Tag Archives: Television

Straight Trippin’: Strong Female Leads and the Clumsiness Crutch

25 Jul

I started watching The Newsroom this week. After having at least three friends show me (separately) Will McAvoy’s opening meltdown about American world rankings, I felt compelled as a liberal to watch our new messiah on his weekly soapbox.

And I love the show. Perhaps it’s because, as Emily Nussbaum hints in her New Yorker review, I “share its politics.” Or maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for fast-paced political dialogue and a good love triangle (who else is rooting for Maggie and Jim Harper?).

But as I watched the series, I noticed something unusually familiar: the shocking amount of clumsy trip ups scripted for the main cast. Will misses his chair, Mac falls over desks, and Maggie can hardly pick up phones. In the most recent episode, Jim gets hit by a door so often he bleeds.

Perhaps I’m merely underestimating the power of physical humor (sorry, Chris Farley), but these out of place gaffs don’t endear me to The Newsroom characters. Instead, I question their professional competency.

The more I considered the cast’s inability to walk (much less in a straight line), the more I realized that relying on clumsiness to humanize a strong female lead is a fairly common technique used in many major shows. Liz Lemon from 30 Rock‘s massive trip ups are a source of constant laughter. Although in season 1 the clumsiness could have been considered a mere quirky trait, by now Liz is known almost completely for her inability to move around the office and her dating neuroses.

Sarah Jessica Parker takes clumsiness to professional heights during I Don’t Know How She Does It. Her character, Kate Reddy, is so wholly not ready to complete any task (including dressing herself) that I don’t know how she does anything— including basic necessities like taking showers or eating. In this movie, the writers rely on clumsiness to  prove that Kate is fallible and overworked; however, as a viewer it simply makes me think she’s incompetent.

Klutzy female leads are so common in our culture that they’ve become a trope and have even secured their own Wikipedia page. Clumsiness serves to make women cute and endearing, and often leads to fortuitous romantic entanglements. Women can bump into men in movies and we will call it fate. The offending men find this bumbling charming, and one tumble leads to natural rom-com romance and the inevitable date.

Shana Mlawski published this flowchart of female tropes in Overthinking It. One of the tropes is called “Adorable Klutz.”

Even if klutzy ladies are a worn stereotype in our culture, who cares? I’m a self-described klutz; my legs are bruised from constant tripping over bed corners and once I even tore down my curtains while falling out of bed (both my feet were asleep. It’s not that uncommon!)

So as a clumsy woman, how can I find a TV trope that represents me distasteful? The problem is that clumsiness is used as a crutch for writers; otherwise strong, powerful women are infantalized by one “flaw” that serves to endear them to the male audience. Mindy Kaling talks about this trope in her New Yorker “Flick Chicks” article, bashing screenwriters for including a fake flaw for otherwise perfect women.

When a beautiful actress is cast in a movie, executives rack their brains to find some kind of flaw in the character she plays that will still allow her to be palatable. She can’t be overweight or not perfect-looking, because who would pay to see that? A female who is not one hundred per cent perfect-looking in every way? You might as well film a dead squid decaying on a beach somewhere for two hours. So they make her a Klutz.

The hundred-per-cent-perfect-looking female is perfect in every way except that she constantly bonks her head on things. She trips and falls and spills soup on her affable date (Josh Lucas. Is that his name? I know it’s two first names. Josh George? Brad Mike? Fred Tom? Yes, it’s Fred Tom).

The Klutz clangs into stop signs while riding her bike and knocks over giant displays of fine china in department stores. Despite being five feet nine and weighing a hundred and ten pounds, she is basically like a drunk buffalo who has never been a part of human society. But Fred Tom loves her anyway.

In addition to making Fred Tom’s love for the lead more palatable, the Klutz-Trope invokes The Protector instinct in men, making strong women in need of (masculine) care. Otherwise powerful women are therefore viewed as endearing children who need protection. Even if a woman is more powerful than a man, she still needs him in some small way, even if it’s just to pick up her books in the hallway. Cause women can’t bend down and stuff.

Although the klutz trait is less common in men, I will say that in recent years some shows strive to balance the physical gaffes. The Newsroom is one such show. Although Mac and Maggie are more clumsy than any of the other characters, Will can be seen tripping over chairs and other newsroom furniture. In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant inverses the trope by spilling orange juice on the cool and collected Julia Roberts.

I salute these clumsy men, who collectively prove that the female sex is not fated to fall and trip their way into the arms of men.

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Capitalism, Money, and the Sookie Stackhouse Novels

17 Jul

I have written a previous post that mentions the Sookie Stackhouse novels, by Charlaine Harris. Well, the post does more than mention the novels. I actually devote a paragraph-long footnote defending my assertion that characters in the HBO series True Blood are more complex than  their Sookie Stackhouse novel namesakes.

As I said in February, the main exception to the TV Complexity Rule is Sookie’s character. Alan Ball explains why Sookie is more complex in the novels in an HBO sneak preview for season five, saying that the reasons are mostly logistical. The books are entirely narrated from Sookies perspective, but if the TV show tried to replicate this Anna Paquin wouldn’t ever get a chance to rest. By foregrounding other characters and adding subplots, the actress that plays Sookie has time to sleep. I think we can all agree that this is important.

However, one of the things that disappears when we lose Sookie’s narration is her concern with money.

I find Sookie’s interest in money to be one of the most fascinating, most humanizing, and most interesting things about her. In the novels, Sookie Stackhouse is very aware that she did not go to college, she’s a waitress, and she can’t always afford to make payments on things. Her character is loaded with the concerns and insecurities that these facts entail.

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Why Do All the Men Hate Marnie?

8 Jul

I fear that this post is a little dated. Girls Season 1 ended weeks ago and by the end of the series, Marnie developed into a more likeable character. She underwent a transformation, shed a boyfriend, a roommate, and perhaps some selfishness.

Marnie from the HBO series, “Girls”

But I promised a post about how all the men hate Marnie, and so I will ask you to travel with me back to the first few episodes of Season 1. Remember the Marnie that complained endlessly about her boyfriend (Charlie)? Complained about Hannah’s lack of a job? Complained about Jessa and drug use? This is the Marnie that all the men hate.

This Marnie gathered criticism for her up-tight, rule-following nature and because of her treatment of Charlie. Many feel that Marnie takes advantage of Charlie, stringing him along and failing to keep her end of the girlfriend/boyfriend bargain. In Slate’s “Girls on Girls: ‘Vagina Panic,‘” Anderson lets rip a long diatribe on Marnie’s character, finally asking if “there’s anything to like about her.”

Although Hannah grew on me this episode (in spite of her selfishness), Marnie continued to grate. Does she have any redeeming qualities? She harangues her boyfriend; micromanages her friends’ abortions; and judges Hannah for Adam’s dirty talk. “Hannah. Adam cannot do that to you. He can’t. He’s not your boyfriend,” says Marnie. She’s so caught up in rules about who can and can’t do what, and she thinks that as long as she follows the rules–specifically, staying in a monogamous relationship–nothing bad can happen to her.

I mean, we’re talking about a woman who once hit a puppy in her car and who tells her boyfriend that his body is disgusting. Someone explain to me if there’s anything to like about her.

It seems as though the world is full of people like Anderson– people who find Marnie’s character hateful. Something about her just seems to grate, and painfully. We don’t see this level of anger when Shoshanna insists that Jessa is a lady, and that can be seen as just as controlling. Also, I would be pretty annoyed if a friend asked me to meet her somewhere and then never showed, as Jessa does to Marnie and the crew for the abortion.

I also think that Marnie is concerned (at least in the early episodes) with Hannah’s happiness rather than being controlling when she discusses Adam’s pillow talk. Hannah is clearly uncomfortable with the way Adam talks to her and treats her. Marnie is giving friend advice, just like Hannah advises Marnie to break up with Charlie. That’s not seen as controlling, though?

I suspect that the real anger lies (or lied) in Marnie’s treatment of Charlie. Marnie is annoyed by pretty much everything Charlie does, yet for some reason Charlie still fawns all over her. Marnie doesn’t want to have sex with Charlie, she snaps at him for almost everything, and yet she still refuses to break up with him. One of my guy friends once said about Marnie, “She is the reason guys hate girls.”

Besides sounding especially apt because of the title of the show, I think my friend is onto something. Why do all the men hate Marnie?

Marnie’s ex-boyfriend Charlie.

Most of my guy friends really hate Marnie, and obsess about her treatment of Charlie. One friend admitted it was because he is always worried he will be The Charlie in a relationship. Another just couldn’t understand why Marnie didn’t break up with Charlie sooner. A third was simply infuriated that Marnie couldn’t (or wouldn’t) return the level of love Charlie offered her.

But many of the women I spoke to seemed to identify with Marnie. Marnie-Charlie relationships are quite common, and it speaks to the brilliance of Lena Dunham that she could depict this dynamic so realistically on TV– a dynamic that I don’t think has been represented elsewhere. I believe it bothered so many people because it is so real.

Marnie doesn’t enjoy tormenting Charlie, and on some level she knows he makes her miserable. But she’s afraid to be single. She’s come to depend on Charlie– to build her furniture, to hang out with her 24/7, to just be there. Marnie is afraid to be alone, and Charlie won’t (or is afraid to) stand up for himself. Although Marnie might be a coward, Charlie is just as much to blame. Everyone outside of the relationship seems to see how terrible the two are for each other, but somehow Marnie and Charlie can’t see it’s over.

I wouldn’t argue that what Marnie does to Charlie is okay. It’s not. But I do think it’s interesting that people hate Marnie because of the way she treats Charlie while absolving (or at least ignoring) Adam’s treatment of Hannah (again, just focusing on the early episodes). Adam’s character is, though repulsive, “oddly winning.”

Although Adam treats Hannah terribly– and has dirty talk weirdly reminiscent of pedophilia– it’s almost impossible to really dislike him. Some blame Hannah for continuing to visit him, others blame his age and immaturity. Either way, he’s not indicted for the same level of emotional abuse as Marnie.

I enjoy contrasting the two relationships, in part because the power dynamics are so clear: Marnie and Adam have the power, while Hannah and Charlie struggle for love and recognition. I wonder if the Adam-Hannah relationship garnered less anger simply because it’s one that audiences see most often; people are familiar with the jerk who keeps women at a distance, only occasionally returns texts, and seems totally unconcerned with the sexual needs of their partner (think John Ham in Bridesmaids).

Marnie’s character, however, is a completely different breed than most people are used to seeing on TV. There are sexually adventurous women with power (like Samantha from Sex and the City,) but Marnie is different. She is full of the contradictions of young womanhood. She has power over Charlie but it doesn’t make her happy. She’s new and different and unsettling in her familiarity. And I love that about her.

Marnie starts spiraling almost immediately after she breaks up with Charlie

In April, Elanor Barkhorn called Marnie “TV’s Latest Beautiful Control Freak” in an Atlantic article, comparing her to Charlotte from Sex and the City and Betty Draper from Mad Men. Barkhorn notes that beautiful control freaks– on TV at least– are usually headed for a fall. In Marnie’s case, she is not wrong.

Although Marnie’s character seems to have been miserable from the very first episode, after she breaks up with Charlie she starts spiraling. Charlie gets a new girlfriend, Hannah starts dating Adam, and her friends stop listening to her complaints about Charlie. Stevenson asks in Slate’s “Guys on Girls: Your Crack Spirit Guide,” “Were we all sated by Marnie’s long-overdue comeuppance?”

Personally, I am not sated because I don’t think Marnie needed quite so hard a fall. For all of my friends, when they escape a relationship as toxic as Marnie’s, they are usually excited by the independence. They grow, discover new things, and seem generally happy to be free of a relationship that made them completely miserable.

In the end, I agree with Stevenson’s colleague Rosin: “They were a little too hard on Marnie.”

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