In the realm of television, girl power is at an all-time high. And not in the way that your middle school notebook promised, with visions of pink sparkles and psychedelic daisies, but in a very real, almost tangible sense.
Female showrunners like New Girl’s Liz Meriweather and The Mindy Project’s Mindy Kaling are few and far between, joined by a cluster of notables like Girls’ Lena Dunham, Don’t Trust the B’s Nanatchka Chan, 2 Broke Girls’ and Whitney’s Whitney Cummings, among others, but the good news is that the number of female showrunners is relatively high… and growing. We’ll soon add The Carrie Diaries' Amy Harris to the lot and 2013-2014 pilots offering up a few opportunities as well.
Now, besides the obvious idea that adding more ladies-in-charge to a televisual landscape that is run almost entirely by men is wonderful because of its steps toward the simple notion of equality in the industry, the shift offers a second, speedier effect: the presence of more and more female television characters who feel like the women we are instead of the women some writers think we should be. Fox’s unofficial ladies’ hour, the strong pairing of hit sitcom New Girl and newbie The Mindy Project, offers the promise of an empowering hour of television in which women are more than vehicles for a romantic plot, but rather, the fascinating subjects of hilarious plotlines that feel less like an opportunity for being adorable and desirable and more like a true comedic spin on what life is really like as a grown-ass woman. However, that’s a promise that’s not always easy to keep. Does Fox’s ladies hour help or hurt the plight of the TV woman?
Last Tuesday, Zooey Deschanel’s doe-eyed darling encountered the age-old lady problem: PMS. And while the episode, titled “Menzies,” attempted to use PMS as a device to help Jess realize her stagnancy post-teacher-layoffs, the plot eventually devolved into a living set-back in the form of menstrual-shtick. While Nick (Jake Johnson) got his zen on, Jess devolved into the premenstrual monster, spending all day in pajamas and taking down every innocent male in her path. At first, this was a hyperbolic outpouring of her frustration with her continual joblessness, but by the time we get our girl into an interview for a night school teaching position, she’s uncontrollably crying at the sight of a puppy in a teacup – and that’s before her potential new boss says the poor pup had passed away.
What was happening on this progressive new show? Wasn’t this where the line between male problems and female problems blurred? (And no, giving Winston sympathy PMS for an episode does not count as “blurring the line.”) Why is Jess, the best laid off school teacher ever and extraordinary weirdo, reduced to a puddle of emotions in the one place most humans can manage to pull themselves together? And why was she reduced to such madness by a picture a seven-year-old girl might slap on the front of her trapper-keeper? Sure, we can argue that what Jess was really feeling was the inadequacy of being unemployed and spending her days watching Family Matters reruns and that the puppy photo was merely the tipping point, but that’s not the point.
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It’s about a relatively realistic TV heroine being taken from her unique spot as a person on television, and not just a woman on television, and placing her back into the TV female grab bag. Unless a series is going full Liz Lemon with a period joke (“Oh no, my period! You’re all fired!” or the far stranger “cold tampons” request), it’s really difficult to handle it in a way that doesn’t devolve into detrimental female stereotypes. It’s basically the female equivalent of being kicked in the family jewels: a cheap laugh born from a simple anatomy lesson. Can we move on now?
But was this period fumble just a one-time thing? Have New Girl and The Mindy Project been letting us down this season? Let’s start with Kaling’s series, which implies in its name that the titular Mindy has some learning to do. And she does: She battles the desire to have a mental breakdown when her ex-boyfriend posts his wife’s sonogram on Facebook, she learns the hard way that creating a fake “desirable” persona on a date isn’t actually going to find her love, she battles the rampant sexism in her office by refusing to “man-up” and prove that she can still love chocolate fountains and Sandy Bullock and be great at her job, and she aims to correct the over-specific phrase that is “girl crush.” No one’s going to think you’re a lesbian if you just say you have a crush on Tina Fey.
So far so good, right? Right. But then we get into murky territory. Kaling’s Dr. Lahiri makes progress towards a life in which she doesn’t totally base her behavior off of her favorite early ‘90s rom-com, but there are a few unflattering female stereotypes she’s not quite ready to get rid of: First, she’s a fan of the vindictive retort. How many times can she return one of Danny’s (Chris Messina) insults with a hurtful comment about his wife leaving him before we cry “b**ch”? And not in the fun, Krysten Rittersort of way.
Second, Mindy is a doctor – as in someone who spent their 20s in school while the rest of us were learning how to manage a Wednesday morning hangover – yet she spends almost all of her time onscreen worrying about men: when she’ll meet one, how to impress one, what to say to one when she finds him, how much longer she has before one can’t get her pregnant anymore, etc.
One would expect that a highly-educated, successful protagonist would have plotlines that didn’t only revolve around her romantic prospects – even her professional rival has all the makings and foundations of the future Ross to her Rachel. This show is in danger of becoming the TV version of that girl at brunch who keeps insisting you talk about boy problems when you’re trying to discuss the last book you read or how to approach your boss about a raise. Yeah, we’ve all got man/boy issues, but let’s make sure we’re more than that too.
Third, Mindy is hyper-aware of her body shape. Yes, most women are excruciatingly cognizant of all the things that are supposedly “wrong” with their bodies. It’s the society that we live in. But Kaling is refreshingly normal in a world of abnormally, and almost universally stick-thin actresses. We could just thank the TV gods that we’ve got a realistic woman in a leading role, but instead, we have to constantly confront it. Danny tells Mindy she needs to lose weight. Even Mindy tells Mindy she needs to lose weight. She flips out when her boyfriend wears her jeans as a joke, because she’s insecure about her body and in theory, we’re supposed to be laughing. But as a PLOS One study discovered, the key to changing our perceptions of “perfect bodies” comes from simply being exposed to varying body types on a regular basis. Not from mocking them. Why ruin that by bringing up the same insecurities about one of those body shapes that we’re aiming to remedy? Why not let Mindy’s “Beyonce Padthai” alter ego lead her to power over stereotypes, and not just over the character she’s totally going to end up as the questionable recipient of unrequited feelings by the season finale?
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New Girl hasn’t done much better. In a season that started with one of the biggest life changes a person can go through – being laid off – we’ve spent most of our time watching Jess learn how to hook up with a sex friend and that allowing Nick to be her emotional fluffer is fine, even it’s “breaking” some arbitrary law of the sexes. It wasn’t until November that the series finally made a storyline out of Jess’ unemployment, and even then that only came after the romantic interest is out of the picture and she only comprehends her predicament because (ack!) her period is driving her to dangerous levels of emotion.
We can put up with the fact that Jess suddenly falls for her friend with benefits, despite his apparent diztiness and his love for Creed (yeah, that Creed), because he’s a pediatrician – she was a school teacher, after all. But the fact that she’s gone six whole episodes without a single reference to her career being in utter shambles, aside from a quip here or there about her temp job of the week, is problematic. Jess likes sexing her FWB, but the Jess we know would not be that complacent about her aimless life for that long. In fact, what woman would be? Yet, that’s exactly what Jess does. Our plucky lady takes detours down sexist lane when she berates Cece for being a “dumb model,” a stereotype Cece’s dumb roommate Nadia certainly doesn’t help to dispel. She stops at Sexy Makeover Point, where she gets a new set of heels and a slinky new wardrobe for an episode or two. She gives up her own name in order to keep sexing the Creed fan (and thankfully eventually takes it back). She spends six episodes doing little more than sexual somersaults, when any normal, functioning human (male or female) that resembles Jess in any way, shape, or form would be panicking over his or her lack of direction.
But do these traits indicate the series’ flaws? Or simply that the characters within them still have some growing to do? Only future episodes can answer that question (as long as they no longer include ladies weeping at images of cute, cuddly creatures), but unfortunately for these ladies, the stakes are high.
It takes a great deal of work to combat the versions of women we’ve come to know on television. We all fall prey to superficial questions about our bodies. We all tumble into phases of our lives in which a man-problem is all we can think about. It’s a condition of being human. As long as Mindy and Jess manage to dive into the wealth of other aspects of their personalities — or in Jess’ case, delve back into them — all will be well. Don’t let us down, ladies.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Fox (2)]
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If animals could indeed view their surroundings intellectually and talk to each other it’s entirely possible they’d discuss how screwed up human beings are especially in the ridiculous way we waste food. But hey to RJ (Bruce Willis) a wily raccoon what we throw away today becomes lunch tomorrow. He tries to impart some of this wisdom to his newfound friends--a motley crew lead by Verne the turtle (Garry Shandling)--after they wake up after a long winter’s nap and discover most of their natural habitat has been turned into a housing development separated by a very tall hedge. Yep these woodsy folk are sure in for an eye-opening adventure as the manipulative RJ convinces the gang to start collecting boxes of cheese doodles Girl Scout cookies and marshmallows telling them there is little to fear and everything to gain from their over-indulgent new neighbors. Now if they can only get rid of that cat... If you’re an actor these days the chances to play a serious Oscar-worthy role are just as great as playing a squirrel. Or a hedgehog. Or a guy called the Verminator. Over the Hedge has a fine slate of voices starting with Willis as RJ the raconteur raccoon whose pretty savvy to the ways of the paved and pre-packaged world of suburbia. Shandling is the heart of the film as the mild-mannered Verne who just wants to take care of his little woodland family. They include a couple of married-with-kids hedgehogs (pitch perfect Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara); a hyperactive but tender-hearted squirrel (a hilarious Steve Carell); an overdramatic possum (William Shatner playing it to the hilt) and his embarrassed teenage daughter (pop star Avril Lavigne); and a snarky skunk with attitude (Wanda Sykes who else?). As far as the humans Allison Janney voices a shrieking but vindictive homeowner while the Thomas Haden Church is said Verminator a fat balding but ruthless pest exterminator. What fun! Over the Hedge keeps to the spirit of the popular comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis on which the film is based. The strip focuses on the travails of friends RJ and Verne as they exploit the human world for their own personal gain while sardonically commenting on how messed up it is. Hedge sort of shows how these two might have met and is just a hoot from beginning to end. The images of woodland animal-meets-modern-day people are spot on: RJ’s spiel on how humans get food (“That’s the receptacle to get the food [a phone]...and that’s the tone when the food comes [the doorbell]”); SUVs (“Humans are slowly phasing out walking all together”); the skunk seducing the stupid cat (“I like your smell.”). The best is when Hammy the squirrel getting so hopped up on caffeinated soda the whole world comes to a stand still for him. Side-splitting stuff. Again success in animation comes when you stick with a simple story and create characters everyone can relate to. Plus hilarious dialogue. It’ll work every time.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.
The animated Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas has all the great adventure of the story wrapped up in a sappy little package for the kiddies. Taken from the ancient tales of the Arabian Nights Sinbad is a rogue who cares only about what is in his and his crew's best interest--and little else. As the film begins he unsuccessfully tries to steal the Book of Peace--which keeps order in the world--from his childhood best friend Proteus the Prince of Syracuse who is sailing to the city to return the sacred book. Although the two are estranged it's clear they still have a kinship. When the Book of Peace is actually stolen by Eris the goddess of chaos she frames Sinbad for the theft. Proteus stands up for his friend and makes the council give Sinbad one chance to find and return the precious book or Proteus will die on his behalf. Disbelieving the threat the pirate decides to blow the whole thing off but Proteus' beautiful betrothed Marina who has stowed away on Sinbad's ship has other plans. Marina has Sinbad's crew on her side and it could turn mutinous if the guy doesn't fulfill the mission. OK so he'll go get the book. Eris doesn't make it easy for our reluctant hero--dispatching both monstrous creatures and the elements to do battle along the way. But ultimately the brave Sinbad learns a few life lessons falls in love and wins out by following his heart. Aww!
See what a little success in the animated world can get you? These days an animated film can demand the attention of any A-list actor to provide the voices not just your occasional Robin Williams. We have Finding Nemo with the voices of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres and now Sinbad which attracted huge names such as Brad Pitt (Sinbad) Catherine Zeta-Jones (Marina) Michelle Pfeiffer (Eris) and Joseph Fiennes (Proteus). It could also be the fact DreamWorks' animation king Jeffrey Katzenberg has the clout to rope them all in. Pitt as Sinbad is roguishly clever infusing the pirate with the requisite amount mischievousness and rebellion while Zeta-Jones provides the adventurous Marina with the right amount of bravado and vulnerability. Fiennes as the stiff but honorable Proteus is fine but you can tell right away who has the most fun with her character; Pfeiffer's Eris is a pure delight in sound as well as sight. She is able to take her Catwoman persona from Batman Returns and elevate it to a well celestial level. In the supporting roles Dennis Haysbert does a nice job as Sinbad's right-hand man Kale as does Adriano Giannini the son of legendary actor Giancarlo Giannini as the ship's lookout Rat. Kudos all around for a job well done.
As a self-proclaimed fan of those cheesy 1970s Sinbad movies including The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger--where the stop-motion special effects of wizard Ray Harryhausen made it all worthwhile--the idea of an animated version of Sinbad seems perfectly fitted for the genre. Now the mythical creatures could be fully realized in vivid Technicolor where the DreamWorks' animators spare no expense in providing their own visions of things such as sirens sea monsters and giant birds of prey. The artwork for Eris is a particular stroke of genius with the flowing black hair and beautifully evil features; the film definitely comes alive when she is onscreen. As well the action sequences are as exciting as any car chase or gun battle you'll see in a live-action film. The drawback for the adults is the film's slightly schmaltzy story about friendship and of course true love. It's not entirely clear why computer-animated films such as Shrek and Finding Nemo are now becoming the only animated films that appeal to everyone adults and kids alike. It used to be traditional hand-drawn classics such as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King did the trick but now it seems animated films need only provide spectacular visuals--without a great story and snappy dialogue to back them up.