Audacious list (2 of 10): As if feminism never happened.

And now, the continuing story of 10 creative pitfalls that have affected the daytime industry. Previously on the Audacious List: Complaining about the lack of diversity in culture, age, and personality.

This post was originally slated for later in the series, but I mentioned an awesome blog entry of Cady McClain’s yesterday. It’s a natural segue to talk about this as the next issue on my list.

In a nutshell, it’s this: Somehow, in all of the changes that have happened over the last decade or so, most of the smart, independent women onscreen have been banished to the far corners of the canvas or run out of town. It’s as if feminism never happened!

Yes, I know: “daytime drama” and “feminism” haven’t always gone hand in hand. This genre has always been about marriage and family and a very traditional sense of what the nuclear family should look like.

But I would argue that soaps experienced a great creative renaissance in the 60s and 70s, where the topics and subject mirrored what was going on in the country. And as a result, it opened up what could be played out on screen.

In the earlier days of soaps, we had dependable heroines like Jo on Search for Tomorrow, Bert on Guiding Light, and Nancy Hughes on As The World Turns. The flip side of that was the bad girl –ATWT’s Lisa being the template for many years of the Bad Man-Stealing Hussy. You might get a few minor variations on the theme – a little more crazy, or manipulative, on the ‘bad’ side, and maybe a little bit of a martyr or a complainer, as Bert was, on the ‘good’ side. But these were usually the only women you saw on the shows.

But starting in the late 60s, the women we saw onscreen got more complex. We still had melodramatic twists and turns, but the characters were smarter and wiser. At the very least, they were more cognizant about what they were doing, or not doing. Rachel on Another World was a great example of someone who grew and evolved before our very eyes. There were characters like Holly and Rita on Guiding Light who made foolish choices, but we saw their innate intelligence at work even when their bad choices overwhelmed them.

And of course, in the 80s big-business frenzy on the shows (inspired by Dallas and Dynasty) we saw the introduction of several female characters who were every bit the relentless tycoon as their male counterparts. You didn’t mess with women like Lucinda Walsh or Alexandra Spaulding.

So why am I saying feminism never happened? Well, a lot of these kinds of characters have been pushed to the wayside (like two of my favorites, ATWT’s Margo and Lucinda) or eliminated all together (AMC’s Brooke, GL’s Holly to name just two).

I know, I sound like a bitter old negativista stuck in a haze of misty water-colored memories. But it’s just sad to see such a regression in the way women are written on the shows.

I don’t believe this is just a daytime issue – we have so much entertainment these days where the “entertainment value” is watching people being depicted in the harshest, ugliest light. We have women being depicted as catty and competitive (America’s Next Top Model) or vapid and silly (The Simple Life, The Hills). There ARE wellsprings of intelligence in scripted shows on the networks and on cable, but sometimes those voices are overwhelmed.

One of the biggest trends on daytime has been to simplify, simplify, simplify – in the hopes of attracting new viewers without overwhelming them with silly things like, y’know, history and complex personalities. And I think rounding out younger female characters and making them more than arm candy or catfight participants can’t happen with budget cuts and the drive to simplicity.

And honest, I’m not on Cady McClain’s payroll, but I think she’s the poster child of this particular entry for me. Why? Because I’ve read interviews with her and heard her talk, and I see an incredibly bright, compelling person who is creative and smart and funny – not to mention a person who seems like she could take care of herself (and maybe kick your ass, too).

But for some reason, writers and producers on daytime have seen Cady and what THEY walk away with is: Cries. A lot. Baby crazy, baby fever, must have baby. More crying. Helpless, needs a man to save her. And, in the rare moments they haven’t had Cady playing those notes? She was Demonic Monster Beyotch.

I hope Cady doesn’t mind, but I want to summarize this entry with some quotes from her essay on this. She says it better than I ever could, and with the authority of someone who has played the words and storylines on the soundstage.

I know so many of the women on daytime are total victims waiting to be rescued by their man. Can you say barf? Whose fantasy is this? How dated is this? I don’t understand how writers in this era can think stories like this are anything but insulting to their audience. Even in the breadbasket of America, the Christian right-est must be asking themselves, “what the heck is going on with my stories?”

It’s not the 50’s, the 60’s, the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s. It’s 2007, soon to be 2008 and more women want to know how to TRULY love, HOW to chose between revenge and forgiveness when they are hurt, want to see women who can be tough like only a woman can be tough, not copying a man’s behavior. Women, I think, want to see beauty that doesn’t look like either a skeleton or a weightlifter, to see characters that struggle with their LOOKS, even if they are pretty, because it’s this endless pervasive comparing that makes us feel bad about ourselves.

Writing female friendships is NOT easy, but there are a lot of stories out there that don’t have to be about the man and the baby, for god’s sake. Why does melodrama have to include endless focus on the uterus? How about a friend stealing another friends money? How about the friend that borrows your stuff to an annoying degree until you come home one day and she’s helped herself to your whole life? How about the jealousy that can live for a lifetime between two women that really care about each other, be they sisters or friends, that comes from having different abilities?

RELATIONSHIPS. It’s not rocket science, soaps are about RELATIONSHIPS and CURRENT SOCIAL ISSUES we are having these relationships in.

Am I wrong? I’m not saying men and babies and love and all that aren’t going to be a part of the whole she-bang, but it just seems like the stories start there, like “Ok, she loves him and they want a baby… go.” WHY does she love him? HOW do they stay together? These shows don’t have to be MILDRED PIERCE anymore, they really, really don’t.

NOTE: I really didn’t delve into a deep debate on specific storylines (my aim is to talk about the big picture in this blog) but clearly, some of the soaps have had storylines that are misogynistic. General Hospital is often cited, as well as some other shows. Check out the excellent post by Jennifer Gibbons in her blog, which talks about the last days of Passions, a show that had several troublingly misogynistic story arcs.

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4 thoughts on “Audacious list (2 of 10): As if feminism never happened.

  1. Patrick-

    Hey, are you and Cady reading my mind???? This is amazing! Yes to everything you all have said. Yes, yes, yes!

    I touched on the he man woman hating deal with soaps today with my blog about Passions:
    http://www.redroom.com/blog/jenniferkate/adieu-passions-one-weird-ass-show

    Think of me sitting by the computer, raising my fist in salute.

    Response: I really love a lot of what Cady has said. Hey, if GL won’t hire her as Harley, maybe they can ask her to be Executive Producer there? I mean, it’s not like they haven’t hired an Emmy-award winning actress from AMC to be EP before *cough*EllenWheeler*cough*.

    *returning fist salute*

  2. Someone from the SM board linked to this. Man, have I been on the same page. That’s all they write the women to do is get pregnant or do anything to get a man. On GL for instance, every woman character has been ruined. Plus the men they are so crazy about are slimers, grifters and mostly felons. What is this telling our young women? It so sucks.

  3. in total agreement here. TPTB seem to have a penchant for conflating terms. i’m all in favor of simplicity in all things. But that’s quite a lot different from simplistic, which, as you’ve noted, seems to be the watchword for so much of what passes for entertainment these days, including movies.

    which brings me to an interesting phenom: charlie rose recently interviewed people from “mad men.” and the show’s creator, matthew weiner, made pretty much the same observation re simplistic. he went one to say that the success of shows like mm, and i would add friday night lights, is due to the hunger people have for complex, character-driven storytelling. and so it is with the soaps. we all know this; why don’t TPTB?

    Response: Well, you know that’s another thing we see eye to eye on, Lynn. And that’s a future post for me here. Many prime-time shows are better at being soaps than daytime soaps are these days. (And to be clear – I’m not talking about prime-time soap a la Dallas or Dynasty. We’re talking multi-layered story, multi-generational cast.)

  4. I’ve gotta also join in here and agree. Especially if you look at the AW episodes now available on Hulu, you can see female leads who were devoted to careers, families, and justice. They certainly made mistakes, but they made them with intelligence, rationality, and humor. This whole obsession with babies and “trapping” the man is so 1950’s, IMO a poor message to be sending to young people. And a boring message for those over 25.

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