after the first few episodes. Totally hooked by the end, though. (Wynonna Earp has sisterly bonds as a focus, which is another weakness for me.) Can also recommend Kill Joys, with a woman of color lead in a spaceship show! And if you like rag tag crews on space ships, Dark Matter has a good male/female balance to the cast.
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:18 PM on July 6, 2016 [5 favorites]




hahahahaha so I am right this very moment taking a film history class and we just now got to the 1960's and guess what hasn't been mentioned? Even once? We spent about five minutes watching a Youtube video about the pre-Hays Code women and that's literally it. Thanks so much for posting this; this is 100% new to me and I'm going to share it with all my classmates.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 7:14 PM on July 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Like every so often the teacher will pop out with "this one film is remarkable because it was the only noir film to be made by a woman" but there's no mention of this ENTIRE GENRE of "women's pictures"
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 7:19 PM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I need spaceships or supernatural demon killers, or zombies, or clones, or whatever....Can also recommend Kill Joys, with a woman of color lead in a spaceship show! And if you like rag tag crews on space ships, Dark Matter has a good male/female balance to the cast.

I'd assume you probably watched these too, but for the folks that haven't, if you like Squeak Attack's recommendations, both of those shows have various cast/crew/creator connections back to Lost Girl and Continuum, both genre shows with female leads and an interest in "what it means to a be woman" ("what it means to be a succubus" and "what it means to be a woman time traveler", respectively). And there was Bitten, too ("what it means to be a woman werewolf"). All three shows ended recently, but basically, Canadian TV has been all over the women-driven genre show thing lately.
posted by mstokes650 at 7:56 PM on July 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


I can't do regular soaps and dramas. I need spaceships or supernatural demon killers, or zombies, or clones, or whatever.

You must watch Z Nation if you haven't.
posted by fshgrl at 11:54 PM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


If you need an entryway into women's pictures, I can't recommend All That Heaven Allows by Douglas Sirk highly enough. It's brilliant.

Also, I feel that screwball comedies were in some ways the flip side of the same coin as women's pictures. The Lady Eve seems a lot more interested in its female protagonist rather than the rather drippy male lead.
posted by Kattullus at 3:49 AM on July 7, 2016


The Good Wife is definitely worth checking out, especially seasons 1-5. Seasons 6 & 7 were a slow decline; I still watched, but you can tell that its best years are behind it.
posted by pmurray63 at 6:11 AM on July 7, 2016


You must watch Z Nation if you haven't.

I haven't heard much about it, I'll check it out! (But I will bail if there aren't enough prominent women.)
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:35 AM on July 7, 2016


"what it means to be a succubus"

For me, Lost Girl was all about "what it means to be a Kenzi." And what is means is being awesome! (Let's be besties Kenz, call me kbye!)

Also, also - I forgot to mention Agent Carter, two seasons of the fabulously charming Hayley Atwell costumed in charming '40s clothing, very colorful and bright set dressing, and doesn't shy away from considering women in relation to power, and competence, and career, and anger. I didn't swoon for it the way I dod for some of the others I mentioned above, but it was doing good work.
posted by Squeak Attack at 4:33 PM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


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