Bette and Joan and Mary and Offred (and Hillary)
I’m told that we’re in a new golden age of television, and the evidence is undeniable. Quality programming abounds, as do the relentless recommendations of passionate friends eager to tell me what I must watch. I have enough guilt from all the books I’m not reading; now I have to feel guilty about not watching television too?
But there have been a few programs lately that strike me as very pertinent to one of the most pressing issues of our time, something we used to bloodlessly call “sexism,” but is more accurately called what is, and that is misogyny.
Let’s start with a depiction of decades past. FX’s Bette and Joan does an admirable job of portraying the appalling chauvinism and sexism of its time while conveying the cruel truth that women in show business today — actresses especially — have it only marginally better. It might be argued that the show sometimes traffics in the same prurient glorification of catfighting that it decries, an impressive feat of cake-eating-and-having. But that is all but unavoidable with this subject matter, and on balance the series is certainly on the side of the angels.
Its mirror image is The Handmaid’s Tale. Had Donald Trump not been elected, this new TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel might have been dismissed as just another entry in the long parade of dystopian science fiction, chilling and well-crafted though it may be, but still just a baroque thought experiment in extremism. I don’t at all subscribe to that position, but that would certainly have been the knock on it. But in the Age of the Great Pussy Grabber, the story takes on a much more ominous tone and a much more powerful punch, leaving its detractors on shakier ground in trying to marginalize it. Trump’s ascent to the highest office in the land has made even the most unthinkable scenarios thinkable. Specific to Atwood’s dystopia, we have been disabused of the notion that we are a truly civilized, gender-blind society, as we watched the presidential candidate of a major party brag about sexual assault and still win the Oval Office, in large part on a wave of hysterical, unfounded demonization of his far-better qualified female opponent. Is it a long stretch from that to Gilead, the Red Center, and the “Ceremony”? Sure. But after November, not as far as we would have imagined or liked. Trump’s win pulled the lid off the garbage can of misogyny in this country, much as Obama’s victory did with the still virulent racism that we briefly flattered ourselves to believe had been vanquished on a November night eight years earlier. (Of course, the polarity is reversed in these two examples. Obama ignited the resentments of the racist Tea Party who were furious at the idea of a black president; Trump emboldened those same forces and their retrograde allies through the triumph of an overt bigot and proudly arrogant sexual predator.)
After Trump, it is hard to argue that the grisly turn of events Atwood depicts could never come to pass, given the right circumstances. Do you doubt it? Certainly the novel and its various adaptations — a feature film, an opera, and now a TV series — represent an extreme vision of institutionalized misogyny and ritualized rape, but not an unbelievable one. We just witnessed millions of our fellow citizens fall in lockstep with neo-fascist demagoguery, to include the jawdropping willingness of American evangelicals to embrace a leader who — short of vowing allegiance to Satan on live television — could not possibly be more antithetical to the values they claim to hold dear. (The perversion of Christianity and its ostensible ideals of mercy, kindness, and forgiveness into a religion of avarice, war, and exclusion is a separate matter.) In my Brooklyn neighborhood there are not one but two large Islamic private schools, where the female students — even the very youngest, years away from puberty — are dressed in robes and hijabs, a standard even more severe than in many Middle Eastern countries. After watching an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, it is jarring to go outside and see these veiled and cloistered women at the Duane Reade. But no religion has a monopoly on misogyny; on the contrary, it seems to be one of the few things on which the world’s major faiths can agree. Cheek by jowl with these Islamic communities in Brooklyn, I daily see the members of nearby Orthodox and Hasidic communities with their own restrictive codes of dress and strict separation of the sexes, not to mention Dominican nuns in their brown robes and habits, equally incongruous in this bastion of secular humanism. (It is not an accident that Atwood’s dystopia is a Christian one.)
Republics sometimes die suddenly in coups and revolutions and foreign invasions; other times they commit suicide or are overtaken by the cancer of authoritarianism. Accordingly, while The Handmaid’s Tale paints an inspired portrait of a brutal, quasi-Puritanical American theocracy, even more chilling to me are the flashbacks giving us glimpses of how the open, liberal society in which the characters once lived — easily recognizable as our own — was slowly consumed by the nightmare of the series’ present tense. (Women finding their bank accounts frozen and the assets transferred to husbands and fathers, fired from their jobs en masse, and so forth.) That slow descent into madness — a war of attrition lost inch by inch — can be so gradual that it is almost imperceptible while it is happening, and by extension more insidious. But once it has happened, it’s astonishing to look back and see the arc from the unimaginable to the inevitable. Who in Germany in 1933 saw the road that nation would eventually go down, all the way to the chimneys, even if one had read and taken seriously the farfetched blueprint its architect had laid down in Mein Kampf? (I know I am in violation of Godwin’s Law here, but I think Godwin’s Law is suspended until further notice while we have an administration that is actively following the fascist playbook.) More than eighty years later, it’s worth recalling that Donald Trump was once a walking punchline as a public figure, let alone a political candidate, a buffoonish object of such derision that late night talk show hosts were openly thrilled to have him in the race as comic relief. Now we are slowly becoming inured to (what should be) the epoch-shattering cognitive dissonance of the words “President Trump.”
Which bring us to Mary Tyler Moore. As all things do.
This past winter my six-year-old daughter got interested in Mary after seeing her in a colorized Christmas special rerun of The Dick Van Dyke Show. So my wife and I decided to show her some old episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which is justifiably remembered as a watershed of smart, influential, early Seventies TV comedy. The show holds up (not all classics do), even if its rhythms feel ancient and otherworldly by the standards of contemporary sitcoms, even to someone who grew up on them. I can imagine that to kids today the show feels as fossilized as The Honeymooners did to me when I was a boy, even as it is part of the DNA for what TV as we now know it went on to become.
But the most surprising and alarming aspect of revisiting the show is the blatant sexism of the time. (Its first season aired in 1970.) Witness the first words of the theme song, burned into the minds of a generation: “How will you make it on your own?” It’s hard to explain to my little daughter why it’s a big deal that Mary is hired as a producer and not a secretary in the pilot episode….why the floor manager in the newsroom dismissively calls her “honey”…..why it’s at all novel in the first place to follow the adventures of a single woman living on her own and pursuing a career rather than a husband. (Not that Mary’s lovelife isn’t a recurring theme, along with other now-cringeworthy anachronisms like Rhoda’s self-deprecating shtick about her weight or her looks. She looks pretty great to me. But then as now, even the “ugly” sidekicks in TV comedies are still empirically pretty girls.) In some ways, of course, my daughter’s puzzlement is itself a sign of progress. But it is also painful to watch a child’s innocence be slowly eroded by exposure to the hard realities of injustices past, especially when they reflect injustices with which we are still struggling.
Arguably The Mary Tyler Moore Show owed a debt in premise and theme to the much less celebrated That Girl, whose star and creative engine Marlo Thomas was an early and brave feminist advocate at a time when that was far from a popular position. That Girl — which ended its run about the time Mary Tyler Moore started — was a much more conventional comedy, but it did break ground for others to follow. When the show went off the air in 1971, Thomas famously insisted that it not end as many people assumed it would, and wanted (the network included): with her character getting married to her achingly dull longtime boyfriend, Donald. (Ahem.) I remember my mother tut-tutting over such radical “women’s lib” thinking. (Needless to say, Free To Be You and Me was not in heavy rotation in our house either.) As part of this revisiting of the television landmarks of my childhood, I also recently watched a few episodes of Bewitched, another female-centered show I remembered fondly, if not nearly in a class with Mary or even Marlo. What a horror. Most of the episodes turn on the heroine’s infantile, feet-stamping mortal husband insisting that his wife not use her supernatural powers. Insert your own feminist extrapolation here.
But so what? It isn’t at all surprising that any artifact of the past reflects the culture of its times for good or ill. It’s only surprising to be starkly confronted with how much things have changed, or have not. Long forgotten TV shows from the 1960s might seem frivolous in a discussion of sexual equality, discrimination, and misogyny, but pop culture remains a prime battleground for this ideological war. Look no further than Manchester, where an arena full of Ariana Grande fans — heavily weighted toward her young female followers — was surely no random target for homicidal religious extremists but one specifically chosen for its symbolism.
All this of course leads back, inevitably, to Hillary. How can it not? The presidential election threw into shocking relief the appalling misogyny that still undergirds American life in the early 21st century. To call it mere sexism is far too mild and generous, from the “trump that bitch” chants at Republican rallies to the shocking double standard to which the press held the two candidates. And that newfound awareness of old-found misogyny now hangs over American culture like a black cloud.
I have no doubt that future historians will look back on the election of 2016 and shake their collective head in amazement that anyone ever thought misogyny was not the driving factor in Hillary’s defeat. (Just as racism was surely the chief impetus behind the hysterical opposition to Obama during his eight years in office.) It is fashionable to pooh pooh that claim as simplistic, or mere sour grapes. But Occam’s razor is in effect. Even those who don’t believe it was the decisive factor will generally admit that it was a factor, which alone is unconscionable at this point in Western civilization. I am not discounting the numerous other elements in play, and this is not the place for a thorough postmortem on the debacle that went down on November 8th, 2016. We have neither the time, the bandwidth, or the perspective (yet). Certainly there were crucial mistakes by the Democratic Party and the Democratic candidate and her team, not to mention monkeywrenching from outside parties, the natural swing of the pendulum, and the sheer sickening power of con artistry (not necessarily in that order). But when the history of our era is written, I am certain Donald Trump’s wildly improbable victory will be seen above all as a triumph of misogyny in a society that flattered itself to think otherwise.
People talk, for instance, about Hillary’s “unlikability,” ignoring the obvious possibility that that too has a sexist component. A man with the same qualities for which she is often pilloried — toughness, tenacity, ambition — would be praised and admired for those very character traits. Please consider: the most experienced and qualified candidate ever to run for the Presidency of the United States lost to the most monstrously unqualified, inexperienced, ill-equipped, psychologically and temperamentally unfit candidate in modern times, who happened to be a man. Does anyone doubt that Trump would not have won if Hillary — with exactly the same characteristics, personality, and strategy — had simply been male?
During the campaign many people noted that the contest was a perfect model of the dilemma that smart, highly capable women routinely face in the job market: that is, the need to work ten times as hard just to beat a grossly less qualified male competitor. But during the race it was usually said with a kind of grim satisfaction that a female champion was finally going to triumph. After November 8th, that observation took on a considerably more morbid tone.
My daughter and her kindergarten classmates are inevitably aware of the politics currently roiling America, no matter how much we try to shield them from it or transform it into an age-appropriate teaching point. They know how Donald Trump treats women, even if they are not aware of his specific, graphic acts and the accompanying stomach-turning braggadocio. How do I explain to her that we as a people saw fit to make this man President of the United States?
And so, as we grapple with the cruel joke of a presidency that we have inflicted upon ourselves, everything around me seems to resonate with reminders of how far we yet have to go before we have rid ourselves of the curse of sexual discrimination. It is not merely a matter of justice but also of pragmatic self-interest as a people. Can there be a better or more stark illustration of the self-destructive effects of this sex-based bigotry than the appalling reign of Donald Trump, which every day causes more and more damage to our country? A former boss of mine — a man with vast experience in the US intelligence community — once told me that the Third World would never pull itself out of its terrible cycle of political corruption, poverty, and oppression until it began to treat women as the equals of men. This assessment came not from a Berkeley bleeding heart but from a US Army officer with unimpeachable conservative and national security credentials. His point applies in the First World as well. It is not hyperbole to say that misogyny is a disease very much at the heart of injustice and the abuse of power across the globe, and in the United States as well. Humanity will never be able to count itself truly civilized until we eradicate it like polio. As a wise woman once said, human rights are women’s right and women’s rights are human rights.
What a shame a person like that never ran for president.