Approaching Feminism, Diversity, and Privilege on Girls, Game of Thrones, and Mad Men

April 26, 2012

Please note that this post contains spoilers for Mad Men through Season 5, Episode 6, Girls Season 1, Episode 2, and Game of Thrones Season 2, Episode 4.

As someone who realizes that he has absolutely no place in writing about the topics of Feminism (I’m a male), Diversity (I’m white), or Privilege (I’m firmly middle class, despite what my bank account over the last 4 years might indicate), I know I shouldn’t weigh in on these topics, especially when there is a plethora of great (along with terrible) writing on these subjects by people who write for a living and have studied the issues for a very long time.  Regardless, I’m shouting down my better angels because these topics have, in some way or another, reached a fever pitch over the last few weeks due largely to the premiere of HBO’s Girls, which has seemed to – in one way or another – brought up some long-percolating discussions about Game of Thrones and AMC’s Mad Men.  I am not going to name the authors or commenters, as I have no interest in turning this into the opening salvo of a flame-war lob (like anybody will read it anyway, right?), nor do I think it’s particularly nice to call people out for annoying me, especially when their hearts tend to be in the right place.  Instead, I’d like to write a little more broadly about the approach certain people take to these programs, because I think there’s a disconnect between “what I think they should do” and “what the creators want to do”.  Now, I don’t mean to be hard on anyone because I want to defend shows I like, though certainly the enjoyment and intellectual engagement with the material creates some degree of bias.  Really, I find it irksome because I think that writers who look at popular media through the lens of feminism, race, and/or socio-economic circumstances are perhaps the most practically important set of cultural critics around.  It is absolutely no secret that Hollywood and American Television are overwhelmingly the domains of white, privileged males, and though I hasten to point out that those circumstances do not mean they cannot produce great, relevant art, but it also doesn’t encourage balance, especially when the output of most of them is so anemic and pandering.  There’s a half-truth about target markets and what sells – for instance, films starring black actors turns off white viewers who think it isn’t geared towards them, or that films that appeal to women won’t appeal to men as well – which have gone a long way in financially justifying and, thus, perpetuating the sexist, classist, and racist practices in the studios.  All of this is why I think it’s even more crucial for these cultural critics to get it right, especially when becoming too po-faced or vehemently anti-everything is a huge turn off to average readers and viewers, who are already half-wanting to write off this segment as crackpot “feminazi, anti-white, socialists” (a little extreme, but you get the idea).  Because of the relatively niche markets of the shows I’m discussing here, and the different financial models in which their respective networks operate, I should really spend time factoring those considerations in, but as this is an impromptu rant brought about by too much time on the internet as opposed to a long-gestating, extensively researched essay, I’m not going to give that element the time it deserves.

As a sort of test case, I’d like to take some time on Game of Thrones and have it separate from the other two programs discussed, as it is something of an outlier for a number of reasons.  The first would be that the general discussion about it has been, for the most part, incredibly constructive with its criticisms and its understandings.  It helps that the fanbase is wide-ranging, and some of my favourite female critics are huge fans of the show and the book series (incidentally, I wish I had read all the books so I could read the upcoming book Beyond The Wall, which features a chapter on sexual violence by Alyssa Rosenberg which is bound to be fascinating).  It also escapes larger scrutiny, I suspect, because it is a fantasy show, and genre series have a tendancy to get more leeway in these areas.  For instance, Spartacus rarely gets talked about despite it being the bloodiest, most shamelessly sexually exploitative show around, but as it is not only a sword-and-sandals series, but an extremely over-the-top, camp sword-and-sandals series, its cards are already out on the table as soon as you start watching.  Even though its sex scenes are the most obviously geared towards titillation, it tends to be very equal opportunity when it comes to full frontal nudity – and I don’t suppose it hurts that almost every minute of screentime features a half-naked, incredibly muscular gentleman, but I digress.  It is also an outlier in that issues of race and diversity are difficult to pick apart considering this is a fictional land based on Medieval England, and thus it’s hard to know just where race plays – at the moment the roles for people of colour tend to be as foreigners or smugglers, i.e. those not based out of or from Westeros, which makes sense.  As far as privilege goes, this is certainly concerned with only the top strata of society, though I think it’s important that there are occasional lines by minor barons and, especially, from the king’s council member Varys (Conleth Hill), who says –and probably is- the only person in power who actually cares about the good of the people.

The biggest talking point of the series so far, and it has been there ever since it premiered, is that of its use of sex and nudity, and whether there’s an excessive amount or not.  Mind you, this is a show that basically begins with dismemberment and beheadings, and it never lets up from there, whether it be the violent killing of a horse or a large rat being forced to burrow into a man’s chest as torture, and yet the amount of violence is rarely talked about, but again, digressions.  Still, the amount of nudity and sex has been so notable that Saturday Night Live parodied it in a sketch that featured Andy Samberg as a 13-year old consultant on the show who’s only suggestion was “more boobies”.  The largest point of contention came from the use of nudity in largely expository scenes (writer Myles McNutt coined the term “sexposition” to describe this).  Despite the argument that moments of naked (literal and metaphorical) intimacy might bring about a more honest opening-up about feelings and the past from its characters, there was a degree to which it felt that the writers were using the nudity as a way of giving us something to look at while they attempted to dole out necessary story and character information from a long and incredibly complex text.  This is, I think, completely valid in certain circumstances.  For instance, when Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen), a high ranking member of the council as well as the premier pimp in the capital city of King’s Landing, explains his backstory and his desires while teaching two new prostitutes to his brothel how to pleasure each other, the acts feed off each other and build a certain rhythm, but at the same time it’s filmed and edited in such a way that the desire for audience titillation seems to overwhelm the thematic importance of the act.  The intelligent discussion about this issue, I should note, might have made an impact as far as season two is concerned.  We’re only four episodes into the season at the time of writing, but there’s only been one scene of sexposition so far –involving Ian Greyjoy on a ship on the eve of his return to his homeland, and I’d argue that it served a very specific character purpose (his cocky, horrendous treatment of the girl allowed us to understand his headspace and the expectations he had for returning home).

Beyond the shaky uses of nudity in these sequences, however, you have what I believe to be one of the best uses of nudity in contemporary television, in the way Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is exposed in the first season.  Coming so early in the first episode, many were quick to write her nude scenes off as yet more HBO excess and base fan titillation (complicated by the perception that works of fantasy are only of interest to 13 year old boys who are, stereotypically, inept with women and incredibly horny).  This perception was unfair, however, as the early instances of Dany’s nudity were a result of her being treated as an object to be bargained with for political purposes by her brother and then as an object of base sexual gratification for her husband.  Dany was exposed and debased for reasons beyond her, and (crucially) her wedding night was altered from the book to be, essentially, rape.  Once she uses first sex, then her mind (in intelligence and cultural assimilation) to get her husband to see her as not only a human being, but in many ways a loving wife and equal, the nudity stops.  No longer a piece of meat to be traded and used, she’s her own woman, coming to grips with her new station and her new discovered attributes.  Indeed, she’s not naked again until the final scene of the season, having emerged from a funeral pyre and having “birthed” three dragons.  That nudity has shifted from representing the feeling of being shamed and debased to a powerful image of motherhood.

Finally, it’s worth talking about the distinction between excess and purposefully troubling in regards to an incident that has received some minor criticisms from last week’s episode, “Garden of Bones” (Season 2, Episode 4).  After being somewhat humiliated in court by his uncle Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), who is also the King’s Hand, young King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) – who happens to be, to put it bluntly, one of the most horrendously sadistic little shits ever to be put on screen – receives a late nameday present from his uncle in the form of two whores, Ros (Esmé Bianco) and Daisy (Maise Dee).  Both naked, Ros and Daisy are willing and playful when Joffrey arrives.  He insists they start without him, and then orders some light hitting.  This escalates quickly into Ros using a leather belt on Daisy, and finally (though the results are never shown), what looks to be a large, heavy scepter.  The shift from playful, erotic nudity to terrifying vulnerability is rightfully horrific, and deftly handled (Joffrey winding up his crossbow is perhaps the first time he’s ever felt truly terrifying).  The complaints have tended to be “we already know Joffrey is horrible, why do we need this?” to which I’d answer that, first off, there is plot relevance in regards to him sending a message to his uncle.  Secondly, and more importantly, it’s the first time we see Joffrey exercising his power in private.  Previous to this, it has almost always been some public display of force to courtiers or Sansa or anyone else that mattered.  This was the first truly sadistic thing he’s done almost only for his own pleasure (he could have just beat her and sent her over to Tyrion, but he wanted the torture), and his quiet reveling was much more telling – and disturbing – than the giddy glee he demonstrates in public.  It was also filmed and acted in such a way that we had true empathy for the plight of the whores, who are so often marginalized as background props (as are, in fairness, mostly every soldier and commoner).  The largely intelligent use of nudity, sex, and sexual violence is a big reason I think this show hasn’t been overly criticized for its content, and why feminist fans respect it.  It also doesn’t hurt that it has a huge and varied cast of powerful, interesting women in a variety of circumstances where they deal with their place in a patriarchal society and, on occasion, transcend their expected behaviour.  Again, of course, it’s worth pointing out the general lowered expectation of genre, especially on a show that is more traditionally (if not correctly) considered a male one.

While discussion about Game of Thrones has been largely measured and interesting, Mad Men and, especially recently, Girls have been at the center of a number of highly contentious articles, essays, blog posts, and forum discussions about their inadequacies in these areas.  There’s a certain irony to this, considering Game of Thrones is probably the biggest ratings success out of all three.  Of course, Mad Men and Girls are buzzed about shows that have entered the more intelligentsia-notable zeitgeist, and that’s partly because of their target demographics.  This has led to some solid, legitimate criticisms as well as some I’m certainly sympathetic to in general if not in these particular instances, but it has also led to, in the case of Mad Men, a truly skewed notion of perspective and narrative goals, and in the case of Girls, some strangely offensive attacks on the creator Lena Dunham as well as instances of truly bizarre misinterpretation.  As these two show come up against similar issues, I’m going to write about them together, but by issue.  The first one is that of race and diversity.

As has been noted, there is a genuine issue in television with diversity, both in casting and characters on screen and writers and showrunners behind the scenes.  There are some people of colour in these positions, of course, but not very many and, certainly, not nearly enough.  The problem this causes is not only a degree of alienation amongst significant portions of the audience, but the possibility of a narrow perspective from which a show operates.  This is not to say that quotas should be seen to – after all, most sitcoms and dramas these days have at least one or two supporting characters of colour, though they rarely have plotlines of their own and their cultural background doesn’t often come into play.  There are notable exceptions, of course, such as The Wire and more recently Happy Endings, in which distinct characters often reflect and exchange cultural touchstones and bridge the divide that is oftentimes ignored.  The incredibly white world of Girls is certainly an issue, and a valid criticism.  After all, Brooklyn is famously multi-cultural, and while it’s not at all surprising to find a group of four female friends in this social strata to be without, say, a black friend in the core group, it would seem just as natural to have included one.  I’m willing to give Lena Dunham some leeway on this, because even though I think it should be an issue addressed in the second season (if it has not, indeed, been addressed at some point this season, which I doubt considering Dunham’s comments about what she should do in season two), she’s still in her mid-twenties and has been given an amazing opportunity but also a huge burden in creating, writing, directing, and starring in a show.  There was a rather tasteless tweet from one of the writers in regards to the criticism of the whiteness of the show, which is terrible of course, but also makes me feel that I’d rather they not try to write about the black experience if they have no idea how to do that.  A lot of genres, like procedurals, can easily incorporate racially neutral roles without any significant change to the plot and tenor of a show, but an intimate comedy-drama that is about the personal feelings and experiences of young twenty-somethings couldn’t so easily get away with not addressing certain cultural realities.  The lack of diversity is a legitimate criticism, but it isn’t a show-killer either, especially with regards to the singular nature of the show itself, which I hope to discuss later.

A more complex issue is that of Mad Men, and one that necessitates an understanding of the show’s intentions.  The issue of race, previous to the current season (5, if you’re reading this far into the future), has been mostly on the margins.  This is by, design, however, and though you can make arguments that there were more instances of black secretaries in ad agencies as early as the beginning of the show in 1960, and certainly a large number by 1966 (the year of the current season), it’s not unheard of to think of a small firm that has, so far, been defined by its conservatism and, since breaking off into their new, independent firm, a lack of decisive leadership from the top.  No matter, however, the exact historical numbers of employment of people of colour – though there was a famous hearing on the issue in 1967 that determined ad agencies were far behind the curve in general -, it is important to remember that this is fiction, and as fiction it can (and should) take liberties to tell the story it wants to tell.  This might seem odd, considering the way real historical events often play into the actual narrative, but this reaction is crucial.  Indeed, reacting is a lot of what the characters in Mad Men do, whether its Marilyn Monroe’s death or being confronted with a writer’s black girlfriend.  The central running idea in the series is that of the malleability (or not) of identity.  Dick Whitman took over someone else’s identity to get out of his impoverished situation – a strange but apt, Gatsbyesque twist on the American Dream.  The identities of almost everyone on the show are wrapped up in their views of society and the expectations (of them and for them) that they have of it.  The crisis they all face at one time or another is coming to terms with the changing world around them, even as they’re oftentimes cocooned from that very world.  It’s no coincidence, I feel, that Weiner decided to set this story in the world of advertising, which has the job of simplifying the complexities of life to produce an imagined, artificial idea of happiness to sell products.  A running gag through the whole series has been their difficulties in keeping up with the swiftly changing trends and the ever-younger market, and the old, mostly male, white clients that are just as clueless.

Even though we’re not even halfway through the current season, there has been disappointment and criticism about the character of Dawn, the black secretary hired after a misguided attempt at gloating in the press over the racist activities of another ad firm meant a number of black men and women turned up to apply for jobs.  By playing an insensitive joke, the firm accidentally became progressive.  Some have accused Dawn (Teyonah Parris) of merely window dressing, which I think is demonstrably not the case (though I would like to see more development).  She is, however, a person to be reacted to, in this case by Peggy (Elisabeth Moss).  While there are race riots going on around the country, Peggy and the white characters in the show are obsessed with the murders of nurses in Chicago, and when Dawn is founding sleeping on Don’s couch because it’s too late to go home, Peggy assumes she’s scared because of the murders, completely forgetting the riots that are happening within her own city.  Later on, there’s a moment of almost subconscious racial profiling on Peggy’s part, which echoes Lane’s more overt racist worries with a black cab driver some episodes earlier.  Dawn has the potential to be a good, individual character, and though it’s too soon to tell, her presence as only the second black character of real significance (we shouldn’t forget the Drapers’ maid, Carla, who’s arc was far more effective than The Help’s central moral, and without the White Saviour Character to boot) is, I’d argue, already important for some of the central characters of the show.  There’s a lot of room for improvement, if the writers are canny enough, and there are a lot of potential missteps I’d like to see them avoid (for one, I’m not sure following Dawn home through race riots would serve the show very well), but the variety of ways in which the characters on the show have dealt with race has been rich and certainly within the reality of the series itself.  The last thing I would want is a Mad Men that becomes a progressive, crusading show a la NBC’s incredibly reductive miniseries The 60s, which functioned as whistlestop tour of every cliché of the decade.

Likewise, and this is admittedly a minority amongst the criticisms I’ve read, there have been issues with the representation of women in the workplace, and especially Peggy.  There were, even before 1960, high-ranking women in a number of advertising firms.  They may have had trouble through the decade getting into the truly top positions, though some did, there were certainly a number of female copywriters kicking about Madison Avenue.  One particular critic wrote an article about this, and continues to comment on her dislike of the Peggy character because she’s not as empowered as she should be for the era, and that fundamentally ahistorical view ruins the entire show.  Even moreso than the issue of people of colour, I think this is approaching the show in a completely wrongheaded fashion.  There was a decision made at the conception of the series to tell the story of a young woman working her way up the ranks and encountering a degree of hostility and occasional liberation.  Peggy is essentially the co-lead of the show – it’s as much her story as Don’s – and for a show that features significantly more female writers than male, it seems absurd to target it as an anti-feminist show.  I have a feeling that certain feminist critics want their shows to fit into a specific representation of women, and the problem with that is the reduction in complexity, something that I feel is even more offensive.  Peggy is a deeply complicated character, dealing with her own preconceptions and insecurities as well as those of the normal demands of a professional life, and all in an ever-shifting era.  Likewise Joan and Betty, and even the supporting characters like Trudy, often begin as archetypes and reveal themselves to be something more.  Peggy might be “the female character” in that she’s the co-lead, but the show has done an incredible job of straddling and, when appropriate, totally eschewing the line between Archetypal Female Representative and fully developed, individual character.  I’d also dispute the notions that Peggy sees herself as the only female copywriter in the advertising business.  She’s certainly proud of her accomplishments, and like everyone else, has issues with using it as her identity, but even if the show doesn’t mention by name the other women that worked as copywriters at the time, there’s been a great and largely unspoken progression in her status. Within 4 years of becoming a copy writer, Peggy became the de facto second-in-command in the creative department under Don, and she had the power to file male staff if she felt it was warranted (her misreading of that situation in Season 4 belies Peggy’s struggles with understanding her place in the world and connecting with others like Joan and Dawn who are functioning in different strata’s).  The only people who even bat an eye at this point are aging business clients who themselves haven’t moved on with the times.  There are certainly quibbles one can have from a historical level, but they’re largely irrelevant when the show wants to create deep and fully realized characters that we can dislike or feel bad for or even love, as long as we always understand them.

Perhaps most peculiarly, there have been a number of feminist criticisms against Girls, a show notable for having not only a female creator, but one who has perhaps more control over the content and execution of the show than any other showrunner in American save for Louis C.K.  There have been broader criticisms about the show, aside from just the racial aspect discussed above, that seem wildly disproportionate not only for the size of the show and its audience, but for its content.  Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings (who more or less left the day-to-day duties to work on her own sitcom) created 2 Broke Girls for CBS this past year, and not only is it a pretty big hit, it’s audience size is exponentially larger than Girls.  On top of that, its view of Brooklyn is so horrendously offensive and skewed – presumably by King’s affinity for Manhattan and maybe his condescending perspective on the other boroughs – that it seems shocking that Girls would get the pasting it does from some circles when a show that features a range of broad ethnic stereotypes, a cutesy unrealistic female friend relationship, and even a large number of rape jokes is currently making a significantly larger footprint on the cultural landscape.  This is partly down to the hype that critics generated in the weeks leading up to its premiere, as well as its distinctively bourgeois, ‘hip’ audience that seem to feel increasingly judgmental the better the show might be.  I also can’t help but feel a smack of ageism here, as people quickly lob attacks of nepotism at star Lena Dunham as though she didn’t do enough to “earn” having a show, whatever that means.  Yes, the cast is made up of famous people’s daughters, but anybody who sees acting jobs on TV and in films as purely meritocratic is kidding themselves.  Girls is the kind of show that feminists should be clamouring for, and yet a number of them have turned against it as though it were the most offensive abomination they could imagine (partly, I suppose, because of that deeply human flaw of hating anything that others presume they might like).  Even if it doesn’t meet every expectation – and its perfectly fine to not like a show, mind, as taste is taste – it should be applauded in that it features a young woman with an incredible amount of control creating a TV series (a not inexpensive venture, mind, and I’d imagine that even the auteurist Louie costs only a fraction) about being a young women in America.  It’s an exceptionally honest and frank representation of the what it is to be a young woman today, and it thankfully does away with all the gaudy consumerism and the shiny, fashionista surface of Sex and the City, which is explicitly referenced in the show and is clearly and influence on both the series, its creator, and this generation.

One accusation it gets is that the main character, Hannah (Dunham), a slightly overweight (downright obese for TV, mind) 24 year old is in a horrific sexual relationship with an aloof jerk who doesn’t treat her with enough respect.  This is all true, but the expectation that she should be sexually empowered and together seems absurd.  There’s a degree to which feminism can descend into a desire to watch role models on screen, and even if that’s slightly straw-manny of me, I can’t understand for the life of me anyone who wouldn’t want a recognizable, fully fleshed out character to represent the difficulties and absurdities of female life.  Hannah’s sexual partner, for what its worth, is an absolute dunder-headed jerk, but one thing I really appreciate about his characterization is that he’s not totally without virtue.  He does think Hannah’s beautiful and doesn’t care about her weight, even though she has incredible anxieties about it, and even on occasion – well, those where they’re actually in the same room together – he does act interested and sensitive to what she’s saying, as in his sympathy towards the difficulty of her friend having to get an abortion.  This doesn’t, and the show doesn’t use this to, excuse his horrible behaviour, but it does well to give us an idea of why Hannah is bothering and upset over this guy.  Yet again, a digression, but I think it’s an important one.

One feminist writer tweeted during her viewing of the first two episodes of Girls, at one point completely agog that the roommate, Marnie (Allison Williams), is annoyed that her boyfriend is respecting and caring about her, and asking, “what kind of message is that?”  She goes on to criticize the comment by the same character that anyone who’s not your boyfriend can’t make you play degrading games in bed.  The problem of conflating a character’s comments with a “message” for the show is one I come across on occasion in a variety of criticisms, including feminist ones.  It isn’t what is said, but how it is said, after all, which is to say in way this is presented to us?  Girls works pretty hard, I’d say, to make sure we understand that not only are these characters not role models to be looked up to, nor are they mouthpieces for an empowering message from a new generation of women.  They’re deeply flawed characters, and there’s a disconnect between how they view themselves and how the show views them (this was best demonstrated in the first episode, when Hannah wakes up in her parent’s now-vacated hotel room and tries to get some room service before stealing the housemaid’s tip).  Some of these critics (rightly) lambast the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope on a regular basis, because it satisfies the desires of a particular type of male and sacrifices a realistic, fully fleshed out female character.  By that same token, there shouldn’t be a desire to see a one-dimensional paragon of feminist virtues because it does a disservice to both the character and reality.  Life is complicated, and especially in the modern, late-capitalist society within which we live, there are a number of complications in trying to be something we don’t necessarily want to be.  There’s a degree to Hannah and Marnie understand their flaws, but they’re not quite ready to admit them to themselves.  Marnie seems to feel guilty that she’s just plain bored with her boyfriend, even though she can’t think of anything he’s done specifically “wrong” to justify it.  Hannah knows somewhere inside that her sexual partner Adam is a jerk, but her low self-esteem and subsequent desire to be wanted, on top of every other problem in her life, causes her to put up with him when she’s with him and pine for him when she’s not.  These are all real emotions that are messy and ugly and complicated, and are also far too rarely depicted on television.  Not to mention, of course, the real emphasis put on the importance of female friends at that age, and even as tenuous as some of them are, their value is never belittled.

Perhaps the largest attack against Girls is that of rich-girl entitlement.  Now, there’s certainly a degree of that in the show, but I believe critics are exaggerating its prevalence because it fits nicely into their nepotism narrative.  Still, there’s a degree, so far, to which these girls are fairly privileged.  The first episode – and arguably the series – kicks off when Hannah is cut off by her parents (for unconvincing and very pilot-y reasons) after living off of them for two years.  She’s been interning at a publishing company for a year but her boss won’t hire her because she lacks extra skills and, presumably, he doesn’t want to pay her.  Now this might seem absurd but it’s one of the few places I’ve seen an acknowledgment of the job market for young college graduates.  The number of graduates in internships has skyrocketed over the last decade, and these days its less about training someone to get the full-time job than it is about the $2 billion a year private companies in the US save by using unpaid interns.  This sort of folds into the privileged aspect of Hannah’s character, and the fact that she has been supported by her parents for a full two years after she graduated.  The reality is that, in America today, parents absolutely must pay for their children to live after college because these unpaid internships are their best (and sometimes only) avenue to getting a full-time job.  Still, Hannah is definitely spoiled, but the show is aware of it.  The reasons her mother wants to cut her off are ridiculous, as they must be for any parent who decides to do something like that without any warning, but Hannah’s insistence that she just needs $1100 a month for 2 years to write her memoirs is knowingly absurd.  The show realizes that Hannah and her friends are incredibly spoiled, and that undercurrent of criticism is what separates this series from something like Entourage.

Entourage told the story of a successful young actor and his friends as they live the high life in LA.  It’s telling that the show didn’t get nearly as much criticism as Girls has, and Entourage ran for a full seven seasons and even has a movie in the works.  Understanding what Entourage does as opposed to how Girls is presented is key to my whole issue with the various criticisms I’ve discussed here.  Entourage was never truly critical of its five main characters.  They did stupid things a lot, sure, but it never condemned them for it.  It was presented in such a way that riding in jets, buying fast cars, living in mansions, and having sex with beautiful women was absolutely everything.  The style and the excess was the point, and its main appeal for viewers was aspirational.  You didn’t watch the show to understand the difficulties Hollywood and this life of luxury might places on its characters; you watched the show to revel in the expensive surroundings and the never-ending Hollywood self-congratulations.  It was a hugely uncritical show that lacked even the tiniest iota of self-awareness, and I’d be both hugely surprised and utterly horrified to find any show with a more disgusting and misogynist ending.  Girls is constantly representing its spoiled brats as spoiled brats, and that’s what makes the experience of watching the show so far palatable.

Mad Men gets a similar bum rap, partly because of the appeal of its chic 60s glamour, and partly because it really is about affluent white people with problems.  Aside from the fact that no matter your income level, you probably have problems and why are some more legitimate for entertainment than others, there’s the fact that this show is quite critical of the affluence.  Those issues about lagging behind in race and feminist movements is largely to do with the fact that America allows people with money to buy isolation from the realities of everyday people.  These people are, on the whole, desperately trying to cocoon themselves from the reality of the changing world because they don’t want to face it.  For every minor step in the right direction Don or Roger or Pete take, they get sucked back into old habits.  Reinventing yourself is difficult, and so is adapting for the sake of survival.  If Girls or Mad Men saw making excessive amount of money as the ultimate be-all-end-all like Entourage, then I would agree with the criticisms, but neither of them do that.  I’d go so far as to argue that Mad Men is morally opposed to excessive privilege, both in the notions of old money (Pete Campbell and his expectations) and new (Roger’s general sadness).

I’m not trying to say that you have to like these shows, or that you can’t criticize them.  If you don’t like a show because people like Hannah and her friends are just plain annoying to you, then that’s fair enough.  Taste is taste, and not every show is going to be to everyone’s liking.  I just think that specific criticisms need to be more nuanced and intelligent.  If your main fight is about class, feminism, or diversity, your fight is a good one, but try to take a show for what it is and what it wants to be rather than what you think it should be.  Something should be judged on its own parameters and merits, and I don’t believe any of these shows set out to triumph wealth, misogyny, or racism, and some actually deal with these topics in interesting, complicated, and yes, even progressive ways.  Any text should be criticized for what it does and what it wants to do, and nothing more.


14 Responses to “Approaching Feminism, Diversity, and Privilege on Girls, Game of Thrones, and Mad Men”

  1. franzipantz Says:

    I loved this – but then I knew I would before I read it, since it’s about three of my favourite shows! – and couldn’t agree more on almost all of your points. It’s a shame that you don’t have any comments yet, perhaps it was a tldr situation?

    I am writing a piece on Daenerys and one on Girls for a couple of different blogs so this made for some very efficient research! I especially liked the part about the difference between what characters say and what the message of the show is. People make this mistake all the time. Showing something is not the same as condoning it. If we don’t represent problematic situations, how can we learn from them?

    I’ve just joined wordpress so don’t be put off by my blog being empty. If you wanna see some of my stuff google “francesca lewis feminist” and everything until about half way down the third page should be me. 🙂

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      No comments because not many people read this/I guess nobody had anything to say about it!

      Thanks for your feedback though, it means a lot. I got a lot of heat for saying similar things in a forum.

      I’ll look out for your stuff. 🙂

  2. I’m sorry. It seems as if you’re trying to make excuses for the portrayal of race on “MAD MEN”. But I’m afraid that you’ve failed. The series has failed consistently in this field. All of the African-American characters that have appeared on the show have been nothing more than a cliched take on the “Dignified Negro” character. What is worse is that we, the audience, know nothing about their real personalities. If you honestly believe that Weiner’s handling of Carla’s character in Seasons 2-4 were more effective than her counterparts in “THE HELP” . . . then I don’t know what to say. I don’t see how you can come to this conclusion, considering that Weiner never really explored Carla’s character in the first place.

    As for Peggy’s encounter with Dawn . . . well, it was all about Peggy, wasn’t it? We still don’t know a damn thing about Dawn. And I found Weiner’s resolution to the Paul Kinsey/Sheila White romance to be very dissatisfying. He told the audience that Sheila had ended their relationship. But we never knew why she did it. And instead of questioning the circumstances behind their breakup, fans merely expressed relief that Sheila finally dumped the pretentious Paul. They didn’t want to know why that relationship ended. They merely wanted it over with. And Weiner obliged them.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      As I said, this is about these characters living in a cocoon and struggling to adapt. As we know now, it was disappointing that Weiner and co decided not to do more with Dawn, but my point still stands. Yes, every person of colour in the series is there to be reacted against, and I’d love to see a prominent role for a person of colour, but I also can’t condemn the show as racist when the *lack* of racial diversity in these people’s world is part of the point.

      As far as Carla goes, she wasn’t given much of a character of her own (though she was incredibly moving in that scene where she was fired), but I think as far as “Nannies Are Treated Like Crap” scenarios go, it was better than The Help which is hugely problematic in its dealings with race. This was simply Betty’s awful, vindictive nature, and it said a lot about her character that she was so unfeeling. Carla was treated as nothing more than an employee – an issue that goes beyond just race.

      I think it’s wrong to attribute the end of Paul/Sheila to “what the fans want” and Weiner just “obliging”. We got a pretty clear idea of that relationship dynamic, and what Paul was interested in, and though it would have been nice to see Sheila dumping him, I don’t think it’s a big question mark or lazy writers.

  3. [“Yes, every person of colour in the series is there to be reacted against, and I’d love to see a prominent role for a person of colour, but I also can’t condemn the show as racist when the *lack* of racial diversity in these people’s world is part of the point.”]

    If that particular person of color is working for the Draper family or is Don Draper’s secretary, then characters like Carla and Dawn should not be there simply to be used for the white characters to react against.

    If Weiner could map out the personal histories and personalities of supporting characters like Betty, Joan, Peggy, Pete, Paul, Ken, Lane, Roger, etc., then he and his writers could have done the same for those minority characters who have close personal or working relationships. Characters like Carla and Dawn. It only makes sense.

    I’m sorry, but I have to condemn “MAD MEN” as racist, if it is incapable of giving recurring characters like Dawn and Carla personalities or personal histories. It seems as if Weiner doesn’t mind portraying all white characters – regular or recurring – with distinct personalities. Yet, he seemed incapable of doing the same with three minority characters who have also been recurring.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      I think it makes *not* to give those characters prominence if you’re making the show from the perspective of these white characters who frankly don’t concern themselves with people of colour very much.

      But I understand your point, and that’s a fair perspective.

  4. drush76 Says:

    [“I think it makes *not* to give those characters prominence if you’re making the show from the perspective of these white characters who frankly don’t concern themselves with people of colour very much.”]

    You mean to say that you don’t even see regular recurring characters like Carla and Dawn shouldn’t be allowed personalities or personal histories? We see Don Draper react to other supporting characters like his two wives, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell and Roger Sterling . . . and they have personal histories and personalities. But you see nothing wrong with his own maid and now his present secretary having their own personal histories and personalities?

    Thank you for stating that you understand my point. The problem is that I still cannot understand yours, especially since Carla and Dawn are not simply characters who appear in one episode. I’m sorry, but I can’t.

    • drush76 Says:

      I’m afraid that my first sentence was written in the heat of emotion. But what I meant to say was that if the series revealed the personal histories and personalities of white supporting characters that Don interacted with, I don’t see why Weiner has to deny personalities and personal histories for minority supporting characters like Dawn and Carla.

      Either Weiner simply doesn’t know how to write for minority characters and cannot admit this, or he prefers to explore gender issues over racial ones. Whatever his reasons, he doesn’t have an excuse for his poor characterizations of Dawn and Carla.

      • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

        I think there’s something to him preferring to deal with gender issues over racial ones, which to me is alright. It’s his show and he can choose what he wants to deal with, as long as he isn’t insensitive or purely whitewashing for no reason. And obviously personal experience plays a role – he’s Jewish, for instance, so the Jewish question gets more time.

        I’d agree that it is a serious problem if it didn’t deal with race in some way, but it does. One of the running themes of the show is the way in which this company and these people are living in a bubble, and the different ways in which they try to deal with the new realities of cultural change. They have different perspectives on race (Pete finds the blackface performance by Roger distasteful, but he also only views African-Americans as a demographic to be advertised to, Sterling and Cooper are just outwardly racist, etc), but they’re also living in a world where they don’t have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. Carla wasn’t a challenge to Betty or even Don really because she was an employee and they only ever treated her as such, even if Don had a little bit more compassion and Sally genuinely loved her. Dawn is new, but it says a lot that the only reason she was hired was because of a prank in a trade paper. The company has forced itself into integrating rather than being culturally open and moving with the times. Peggy tries, but she doesn’t give the riots a second thought, assuming instead that Dawn is scared because of the nurse killings. These people and their awkward interactions and total lack of understanding when it comes to race is pointedly demonstrated by the show time and time again. If it ignored that, it would be a problem, but it has a perspective on race, and that I think exonerates it to some degree from accusations of being racist.

        Because it is dealt with in some manner, I don’t think Weiner needs an “excuse” or some public admittance that he can’t write for people of colour, although that certainly might be true. He and his staff are telling this particular story, and they’re doing it well, and they’re not denigrating minorities or promoting negative stereotypes in the process. I can forsee difficulties with seeing the home life of Dawn or actually taking us to the riots, but I’d love it if they tried. I just don’t think, as is, this is any way a requirement because it’s kind of the point.

  5. drush76 Says:

    [“He and his staff are telling this particular story, and they’re doing it well, and they’re not denigrating minorities or promoting negative stereotypes in the process. I can forsee difficulties with seeing the home life of Dawn or actually taking us to the riots, but I’d love it if they tried. I just don’t think, as is, this is any way a requirement because it’s kind of the point.”]

    From the moment Carla was introduced as the Drapers’ maid back in Season 2, that “point” had passed.

    But you know what? Forget it. I see that we’ll never agree. You’re right that Weiner is entitled to portray the characters the way he wants. And I’m entitled to decide whether or not to continue following this show. I see that I no longer can deal with this hypocrisy, regarding the minority RECURRING characters on “MAD MEN”. I don’t know what to say about your willingness to excuse Weiner’s poor handling of minority characters. Perhaps I should have known better. We, as a nation, like to pretend that when it comes to race and/or gender, we’ve finally achieved tolerance here in the early 21st century. Thanks to your article and your responses, I see that we haven’t. Not by a long shot. It was nice talking to you.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      Well, I disagree with your point about Carla past season 2, but okay.

      It’s okay that we don’t agree. It’s okay that you don’t want to watch the show anymore. I never said it wasn’t. I think your opinion is fair enough. I just don’t agree with it.

      We obviously view this show in different ways. I don’t see it as making “excuses” for Weiner. I think he’s set up a narrow perspective for a purpose, and he’s acknowledged throughout the series that it is narrow. If it was unacknowledged, it would be a problem, but as it is, it is fine. You view it differently, and that’s okay. I would appreciate it if you didn’t make me out to be emblematic of ignorant, passive racism or the Patriarchy, especially when I’ve tried to engage you in a civilised, reasonable manner. I think I’ve argued my perspective intelligently, and even if you don’t agree, I think that deserves – at the very least – the withholding of offensive remarks or insults. If you can’t comport yourself in a humane manner, I suggest you refrain from commenting on blogs.

  6. drush76 Says:

    I did comport myself in a humane manner. You simply did not like what I had to say.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      I liked what you have to say. I wrote this to some degree in a response to that very argument that I’ve read in several other places. I don’t like when you point to me as a signifier of the problems. That’s getting personal. I never got personal with you. Criticise ideas, not people.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      For the record, I understand and agree that we haven’t reached anything approaching tolerance when it comes to race or gender, and I also believe that that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I think when a show like The Newsroom or movies like The Help, Taken, or Transformers exist, it is impossible to argue that it isn’t a problem in popular culture.

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