A Handmaid’s Place.

A Woman's Place

*The following contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale, particularly episode six, “A Woman’s Place”.

The Handmaid’s Tale has often been described as the future for women if politicians such as Donald Trump and Mike Pence get their way. The sixth episode of the Hulu adaptation shows us, through the backstories of Commander Fred Waterford and Serena Joy Waterford, how easily current society could slip into a dystopia like Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale indulges, though not as much as other prestige television shows, in humanising slightly the villains of the story, the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and particularly Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who enjoyed a career as a “domestic feminist”, writing books about how women neglected their homely duties for professional ambition (that’s the pot calling the kettle black there, isn’t it Serena?), resulting in a low birth rate. She enthusiastically describes to Fred an idea for a book about “fertility as a national resource; reproduction as a moral imperative.” Through contrasting, present-day scenes, we see how Serena Joy helped implement Gilead, a civilization in which she and all women no longer have agency.

The crux of the episode is on a Mexican diplomat’s meeting with Commander Waterford and the other gatekeepers of Gilead. Mrs. Castillo (Zabryna Guevara), whom our heroine Offred (Elisabeth Moss) initially overlooks in favour of one of her male aides, internalising the stifling patriarchy of Gilead and, indeed, contemporary culture that dictates that women are not usually the ones in power, asks Serena Joy how she feels about being instrumental in bringing about “a society in which women can no longer read your book. Or anything else.” Serena Joy replies by rattling off a list of achievements Gilead’s made in its young life, such as reducing carbon emissions by 78% in three years.

In this way, it’s hard not to sympathise with flashback Fred and Serena, or at least their concern about the environment and the human race hurtling towards extinction. The Handmaid’s Tale offers a glimpse into the motivations of the religious, politicians, and conservatives who probably, like Fred and Serena Joy, think “we’re saving them. We’re doing god’s work.” So we never end up becoming complacent and siding with them, though, this episode—entitled “A Woman’s Place”—is sure to inject flat out statements about just that. “We put so much focus on academic pursuits and professional ambition we let them forget their real purpose,” one of the Commander’s colleagues tells him after Serena is prohibited from presenting her ideas to the forefathers of Gilead. “We won’t let that happen again.”

However it’s the underlying themes and motifs of “A Woman’s Place” that are far more interesting than the statements that are designed to shock, especially because they’re so prescient to present-day society.

The Handmaids’ infantalisation is front and centre this episode, with Mrs. Castillo asking about Offred’s former name and the Commander, speaking for Offred, explaining that Handmaids choose to take on their patronymic alias. Then, at a ball celebrating the arrival of Mrs. Castillo and Gilead’s impending trade agreement with Mexico, Serena Joy lauds “the devotion of a group of girls” for their sacrifice, yet another theme of the episode. The obvious coercion of the Handmaids, paired with the stripping of their bodily autonomy, their birth names (which calls to mind the exchange of the father’s name to the husband’s upon marriage) and the parade of the children of Gilead birthed by them then ripped from their arms, is a chilling parallel to slavery.

This conclusion is much easier to come to with the Hulu adaptation than Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, in which she drew from the slavery, segregation, internment and genocide to cast people of colour and other religions out of Gilead, where they have been shipped “back” to their countries of origin. Only white people reside in Atwood’s Gilead, a likely result of the regime’s religious and white supremacist ideologies. But a television adaptation with as lofty, prestigious goals as The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t get away with such blatant whitewashing in 2017. The boycotting of films such as Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall for eliminating non-white characters indicates that The Handmaid’s Tale would be met with bad press and lose a significant following if it adhered to the source material. And while the inclusion of non-white Handmaids, Marthas, sex- and (presumably, though we never see them) colony-workers, and the handful of peripheral non-white Wives and Commanders, reflect the show’s viewership and thereby make the comparisons to real-world racist atrocities all the more triggering, The Handmaid’s Tale has rightly drawn criticism for centring the experiences of white Handmaids like Offred at the expense of characters such as Moira (Samira Wiley).

There is also a clear correlation between talk of the Handmaids’ sacrifice and similar rhetoric expressed by real-world government. Australian viewers will remember former Treasurer Peter Costello’s 2004 remarks upon an ageing population and decreased birth rate that women should have “one [child] for mum, one for dad, and one for the country”, just as Gilead, Mexico (where in Mrs. Castillo’s hometown there have been no live births in six years, prompting her to trade for Handmaids) and presumably other countries in this dystopic fiction are seeking to bolster their populations. When Mrs. Castillo implores Offred to sympathise with the fact that her country is dying and Offred replies, “My country is already dead,” this is but one of the ways Gilead is hurting the majority of its citizens while professing to help them. 

Despite what some of the cast and crew initially said about The Handmaid’s Tale not being a feminist story, “A Woman’s Place” is perhaps the most obvious episode of the 11-instalment first season to prove that what’s going on in Gilead is, indeed, urgently so.

Related: Orange is the New Black Season Five Attempts To Right Last Season’s Wrongs.

Elsewhere: [SBS On Demand] The Handmaid’s Tale is Streaming Now: Here’s Why You Should Watch it.

[The Undefeated] In Handmaid’s Tale, A Postracial, Patriarchal Hellscape.

[Vulture] In Its First Season, The Handmaid’s Tale’s Greatest Failing is How it Handles Race.

[io9] The Biggest Problem with The Handmaid’s Tale is How It Ignores Race.

[Vulture] Elisabeth Moss Isn’t Convinced The Handmaid’s Tale is Feminist.

Image via Vice.

Orange is the New Black: Sacrificing One for the Good of the Many.

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*This article contains spoilers for Orange is the New Black season five.

While the three-day riot that threads through season five of Orange is the New Black brings Litchfield together, if only for a time, in an attempt to agitate for better conditions, it’s the sacrifice of several individual inmates that are the most pivotal moments.

Last season was remembered for the shocking and devastating death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) at the hands of an untrained guard that mirrored the real-life death of Eric Garner and was the catalyst for the aforementioned Litchfield riot. When warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) fails to #SayHerName is a press conference absolving the guard who killed Poussey, CO Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), Taystee is livid, but takes the opportunity the riot presents to get justice for her best friend.

Demonstrating her level head and mind for business, Taystee negotiates with authorities, including a somewhat sympathetic representative from the Governor’s office, former warden Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), and Caputo, tasking the inmates with devising a list of ten demands in exchange for the release of their hostages, a mixed bag of guards that served as Litchfield’s tormentors last season. However, in an example of dissention in the ranks and the individual concerns of prisoners that will come to a head again in later episodes, the arrest of Bayley for the death of Poussey is voted ninth on the list of Litchfield’s priorities, below Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and tampons in commissary.

While the provision of some of these items is a gesture of goodwill from the Governor’s office, it is season five’s first glaring example of sacrificing one for the many. In case this wasn’t obvious, OITNB makes it so by having Piper (Taylor Schilling) bring up the trolley problem, an ethical thought experiment that asks if a train or trolley was heading towards a group of five people tied to the tracks, would you pull the lever to divert it to another track to which only one person was tied, or would you do nothing and let five people die instead of one? Unfortunately for Daya (Dascha Polanco), who ended up shooting CO Humphrey (Michael Torpey) in the cliffhanger from last season, she is the one whom Taystee, Piper and co. direct the trolley towards in an effort to continue negotiations.

While Daya might have been the sacrificial lamb to save the flock, her surrender sets in motion several other inmates acting in their own immediate best interests instead of what could make life inside easier for hundreds—and possibly hundreds of thousands, if the fictional Piper goes on to advocate for prison reform as her real life counterpart Piper Kerman, whose memoir the show is based on, has—of other women in prison. Daya, a surrogate daughter to Gloria (Selenis Leyva), and especially so now that Daya’s mother, Aledia (Elizabeth Rodriguez), has been released, no doubt reminds Gloria of her biological children, who come into focus this season. Benito, Gloria’s son, needs brain surgery after getting beaten up. Desperate to see him when he wakes up, or in case he never does, Gloria hatches a plan to take the hostages for herself and release them in exchange for furlow. Despite this being an empty promise made by Caputo, who is in no position to make deals as one of the hostages, and the head of MCC, who isn’t even involved in negotiations as the riot is under the Governor’s jurisdiction now, Gloria is guided by her singular need to see her child.

It is a similar castle in the sky that inspires Maria (Jessica Pimentel) to muscle in on Gloria’s bright idea after she finds out that the paperwork concerning the extra time CO Piscatella allegedly added to her sentence last season was likely never completed. Governed by the hope that she might be able to see her baby daughter, whom she gave birth to in prison in season one, sooner than she thought, Maria employs the natural hustle on display in her season four backstory and snatches the guards right out from under her friends’ noses, who took over guarding the… erm… guards when Maria decided she wanted to stay out of the riot that she was ostensibly the initial leader of.

The motherhood that binds Daya, Gloria and Maria together is reminiscent of the themes of season three, which was promoted as being about motherhood, opening with a Mother’s Day fete, the episode in which Maria’s partner Yadriel tells her he doesn’t want to bring their daughter to see her in prison any longer. Episode 11 is particularly heavy-handed its exploration of motherhood, exchanging OITNB’s proverbial flashbacks for glimpses into the present-day lives of Cindy’s (Adrienne C. Moore) daughter, whom her mother raised as her own, and Ouija’s (Rosal Colon) son, who recognises his mother in the background of one of Flaritza’s (the amalgamation of Maritza [Diane Guerrero] and Flaca’s [Jackie Cruz] names) YouTube makeup tutorials. We see this again when Piper, Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) and Leanne’s (Emma Myles) mums show up at Litchfield to see if their daughters are safe amidst news of the riot. Whether intentional or not, OITNB positions these women as having nobler intentions for wanting the riot to end because they’re mothers, rather than the arguably more benevolent motivations of Taystee and co. This is particularly evident in Maria and Gloria’s exchange in the TV room, where Gloria tells Maria her designs on breaking out the guards, in the same episode.

The fact that Daya, Gloria and Maria are all women of colour isn’t insignificant, and their own marginalisation perhaps prevents them from seeing a bigger picture that the real-life Piper, as mentioned above, has the privilege of.

With the season finale seemingly splitting up the Litchfield prisoners and moving them to other facilities, it remains to be seen whether Taystee’s, whom we last see in the bunker with an assortment of other prisoners, efforts were all for nothing. At least Maria got to hug her daughter before she’s presumably relocated to another prison further away with the time she believed wasn’t added to her sentence put back on.

Related: Orange is the New Black Season Five Attempts to Right Last Season’s Wrongs.

The Perception of Power on Orange is the New Black.

Physical & Mental Health on Orange is the New Black.

Orange is the New Black‘s Morello’s Fractured Relationship with Romance.

Elsewhere: [Junkee] This is the Most Devastating & Political Season of Orange is the New Black Yet.

Image via Express.

Orange is the New Black Season Five Attempts to Right Last Year’s Wrongs.

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*This article contains spoilers for Orange is the New Black season five.

Last month on the New York Times podcast Still Processing, hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris criticised the Netflix show Dear White People, asserting that “it’s a bunch of bumper stickers and tweets” in a twenty-two minute comedy that amounts to “an IRL exchange about how to be black”.

“This show does not really appear to be about the experience of what it is like to be black and in college, it appears to be an education for how [white people are] supposed to understand what it’s like to be black in college,” Wortham says. “In case you don’t know how to feel about saying the n-word in a rap song we’re going to tell you and we’re going to do it in a way that you can just retweet this line… This is how you know how to talk about this issue [and] to be a good ally. It feels very prescriptive.”

So with Wortham and Morris’ words ringing in my ears, I approached the fifth season of Orange is the New Black, which dropped on Netflix over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, with trepidation. Though I was initially complimentary of last year’s outing which mirrored many of the real life atrocities inflicted upon black bodies, a predominantly white writers room that created racist trauma porn and failed to add anything to the discourse highlighted the importance of listening to people of colour when making and consuming TV about and for them.

Many of these issues echoed throughout the first several episodes, with hot-button topics such as gaslighting, mass shootings, poor working conditions in nail salons and acquired brain injuries being condensed into witty one-liners not out of place on a progressive Twitter feed and regurgitated by peripheral characters to prove they, or at least the show, are woke.

During one such moment, disgraced celebrity chef Judy King (Blair Brown), who managed to become entangled in the riot prior to her early release last season, convinces Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman), DeMarco (Lin Tucci) and the Nazi skinheads, Brandy (Asia Kate Dillon) and Helen (Francesca Curran), that a supply drop is coming for her on the roof. With Judy’s arms tied to a plank resembling a crucifixion to prevent her escape and headscarves disguising Brandy and Helen, a news helicopter distorts their ill-conceived quest for snacks in a situation in which food is quickly running out into terrorism. The irony of Nazis being mistaken for Islamist terrorists is echoes the “fucking media’s”—which OITNB is sure to have Brandy parrot in case we missed it—tendency to explain away terrorism committed by white people as mental illness or the actions of a lone wolf, and our quickness to dub every crime committed by a brown person as terrorism, rendering nothing terrorism.

If a social justice movement doesn’t have a resistance, does it even exist? When one of the riot’s initial instigators, Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel), takes last season’s tormentors, the guards, hostage, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) seeks refuge in the yard rather than be a part of the sexualised torture and humiliation they are subjected to. Several of her fellow inmates follow, desperate for a political counter culture rather than getting to the root of the hell they’re already in: a minority woman’s death by state-sanctioned violence due to institutionalised racism and the prison industrial complex. For a devastating look at the relationship between the two, one should watch the documentary 13th, also on Netflix.

OITNB indulges in the humanisation of villains, most recently seen on shows such as the upcoming The Handmaid’s Tale, which has often served to help audiences understand characters such as Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), Pennsatucky (Tarryn Manning) and Leanne’s (Emma Myles) motivations and journeys to prison. This time it’s CO Piscatella (Brad William Henke), who murdered an inmate in a former prison by burning him to death in a shower for raping and beating his former lover, calling to mind the death of Darren Rainey, who died in prison in 2012 under similar circumstances, and Linda (Beth Dover), head of purchasing at MCC, the company that owns Litchfield.

Trapped inside Litchfield during the riot, Linda poses as inmate Amelia von Barlow, the Counterfeit Cunt of Connecticut, to hide her true identity, which perhaps speaks to her fetishisation of women in prison, a troubling ideology for someone who controls the flow of essential items to them. Linda realises the injustice she helped enforced when faced with it herself, particularly when eating prison slop. Linda is a cipher for privileged, predominantly white viewers who might think the camaraderie and shenanigans that take place in Litchfield would be fun to experience for a while.

Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Jenae (Vicky Jeudy), Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) and the memory of Poussey (Samira Wiley, who appears in an all-too-short flashback to her first meeting with Taystee) are always on hand to remind us both just how hellish being in prison actually is, especially for women of colour, and the purpose of the riot. “Our fight is with a system that don’t give a damn about poor people and brown people and poor, brown people. Our fight is with the folks who hold our demands in their hands,” she announces to the news vans covering the riot in the arresting closing scene of episode five. Taystee successfully negotiates with authorities to provide the prison with a list of ten demands as voted on by the inmates. Some are frivolous (Flaming Hot Cheetos stocked in commissary) and some harken back to the injustices of last season, such as inadequate healthcare and personal hygiene supplies, but this storyline at times helps OITNB return to the strengths of its first few seasons, melding the tragic with the comedic and prioritising tender storytelling for which Brooks and Aduba deserve all the awards.

Though it ultimately fails to capture the magic of its heyday, OITNB seems to be learning from its past mistakes and the mistakes of other shows, such as Dear White People and UnREAL. As Jenna Wortham reiterates, “Most of these shows are very conscious of the fact that white people are going to be watching for clues for how to understand blackness.”

Related: The Perception of Power on Orange is the New Black.

Physical & Mental Health on Orange is the New Black.

Orange is the New Black‘s Morello’s Fractured Relationship with Romance.

Elsewhere: [Junkee] This is the Most Devastating & Political Season of Orange is the New Black Yet.

[SBS Guide] White Writers Telling Black Stories.

[Wear Your Voice] Orange is the New Black is Trauma Porn Written for White People.

[Teen Vogue] Donald Trump is Gaslighting America.

[New York Times] The Price of Nice Nails.

[Fusion] Inmate Darren Rainey Was Boiled Alive in a Shower by Prison Guards…

Watching Gossip Girl Makes Me Feel Bad About Myself.

gossip girl serena crying

This article was originally published on Birdee on 23rd October, 2013. 

In preparation for an upcoming trip to New York City, I decided to immerse myself in pop culture related to the Big Apple, one morsel of which was Gossip Girl.

I was a fan of the show before it went off the air this time last year, but upon rewatching it, GG just wasn’t the same. Maybe it’s because I binge-watched and therefore didn’t have the distance of weeks between episodes and months between seasons; or just because I’m older, wiser and more in tune with my feminism; but GG ain’t like it used to be. In fact, Serena et al. and the swanky and “scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite” actually made me feel bad about myself.

Now, I have pretty high self-esteem and positive body image for someone who went through adolescence in the internet age – when porn became ubiquitous, texting and social media reigned supreme and magazine cover girls were increasingly airbrushed to within an inch of their lives – so I can only imagine how it affects other young people.

When the first season premiered in 2007, I was still a teen and finding my place in the world. Initially, I aspired to have Serena’s luscious locks (albeit in brunette) and designer duds and gallivant around the big city. But as the series grew more debauched and increasingly focused on materialism and status, I unknowingly became susceptible to GG making me feel inadequate – it even contributed to the early stages of a quarter life crisis (from which I’m still not sure I’ve recovered)!

The enviable wardrobes and statement jewellery of Blair and Serena, the glamorous New York parties and cunning schemes were juxtaposed against my mundane existence working at Coles and studying in a country town. I’d never have Serena’s gravity-defying breasts or even Georgina’s slightly more attainable eye makeup; forget invitations to hobnob with celebrities at Upper East Side events.

I don’t think the manifestation of these feelings of inadequacy is accidental. We all know the purpose of advertising is to make us feel like we won’t be good enough until we’ve purchased this item, after which all of your worries (and wrinkles!) will be magically erased. GG is a show renowned for its product placement: VitaminWater, Android smart phones, Bing’s search engine, not to mention the legion of celebrities and fashion designers hawking their latest projects.

It goes beyond this, though, with the showrunners punishing certain (female) characters for their transgressions: Jenny was banished from New York for questionably consenting to first-time sex with reprehensible Chuck, who’d tried to date rape her in the first episode. Blair was slut shamed and ostracised for deigning to sleep with someone who wasn’t her boyfriend, is denied love from Chuck for seasons, is equated to a commodity to be traded for a hotel, loses a pregnancy because she can’t chose between two men, and even her own mother questions her sexuality. Serena’s character is dismissed as eye candy and lacks any defining personality traits – apart from being an ‘It girl’ about town. Gossip Girl’s characters and plotline, while dramatic, are not inspiring or empowering.

Sure, it’s just fiction. Often the TV medium is about escapism, and after a hard day at work, school or just a weekend veg-out session, not everyone wants to turn on the TV or open their laptops and be confronted with more intellectualism. Sometimes we just want to lose ourselves in the fantasy.

But it can only be a good thing that some new TV shows have made an effort to better represent the general population and depict women with interests, issues and body types that real people can relate to – think Girls, Orange is the New Black etc.

From now on, I’ll be spending more of my TV time on content that makes me feel good.

Image source unknown.

The Rise of Self-Indulgent Comedy*.

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*The following contains spoilers for Master of None, Girls and Trainwreck.

The past year has been a banner one for alternative voices in comedy.

Hannibal Buress refocused the spotlight on Bill Cosby’s history of alleged sexual assault during a stand-up gig in Philadelphia at the end of 2014. The Mindy Project was cancelled by Fox but found a new, more risqué home at Hulu, while Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish and Master of None are changing the historically white male face of comedy. Closer to home, Black Comedy and The Family Law are making similar strides, and we can’t forget the success Amy Schumer found in 2015.

But despite comedy’s newfound diversity, not all of it hits the spot.

A common theme many of these shows share is that they’re created, directed and/or produced by their stars which, while it’s an answer to the paucity of women and minorities both on screen and in positions of production power, it can also lead to self-indulgent storytelling that pigeonholes its creators into catering to a niche audience.

Master of None debuted on Netflix late last year to rousing success, becoming the streaming service’s most popular show. Several of its episodes were met with critical praise, particularly “Parents” and “Indians on TV”. Creator and star Aziz Ansari’s musings on children, race and sexual harassment were true to life, but they can be considered sporadic standouts amongst a largely self-indulgent experiment filled with bad acting and rambling jokes.

Take, for example, the 1:16 minute interaction between Ansari’s character Dev and Arnold (played by Eric Wareheim) about the meta dynamics of the Eminem movie 8 Mile and its theme song, “Lose Yourself”. I, too, have often wondered about the specifics of where Marshall Mathers ends and Eminem begins, but the bit’s backstory is something only die-hard comedy fans might be privy to and therefore could be alienating to a casual audience. The character of Denise (Lena Waithe), who has sat, off-camera, opposite the two throughout the duration of this exchange shares many audience members’ feelings when she says, “Can we please talk about literally anything else?”

When I asked stand-up comedian Martin Dunlop, who’s currently performing in his Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, Murder, He Spoke, for his thoughts on this flat transaction he said, “Like so much of the show, [this scene] doesn’t function as comedy. They’re not playing off anything… But it doesn’t really work as a slice-of-life scene either. Wareheim’s character is particularly ill-defined, an odd drifter who’s role in the series as a whole never becomes clear, though a lot of the blame for that falls on Wareheim, who doesn’t seem to be a very strong actor. That describes my problem with the series as a whole. Where something like Louis functions as a drama or a comedy at different times, Master never really worked for me as either.”

Osman Faruqi, Sydney-based writer and broadcaster, agrees, telling me that he “found the 8 Mile scene pretty jarring and lazy. Non-sequiturs can be funny but this came across like something two 15 year olds would have joked about in school. It was pretty self-indulgent and out of place… I think Master‘s comedy worked best when it reflected on aspects of contemporary society the audience was familiar with. When it deviated from that and inserted random jokes that had nothing to do with the story, it fell flat.”

And while I haven’t seen Ansari in much of anything else, I found his acting to be less-than-stellar, always coming across as if he’s been taken by surprise or an extra in one of those poorly acted insurance infomercials. His character acts primarily in commercials in the show, but I’m not sure it was Ansari’s intent to also give off this vibe himself. The use of Ansari’s real life parents in the roles of Dev’s elders may be an indictment of , but I found Fatima Ansari as Dev’s mother to be grating. Ansari’s the showrunner and what he says goes but the use of his parents seemed selfishly at the detriment to the show.

For all the things Master gets right, on the whole it’s a thought experiment about an unlikeable bad actor rife with rambling jokes and poor casting that left me wondering how far removed from Ansari his character is.

 

Whereas Ansari is struggling to come up with content for a nonetheless greenlit second season of Master , Amy Schumer almost had too much material for her runaway box office hit, Trainwreck. Schumer’s character of the same name works at a misogynistic men’s magazine as a plot device to introduce her to her love interest, a sports doctor played by Bill Hader she’s writing a profile on, but she could just as easily have been a freelancer who works from home, sparing us the drawn out office scenes. Professional wrestler John Cena was hilarious as Amy’s muscle-bound meathead boyfriend but his scenes were a good twenty minutes of homophobia that could have been reserved for the director’s cut DVD edition.

As with some of Schumer’s stand up work, a lot of her shtick didn’t land,and for some inexplicable reason, the funniest jokes made it into the trailer but were absent from the theatrical release.

Trainwreck felt more like a rough draft of a film with far too many incidental storylines that came across as pandering to its writer and star (are we seeing a common theme amongst these comedies?). In refusing to make these edits, producer Judd Apatow does a disservice to Schumer as Trainwreck really did have all the attributes to become a different kind of rom-com, both from the Kate Hudson fare of the ’00s and Apatow’s own gross-out anti-women bro comedies such as Knocked Up and This is 40.

Another rom-com of sorts, Lena Dunham’s Girls, also produced by Apatow, is perhaps one of the most criticised comedies on air today. Dunham has been accused of everything from racism to exhibitionism to sex worker-exclusionary feminism to child molestation, with her responses to some of these appraisals coming through on Girls, now in its fifth and penultimate season.

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Of the three comedies discussed here, Girls’ Dunham is perhaps the least able to be extracted from her character. Dunham shot to mainstream notoriety with the release of her HBO show in 2012 whereas Ansari starred in Parks & Recreation for seven years prior to Master and Schumer had been going viral with her Inside Amy Schumer sketches long before Trainwreck. Perhaps her rapid success influences the oftentimes “painfully narcissistic [and] shockingly tone deaf”, as Ray puts it in this season’s opener, themes Dunham chooses to deal with in her show. Her repetitive nudity, though refreshing from a body-positivity standpoint, and the inclusion of a token black lover (played by Donald Glover) as a response to an unrealistically white Brooklyn she chose to portray in Girls’ first season come across as childish trigger responses to larger issues, which Dunham is normally open to discussing.

The argument could be made that criticisms are only foisted onto Girls and, indeed Master and Trainwreck, because they’re not made by white dudes. Do we hold Louie and Seinfeld to the same standard?

I asked fellow Girls devotee and freelance writer Camilla Peffer what she thought of the show’s self-centredness and whether objections to it can be boiled down to the fact that it’s for and mostly by women. “I think the self-indulgent shtick gets thrown around because society values high impact stories, not stories that rehash the minutiae of everyday life,” she told me. “To a man, the heartbreak of falling out with a best friend might hold no resonance. Neither does creating meth to save your family from poverty, but stories like that create a sort of prosthetic experience, much like playing a video game.

“Is Girls more self-indulgent than the work of Ansari or Woody Allen? It’s just as self-indulgent. But why is that a dirty word? All art is self-indulgent. Creating relies upon a certain level of introspection, so without that self reflection, it’s impossible to make anything that can truly have an emotional impact on an audience.”

Girls, along with Dunham, can be “painfully narcissistic”, as Ray put it, but it has moments (a lot in this season alone) when it’s one of the more realistic portrayals of young, white, New York millennials in pop culture today.

To some degree, the same can be said about Master of None, Trainwreck and other self-indulgent comedies. Self-indulgence doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of self-awareness: the two go hand in hand and are needed for a true-to-life portrayal of these undoubtedly personal stories. Just because they’re not necessarily speaking to me, an upper-middle class white chick who has the luxury of voicing her opinion on this platform, doesn’t mean there’s no value to them. It’s important to have diverse voices speaking about the myriad of topics Master, Trainwreck and Girls do, such as family, race, sex, dating, “finding yourself”, urban life, and what’s acceptable behaviour for women and minorities. It’s also important that these diverse voices have the opportunity to fail which, in some respects, I think they have.

Elsewhere: [USA Today] The 8 Mile Debate on Master of None Has a Surprisingly Emotional Backstory.

[THR] Will There Be a Second Season of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None?

[OUT] Trainwreck‘s Homophobia Puts John Cena in a Headlock.

[HuuPo] Lena Dunham, Girls Creator, Addresses Race Criticisms on Fresh Air.

Lead image via Your Movies in Mind.

Despite the Name, It’s All About the Women on Masters of Sex.

This article was originally published on TheVine on 17th October, 2014.

I recently spent a weekend in August listening to international guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker, wax lyrical about the “golden age of prestige TV” and its respective “antiheroes”. While we’ve been watching the Don Drapers, Tony Sopranos and Walter Whites for the past fifteen years it’s time for a new dawn of television where women are the focus, such as Orange is the New Black, Orphan Black and pretty much anything Shonda Rhimes puts her Midas touch to.

One such show that comes to mind is Masters of Sex, the second season finale of which aired on SBS last night. Masters might seem to focus on the man it’s named for, the steely, socially awkward OBGYN, Bill Masters, played by Michael Sheen, but who it’s really concerned with are the women in his life. These include the long-suffering wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), whose trajectory sees her struggle with the changing attitudes of the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the woman her husband is having an affair with: research assistant in Masters’ study of human sexual response, Virginia Johnson, played expertly by Lizzy Caplan. Both Masters and Johnson justify their extramarital activities by being adamant that “it’s for the work”. While nary a facet of Masters isn’t shown to Virginia at some stage or another he recoils from Libby, runs his mother out of town, slut-shames former sex worker cum secretary Betty and Virginia at times, and I don’t think there’s been an instance in which he interacts with his two infant sons.  In a scene that echoes Breaking Bad’s “I’m the one who knocks!”, Bill rages at Libby when she confronts him about their money troubles that “I provide the roof!”

Audiences may struggle to reconcile the way Masters treats the women in his personal life with his important medical work, not unlike Don Draper, for example, in the “masculinity masterpieces”—as Nussbaum put it in her presentation at the Writers Festival—of yore.

Masters of Sex is a show that has almost unbelievably advanced attitudes towards sex for the time it’s set and the fictional Masters and Johnson are held up as paragons of progression. At work Masters masquerades as the good, bleeding-heart doctor stuck in the conservative ’50s, as seen when he refuses to perform gender assignment surgery on an intersex baby. Masters similarly declines a teenaged patient’s parents request for her to undergo a hysterectomy to curb her sexual appetite. Careful, Bill, your God complex is showing.

Like Orange is the New Black, a show that follows a wide range of incarcerated women’s lives using a middle-class white woman as the Trojan horse to gain entry into that world, Masters’ focus on a male doctor is a cipher to take a better look at Virginia, Libby et al. in a time when women were viewed as second class citizens. (Some would argue that nothing much as changed.)

Also like OITNB, perhaps this has to do with the fact that it is a created by women, not “prickly auteurs and the antiheroes they love”, to borrow yet another line from Nussbaum. A different Emily—this time Emily Tatti, editor of online literary journal Ricochet—tweeted that “You can tell it’s written by women, you just don’t get female characters like that in other shows!”

Showrunner Michelle Ashford explains Masters of Sex’s portrayal of women thusly:

“[In season one] three of our episodes were directed by women, our staff was half women, my producing partner is a woman. A lot of the people that have interviewed us say, ‘Wow, this whole show is run by women.’ We look at each other and think, ‘We didn’t design it that way.’ And that’s actually pretty great.”

The capable, relatable women who are received by audiences as such outnumber the titular Masters. Where Breaking Bad’s Skyler White was eviscerated by armchair commentators for expressing concern over her husband’s drug dealing and the actress that played her subsequently wrote a New York Times op-ed about it, Libby’s “problem that has no name”, for example, is portrayed as empathetic. And Virginia might get around but she is never characterised as wanton to the audience. Other such “strong female characters”, to use the clichéd term, that aren’t so much likeable as they are realistic portrayals of women in the world include How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating, Hannah Horvath of Girls, and any number of the women on Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and OITNB.

Masters of Sex is busy ushering in this new era of television that sees antiheroes shift ever so slightly out of the frame and the women who love them—or, in many instances, merely tolerate them—have their time in the spotlight.

Elsewhere: [NPR] Orange Creator Jenji Kohan: “Piper Was My Trojan Horse.”

[HuffPo] Masters of Sex Creator Michelle Ashford: “I Had Every Horrible Job Imaginable.”

[NYTimes] I Have a Character Issue.

[Amazon] The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

[New Statesman] I Hate Strong Female Characters.

[Buzzfeed] Not Here to Make Friends.

All Dogs Go to Seven.

This article was originally published on TheVine on 9th July, 2012.

As Australia’s Got Talent nears its grand final, I find myself wondering why the hell the scandalous Kyle Sandilands is still hosting the family show.

You’d have to be oblivious to the Aussie media scene for the past few years not to remember the lie detector-sexual assault incident, the Magda Szubanski-concentration camp comments and the on-air berating of a journalist for her appearance after she expressed concern over the integrity of Sandilands’ and Jackie O’s radio show.

Despite this, Channel Seven still seems to deem him a valuable talent and, perhaps because of this, a host that draws in the ratings. I can understand his presence on a show like Ten’s Can of Worms or The Footy Show on Nine, which aim to shock, but what does Sandilands really bring to the judging panel on a talent show that airs in the kiddie timeslot of 7:30pm? The straight-talking, older white male talent show host trope in the vein of Simon Cowell and Ian “Dicko” Dickson is a tired one. Sandilands may not be causing any trouble at the moment, but you can bet another controversy is right around the corner…  

But Sandilands’ prominence is by no means a standalone occurrence in Seven’s lineup: After it was revealed that former NRL player Matthew Johns was involved in group sex with his fellow Cronulla Sharks teammates and a teenager whose consent was questionable at best, he received his own Channel Seven footy program, the creatively titled Matty Johns Show. And, staying with sportsmen, what about the Ben Cousins doco, Such is Life, which at once tragically and glamorously profiled his life as an addict? What about former Home & Away actor, Lincoln Lewis, whose sex tape with a co-star went public the same day he was announced as a contestant on the dancing show in 2009? Convenient, hey? Did you know fellow H&A alum Dan Ewing was charged with assault against his fiancé at the end of 2011, the same year he was a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, a show that loves its bad boys? Speaking of assault, it was only after Matthew Newton beat girlfriend Rachael Taylor in a Rome hotel room in 2010 that he was axed as host of—you guessed it, another family-geared talent show—The X-Factor. I suppose his history of trashing hotel rooms and violence with previous intimate partner Brooke Satchwell was written off as a onetime thing. Remember Axle Whitehead’s public act of indecency at the 2006 ARIA’s was all but forgotten when he moved to Summer Bay and received a gig as host of the network’s World’s Strictest Parents in 2009. And who could forget Brendan Fevola’s illustrious career of AFL tradeoffs, drug- and alcohol-fuelled benders, gambling problems, infidelity, inappropriate picture-taking of Lara Bingle and, just last week, his grammatically-incorrect Twitter tirade against a country footy umpire? Apparently, Channel Seven: Fev was signed up for this years’ season of DWTS as its lovable larrikin.

Television commentator Andrew Mercado put it best two years ago in the wake of the Newton incident when he wrote:

“… [T]he station is chock a block full of bad boys on big pay packets who are being rewarded for their unsavourity [sic] indiscretions with higher profile jobs during the family hour… So let me get this straight—gang bangers, bullies and bashers are in but closeted gay men (like NSW Transport Minister David Campbell) are to be outed on the 6pm News.”

But why? It’s not like any of the abovementioned men—bar perhaps Sandilands, who the general public pretty much abhor—are huge drawcards for the station like Charlie Sheen was for CBS (and, by extension, Channel Nine). Johns is but a blip on the radar of sports programming, Newton and Cousins have descended into the cycle of mental illness, and I challenge any non-H&A fan to identify Ewing by name.

A quick look at the Seven corporate website indicates the male chauvinist pig syndrome transfers from in front of the camera to behind it, with an all-male board of directors and management team. While I’m in no way insinuating that the male bosses at Seven get up to the same kind of extra-curriculars their talent does, could it be a contributing factor to the swept-under-the-rug mentality the commercial channels seem to subscribe to?

If so, could, at the very least, a lone female on the board be the voice of reason? I doubt it. The boys club zeitgeist of most traditional forms of media (nay, most industries in general) is not going to be permeated by one woman alone, despite their best intentions: just look at Mia Freedman’s foray into television at Channel Nine. And why should it be a woman’s job to make sure over-privileged, under-accountable man-children behave in their personal lives? Wouldn’t a better solution be to not reward verbal insults, physical violence, drug use, lewd behavior and sexual assault with free-to-air-time in the first place, regardless of who’s performing it and who’s in charge?

On the other channels, while Channel Ten is debuting Australia’s version of Jersey Shore, The Shire, in a couple of weeks and Sheen’s new vehicle, Anger Management, is sure to be a ratings hit, ABC and SBS push forward with groundbreaking shows that don’t reward the dominant, bad boy bogan culture, like Go Back to Where You Came From (celebrity version coming soon!) and Joe Hildebrand’s Dumb, Drunk & Racist. Unfortunately, the latter two programs appeal to what all-too-often happens to be the minority, while many of the shows listed throughout this piece are geared towards the lowest common denominator: those who are perfectly happy with the status quo or don’t notice what’s wrong with it.