Female Characters

How a Grown-Up Feels

younger01_444_297“I was at a bit of a crossroads with my career,” says Sutton Foster, a Broadway stalwart and star of Darren Star’s charming TV Land show Younger. The 40-year-old actress plays Liza, a 40-year-old mom who rejoins the workforce by pretending to be 26 — a dissonance she identifies with. “I was going in for age-appropriate roles, but was reading young. But then I couldn’t play the younger characters because I was too old. I was having trouble in casting, and then this came across my plate and I thought, Ooh, I can do this! I know how to do this!”

One of my earliest posts on this blog was about Younger and my doubts about its premise. I’ve since watched an episode and a half of the show and, while it’s not perfect (does anyone on the show actually know anything about the publishing industry? Do twenty-somethings actually interact with each other the way these characters do?), it is, as the writer above put it, fairly charming. The premise still irks me, but Dollhouse managed to rise above its kinda-icky premise to become a show that had something to say about female empowerment.

The paragraph above is from an article about the actresses of Younger, up on Vulture today. The article goes on to describe the show and the evolving relationships between the female characters as Sutton Foster’s Liza relives her twenties incognito. It’s a pretty typical visit-to-the-set piece.

As I read it, though, my eyes kept wandering back to that first paragraph—specifically, to this snippet: “I was going in for age-appropriate roles, but was reading young. But then I couldn’t play the younger characters because I was too old.”

I’m not an actress, but those lines encapsulate exactly how my mid-thirties feel. I don’t go on auditions or have to read for roles, so no one is sizing me up based solely upon my appearance and my ability to come across old or young. But I do exist as a person in the world—someone who has to get up every morning and decide what to wear, then go to work and interact with other adult humans.

At thirty-six, I’m pretty solidly an adult. Yet the moments during which I feel adult are relatively few and far between. What do I even mean when I say feeling like an adult? What does an adult even feel like? The fact that, chronologically, I am an actual adult should imply that, however I feel, that is how an adult (or, at least, this adult) feels.

But I look at the other adults with whom I work and I find it hard to fathom that they feel like I do. They all seem put-together, confident, capable of negotiating deals, of running companies. My desk is located just down the hall from the office of the president of this company, so I catch plenty of glimpses of her throughout the day. She’s always dressed in a crisp suit, with perfect makeup and carefully coiffed hair. She’s personable and professional. She’s so grownup.

On the other hand, I pick out my clothes for the day and smear some makeup on my face and dry and flatiron my hair, at least part of my brain assuming that if I try to look the part, maybe I’ll feel more adult. But the effort never results in me looking more adult. (Usually, I just look more awake.) I still look like an overgrown kid playing dress-up.

I’m not trying to humblebrag my way into implying I look young for my age. It’s more about this feeling I get when I look into the mirror before I head to work: I feel like I did when, as a five-year-old, I slipped my feet into my mother’s shoes and donned what I thought of as a “lady dress.” Like I’m playing pretend.

Sometimes I think that if I put a little more money into my wardrobe, bought nicer clothes, got something tailored, I’d manage to look more put-together. Is that the secret to feeling more like an adult?

Other times, I understand it doesn’t matter how I look. No amount of money spent on clothes or at Sephora will change how I feel on the inside. Or how I choose to present myself. I hear myself speak during the Monday morning meeting, and I sound exactly like me. Then I listen to my coworker speak, and though I can’t pinpoint the difference—and though she’s younger than I am—she sounds adult. Should I sound more like her? How would I do that? Does anyone else detect the difference between the two of us? Does she feel like an adult? Do men think about these things? Does it matter?

Do other people see me the way I see myself? I wonder. Or is it all just in my head? I’m not unprofessional, although I would characterize my general demeanor as casual and pretty laid-back. Though I don’t own a suit, I dress in the appropriate, business casual style of my office. I’ve put effort into appearing adultlike, but no matter what I wear or how I present myself, I still feel like a sixteen year old who snuck into the building and started impersonating someone who actually belongs here.

Every once in a while, I try to imagine what the other women at work—the businesswomen—are like when they’re not in their business garb. I can hear the president chatting down the hall sometimes, and she talks about the same kind of silly stuff I talk about: T.V. shows and Stitch Fix, what she had for dinner last night, her recent discovery that she’s allergic to eggs. If we’re similar enough after work hours, why are we so different at work?

And does she feel this same dichotomy between being an adult and feeling like one? If I could crawl inside her head, see her from her own point of view, would I discover that when she looks in the mirror, she still feels like a kid dressed up in her mother’s clothes? Does she understand the dissonance Sutton Foster was talking about—that feeling that you’re too old for certain things, but too young for others?

Or maybe she’s just past all this. She’s older than me, so maybe she finally made it beyond the marker that indicates the transition into actual adulthood. Maybe it wasn’t thirty, like I thought it was in my twenties. Maybe it’s forty, that moment when you finally know and feel that you are an adult person. Or fifty.

Or maybe it’s never. There’s a scene in Richard Linklater’s trippy movie Waking Life during which two women are talking in a restaurant, and this exchange takes place:

Woman 1: It's such a strange paradox. I mean, while, technically, I'm closer to the end of my life than I've ever been, I actually feel more than ever that I have all the time in the world. When I was younger, there was a desperation, a desire for certainty, like there was an end to the path, and I had to get there.

Woman 2: I know what you mean, because I can remember thinking, “Oh, someday, like in my mid-thirties maybe, everything's going to just somehow gel and settle, just end.” It was like there was this plateau, and it was waiting for me, and I was climbing up it, and when I got to the top, all growth and change would stop.

I find myself thinking about this scene a lot. Reminding myself that there’s no plateau. No indication that I have reached any sort of end of growth or change (other than death, of course). There’s just a hill I keep climbing.

My mom is 58. She looks younger. I was probably in my early thirties when I asked her once if she felt like an adult. I think she just laughed. My grandma is 96. She looks like a grandma, and at this age, she’s grown frailer and less energetic. But well into her eighties, she was spry. She worked in her garden and sewed and was always ready to go on an adventure. To all outward appearances, she looked like an old lady. But I wonder if she felt that way. Maybe, when I am 58, or 96, I will look at myself and finally see an adult. Maybe there will be some kid in my life who will ask me then, “Do you feel like an adult?”

Then again, maybe there is no difference between feeling like a kid and feeling like an adult. There’s no plateau. There’s no looking into other people’s heads to gauge whether I’m on track for adulthood. There’s growth, but not change. Maybe the way I feel is just who I am. I’ll never feel like an adult. I’ll only ever feel like myself.

In Praise of Paris

39I'm doing a pretty intensive rewatch of Gilmore Girls. So intensive, in fact, that in the middle of binge-watching marathons, Netflix frequently feels compelled to ask if I'm still watching. Listen, Netflix: I don't come over to your house, knock the pint of Ben and Jerry's out of your hand and tell you to vacuum your floors, so stop judging. Anyway, upon this rewatch and with the benefit of enough years after the initial airing of the show that I now identify more with Lorelei than Rory, I've come to realize something: Most of the characters on this show are terrible people.

To some extent, this isn't shocking. Stars Hollow and nearby locales are home to a good number of antagonists and quasi-villainous characters. Emily and Richard Gilmore, though often secretly awesome, are set up to be Lorelei's eternal foes, and they act accordingly. (What's with Emily telling Christopher he still has a chance with Lorelei even as she's engaged to Luke?! Or with Richard reneging on his deal with Lorelei to get Rory back in school when she drops out of Yale for a semester?! These jerks.) We can all agree that Mitchum Huntzberger is a douchenozzle, and Taylor Doose is a bore. And though no one who loves Celine Deline so unabashedly can be all bad, Michel is, admittedly, a snob and a terrible employee.

But even the characters we've come to know and presumably love, it turns out, are sort of awful. I know! Delightful Lorelei and Rory? This article from Vulture reveals why they're both actually kind of the worst. Luke, meanwhile, is grumpy and obstinate to the point of assholery. Kirk is too quirky to live. I can't deal with Dean -- he's fickle and whiny and dull and, oh my god, that haircut -- and Jess is a boorish punk.

There are exceptions. Lane is lovely and a better friend than a puke like Rory deserves. Minor characters like Gypsy and Miss Patty aren't just filler for crowd scenes; they're authentically funny and charming. And I will NOT hear an ill word about Sookie St. James and Jackson Belleville.

Even as I've started to see the denizens of Stars Hollow for who they really are, though, I've come to realize that there's one character who, though she comes to the series as an ostensible villain and continues to be presented as a source of frustration even as she becomes one of Rory's best friends, is actually the best person on the show. Ladies and gentlemen, I come to sing the praises of one Paris Geller.

Paris starts the series as Rory's apparent enemy. Already queen of the academic castle at Chilton Academy when Rory enrolls in the private school, Paris is smart, assertive, and ambitious. When Rory rolls in, expecting to be crowned the Smartest Lil' Pixie Ever Enrolled, she immediately butts heads with Paris. As an audience, we're supposed to side with Rory, Our Special Snowflake. But put yourself in Paris's position. You're just minding your own business, trying to pave your own way to an Ivy League school. Your only friends are a couple of ditzes, and the one guy you've got a crush on immediately stars drooling over Snowflake. You'd be pissed, too, right? You'd defend your home turf and position yourself as Snowflake's rival, right? And if you were a guy, people would say you were tough, a take-no-shit-from-no-one kinda guy. But Paris? She's supposed to be a bitch, just because she isn't willing to cede her ground to Rory Gilmore.

On another show, Rory and Paris might have been seasons-long enemies. But Paris displays one of the most attractive characteristics a human being can possess:  a willingness to see things from a new perspective and to change accordingly. When Rory offers a gesture of friendship, Paris not only accepts; she becomes, arguably, one of the best examples of a good friend on the show.

Even Rory has to admit that Paris provides her exactly the sort of foil she needs to excel academically. And while Rory gets super judgey when Paris starts dating a (much) older professor at Yale (where both girls are students), Paris generally stays supportive of Rory's relationships, immediately defending her when Logan turns up uninvited and belligerent at their apartment but growing supportive and understanding when Rory and Logan get back together. Yes, when you call Paris, she'll launch into a tirade about how education in America is turning a generation of students into a coddled bunch of morons; but when it counts, she'll use her pre-med knowledge and her terrifying demeanor to wrench information out of the attending surgeon when your boyfriend is on the brink of death after jumping off a cliff in Costa Rica and no one will tell you anything.

Paris is fantastic. We're supposed to think she's driven to the point of psychosis, but if a guy were as ambitious as she is, everyone would praise him for his determination and focus. When Paris's family goes broke, she panics for all of three minutes, then sucks it up and learns to waitress -- going so far as to work for Rory, her one-time enemy. (In fact, Paris might as well be an orphan, based on what we know about her family. No wonder she's so independent and self-sufficient.) We're supposed to believe that Paris is too mean, but hey, my response to feeling nervous or uncertain is to get angry, too.

Would I want to live with Paris? Possibly not. Between the craft corner and the Krav Maga, things can get intense in the Geller household. Would I want to work with her? I mean, I respect her reluctance to remember the name of anyone on the Yale Daily News staff and her ability to construct her own cube, but...no. But would I want to be friends with Paris? You betcha.

Of course, the ultimate proof that Paris Geller is good people is that she lands Doyle McMaster, a.k.a. television's Danny Strong, a.k.a. Jonathan from Buffy. Not that being able to snag a good dude should be the thing by which a lady's awesomeness should be measured. But the fact that Paris creates a strong, caring relationship with someone who both loves and challenges her, based on mutual respect and a love for strange martial arts, is yet another testament to her ability to do things on her own terms but also to grow and change and learn.

Watching Gilmore Girls again, I find myself loving a lot of the characters in spite of their flaws. When it comes to Paris, though, I find myself rooting for her over even the main ladies. Paris gets knocked down, but she pops right back up. Paris is smart, and she knows it, and she's mean sometimes -- but she knows that, too. And she's willing to evolve. Who wouldn't want that in a friend?

Twenty-six is the new forty

So, this weekend found me lounging on the couch, putting off scrubbing the gunk out of the corners of my windows by watching The American President (it holds up!) on TV Land, minding my own damn business, when this came on: [youtube=http://youtu.be/FzKn_m3ARPo]

Listen.  I get it.  I ain't mad at Sutton Foster; girl's gotta make a living.  I'm tempted to complain about how a fantastic show with positive portrayals of not just females but an all female-lead cast gets booted while this Darren Starr written/produced/directed project is given the greenlight, but I understand how ratings work.  Bunheads was too good, and too underwatched, for this world.  And it's not like the existence of Younger is responsible for the erasure of Bunheads.  The two shows aren't integers in some sort of mathematical equation where the presence of one cancels out the presence of the other.  (I'm assuming that's how math works, anyway.)

Bunheads obsession aside, I just can't with Younger.  I mean, will I watch it?  Duh.  (Please see:  Sutton Foster.)  But I'm setting my DVR with serious reservations.  I swear I was just reading an essay or two about how far women have come in television; I promise that even though I can't recall which blog or podcast or magazine article it was, something out there was recently celebrating how maybe one or two television shows are actually letting older (i.e., anything over 39) women have interesting roles.  I mean, Jessica Lange is the belle of Ryan Murphy's ball right now, and 49-year-old Viola Davis is leading one of this fall's more successful network dramas.  So it's getting better, right?

Here's Wikipedia's summary of Younger's premise:  "Liza (Sutton Foster) is a 40-year-old recently divorced single mother looking to get a job, which proves difficult for a woman of her age. After a compliment from a much younger man, she decides to get a makeover, courtesy of her friend Maggie (Debi Mazar), in order to look like she is in her mid-twenties. Ultimately, she becomes an assistant to Diana (Miriam Shor) in a publishing firm, who pairs her with co-worker Kelsey (Hilary Duff)." (Italics are mine.  I mean, "for a woman of her age"?  Forty?  HORRORS.)

One step forward, two steps back, I guess.

I'm willing to set aside judgment until after I watch a few episodes.  After all, Darren Star's Sex and the City was ostensibly a silly, shallow show about women who love shoes, but it managed to plumb the depths of female relationships, examine real issues faced by modern women, and make it okay to talk about vaginas, at least on cable.  Maybe Younger is going to be like the broccoli you smother in Velveeta cheese sauce so your five-year-old will get a vegetable inside him:  something wholesome wrapped in something not particularly great but kind of delicious, at least to the unrefined palate.

But the marketing of the show has me doubting.  It's worth noting that the show is based on a book by the same name.  I'm not familiar with the book or with its author, Pamela Redmond Satran, but thanks to a Google search, I'm now aware that in Satran's version, Liza (Alice, in the book version) lies and says she's 29.  So, not only is Younger the show a story about an ancient 40-year-old woman who, because of her age (and time spent outside the workforce, but let's face it, MOSTLY because of her hideous age), can't possibly be considered for a job of any kind and therefore claims that she's younger than she really is; but for the folks who bring us this show, 29 evidently isn't younger enough, since Foster's character claims to be 26 in the trailer.

I love that (streaming) television has evolved to the point where a transgender character can be the lead of a drama.  I love that gay characters and same-sex couples aren't an anomaly on television anymore -- in fact, they're allowed to have dimensions and sex lives and even be the centerpieces of some shows.  I love that there are active conversations about T.V. shows and movies that do or don't pass the Bechdel Test, and that audiences are paying attention to which shows bother to portray characters that aren't just Typical White Male Protagonist and/or Antihero.

So it kind of blows my mind when I see the commercial for Younger.  Are we really back here, shuddering in horror at the thought of a woman over 40?  Insisting that to have any validity, to have any sort of story that might draw the interest of the most coveted television demographic, a female character would have to lie about her age and appear younger than she is?  I guess so.  I find it unlikely that we'd see the male counterpart to Younger:  a tale about a 40-year-old man who, having stepped outside the workforce to raise a child, decides to rejoin working America but, because of his age, is not only rejected but considered a "has-been" and is condescended to.  That show? That show would not exist.

Television's Baby Problem

“Can’t we have ONE representation on t.v. of women who want work and a relationship but don’t want to become baby-making machines? YEESH,” I grumbled to a friend over Google chat last May. I was up in arms over the Parks and Recreation season five finale, an episode that featured what my friend referred to as the “who-is-pregnant woman hunt.” Over the course of the finale, Andy discovers a positive pregnancy test and makes it his mission to question every female character on the show to find out who’s knocked up. Though the mother-to-be turns out to be Ron Swanson’s girlfriend Diane, the pregnancy hunt awakens the baby-making impulse in the show’s protagonist, Leslie Knope. For the first time to the audience’s knowledge, Leslie talks with her husband about the inevitable family they’ll eventually have.

“Leslie’s never even mentioned an interest in having children!” I bitched. “She seems so career-focused (not that you can’t want both a career and kids). But the whole start-a-family thing came out of nowhere! I know that relationship woes/marriage/babies are the traditional progression for most sitcoms, but I just kind of want to see ONE that doesn’t go that route.”

A year later, Leslie would end season six pregnant with triplets. I spent subsequent days ranting inarticulately about why this was a terrible decision on the part of the show’s writers, until the AV Club posted “The trouble with triplets: Leslie Knope’s babies and a problematic sitcom trend,” in which Libby Hill takes issue with Leslie’s career accomplishments being “retconned into being merely preparation for having children.”

In her essay, Hill also traces the evolution of the sitcom heroine and notes that, for characters like Leslie, who thrive in the workplace settings of their comedies, “the feminist struggle often gets murkier with these characters. Unlike their ’70s foremother, each of these characters ends up with (at least one) child by the end of their show’s run." We’re living in the “can women have it all” era but, as Hill posits, when it comes to television, “The question is, must women have it all.”

Last week, Homeland’s fourth season premiered with two episodes that brought viewers up to speed on events in the life of the show’s protagonist, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). After a couple of sometimes wobbly seasons, Homeland’s season three landed its ending: Though Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) had outlived his usefulness, his execution was gut-wrenching, and it finally freed Carrie from go-nowhere romantic storylines. This was a welcome change because what’s always been unique and, frankly, awesome about Carrie from day one is that she’s crazy-good at her job. Emphasis on the crazy—but the ability her bipolar disorder gives her to make connections no one else sees is exactly why she’s so good.

When the show was exploring the parallels between Carrie and Brody—who, after being held as a prisoner of war for eight years, was turned by al-Qaeda to perpetrate terrorist acts back in the U.S.—it was at its most interesting. But the show went a step further when Carrie and Brody became romantically entangled and, as a result, spun its wheels a bit. The writers seemed invested in this relationship, while as a viewer, I was drumming my fingers, waiting for each episode to get back to the good stuff.

Now in the wake of Brody’s death, Carrie still isn’t home-free: She’s got a Little Brody to contend with. By last Sunday’s second episode, the show seems to have decided how Carrie’s going to deal with motherhood; “Trylon and Perisphere” ended with Carrie taking a hardship posting with the CIA—a decision that any viewer understands is at least partly an excuse for Carrie to leave her infant daughter in the care of her (somewhat reluctant) sister.

I ought to be grateful. Presumably, with Carrie in Pakistan, the show will mostly dispense with the baby plot, save for a few U.S.-to-Pakistan Skype calls. So why am I not more excited about this depiction of a woman on television choosing career over family?

“A baby isn’t just a plot device,” Sonia Saraiya wrote last year in an AV Club recap of Homeland’s season three finale, “it’s a life-altering small person that will change everything.” Yet too often a baby is thrown into a plot as a device to demonstrate that when a female character puts career at the center of her life, she’s not only sacrificing family; she has to become the momentary villain as she chooses work over her offspring.

“Trylon and Perisphere” finds tiny Franny Brody thrust upon her mother by a sister who seems convinced that if Carrie just spends some time with her baby, she’ll discover her maternal instinct. Instead, each scene between Carrie and Franny seems designed to give Carrie (and viewers) a chance to close the Brody chapter—and to demonstrate what a bad mother Carrie would be. In one scene, she allows her mother to reminisce about Papa Brody, admitting that she tried to be happy when she learned she was pregnant, though “with his being gone can’t remember why I had you.” In another harrowing scene, Carrie comes this close to drowning her daughter during a routine bath. When Carrie departs for Pakistan with a tearful but sterile goodbye to baby, she’s not so much choosing career over family, the show seems to say, but admitting her ineptitude.

In August, Huffington Post ran a piece by Bri Seely (“What It Really Feels Like to Be a Child-Free Woman”), who—having no desire to raise children—recounted asking to be sterilized year after year, only to be told by doctors, “You’ll change your mind.” This is the overwhelming response to most women who say they want child-free lives. “You don’t know what you want,” we’re told again and again. “You’re too young to make that decision, you’ll think differently when you’re older.”

Television perpetuates this depreciation of a woman’s agency when it takes away a female character’s ability to even make this decision. As a career-oriented CIA agent who also lives with a disorder that has genetic component, it seems unlikely that Homeland’s Carrie would put “have a baby” at the top of her list of life goals. Yet she has unprotected sex—of course—and ends up pregnant—of course. And, this being television, there’s no question of abortion; on T.V., women rarely have the option of terminating a pregnancy, especially if they’re the protagonist of the show. (This is less true on cable, and if the character in question is an unmarried adolescent or young woman, she’s more often allowed to consider, or even have, an abortion.)

Likewise, at the end of Mad Men’s first season, the character who would come to represent the breaker of glass ceilings, the ur-career-woman, Peggy Olsen, naturally ends up pregnant. It’s a rite of passage, the show seems to say, that she must weather before she can earn the right to a career. Mad Men’s second season deals with the fallout of this pregnancy. Like Carrie, Peggy gives her baby up; Peggy also suffers the stigma of being a “loose” woman as her family accuses her of seducing the man who knocked her up and the priest at her church urges her to confess her sins. While a modern perspective on the show’s 1960s morals allows viewers to sympathize with Peggy’s predicament, in the world of the show Peggy nevertheless becomes something of a momentary villain for choosing career over family.

A baby doesn’t even have to enter the picture, though, for a woman’s agency to be taken away. How I Met Your Mother’s career-oriented Robin Scherbatsky is adamant about not wanting kids, a position that contributes to the end of her relationship with Ted and that remains consistent throughout the show—until season seven’s twelfth episode, in which Robin first believes she is pregnant, then discovers that not only is she not having a baby; she’s infertile. Once again, choice is quickly taken out of the picture. Robin’s reaction to the news that she can’t have a baby is to grieve, a natural reaction for a lot of women—including some who have never wanted children—but given the circumstances and the character’s history, it’s hard not to see this as another version of “you’ll change your mind some day.” Either you will change your mind, the message seems to be, or the decision not to will be taken away from you.

There’s room on television for all kinds of stories—for every story, including Robin’s, Peggy’s, and Carrie’s. And there’s room for a story like Donna’s: Jenny Slate’s character from the charming movie Obvious Child may or may not ultimately want children, but when she discovers she’s pregnant, she makes a decision that puts career (and independence) over family. She makes the decision, and she’s not punished for it or made to look villainous.

But that’s film. Television isn’t quite there yet. And on T.V., all too often, a baby is a plot device. It’s the culmination of an all-too-familiar trajectory. No matter how little a female character’s initial story arc might have to do with babies, in most shows, once the writers run out of ideas, she’s going to find herself faced with a pregnancy. Isn’t the simple inevitability of that progression one more way television seems to say that a woman just isn’t interesting enough outside of her childbearing abilities to sustain an audience’s interest? On T.V., it isn’t enough to work for the CIA, become the most powerful woman in an advertising agency, or have a fulfilling career in journalism. On T.V., women can have the whole pie—career, relationship, and baby—but they can’t opt for just one slice.