There’s a theme I’ve remarked upon in fiction, especially in literary fiction, that also carries over to television: if the story is about a man, it’s considered a ‘universal’ story, applicable to everyone, while if it’s about a woman, it’s ‘women’s literature.’ Television, that great democratic medium beamed into the houses of millions of viewers, is all about telling compact, fascinating stories, compelling narratives. Sometimes called the ‘opiate of the masses,’ it’s sneered at by some people who consider themselves to be advocates of high culture, by those who refuse to acknowledge the critical social and cultural role played by television in the United States, as elsewhere.
Thus, the question of whose stories are told on television, and how, becomes one of pressing importance for us as viewers, and critics. And there is one overwhelming truth about modern US television: it mirrors modern literary fiction in assuming not just that the stories of men are universal and likely to appeal to the broadest audience, but in insisting that the story we most want to see is one of man pain, the dissipated, struggling, down-trodden ‘everyman’ triumphing against odds and reforming himself…or falling so far that he cannot get up.
There’s Breaking Bad, with a foundational story about a chemistry teacher turned meth cooker. Mad Men, all about the rise and fall of Don Draper. Hannibal, about Will Graham’s struggles inside and outside his own mind. More examples surely spring to mind for you, and they all follow a theme, with pained male protagonists emoting for the camera, and storylines driven by the suffering and struggles of the main character. Perhaps they end with redemption, and perhaps they end with an ultimate betrayal beyond which the lead cannot recover from even in the eyes of adoring fans, but they’re all about men, the lives of men, the suffering of men.
Contrast: ask yourself how many dramas offer this kind of narrative from the perspective of a female protagonist? I can think of only one offhand: Scandal, where Olivia Pope struggles with past, future, her role as a white hat and the morally dubious activities she engages in along the way. Yet, unlike any of the shows above, Scandal is not framed as a drama for the ages, or as serious television. Instead, it’s accused of being soapy, and written off as a women’s show — worse yet, it is written off as a show that primarily interests and engages the Black community, making it a special interest show, something that fits into a niche rather than being something of broader interest.
Do viewers just have an insatiable appetite for man pain, or is it all they’ve been offered? In the world of literary fiction, women writers struggle to establish themselves and to push their books beyond a limited audience as everything works against them — the names of their novels, cover design, marketing campaigns, bookstore placement, and more. Men snap up the literary awards, the reviews in prestigious publications, even the pop culture references, hooking the media and the public on their personalities even when their personalities are reclusive, surly, or offensive.
Likewise, in television, female creators and writers deal with a similarly sexist divide, with their work placed on the light, fluffy, feminine side of the lot, while the work of male creative teams is revered, even if it’s fundamentally about the same subjects. Moral ambiguity is not something reserved for men alone, any more than doubts about your role in the world are. Women can do terrible but also wonderful things, just as men can, they can rise to the occasion and fall far, far short. The isolation of dramas about women’s lives and what they endure reinforces the idea that man pain, and a particular flavour of man pain, is the only thing that matters.
This is not said to devalue the real-world experiences of men who struggle with turbulent, complicated lives. Nor is it said to devalue shows like Hannibal and Breaking Bad. Rather, it is said to ask why this genre hasn’t been expanded, and why serious literary or television treatments of women and their lives are written off as unimportant and lesser — why female characters who are much like Don, or Will, or Walter, aren’t seen on screen as much, and when they are, they’re shunted to the side as unimportant, given the cold shoulder by their networks and consequently by viewers as well.
Do we need to live in a world where our pop culture glorifies the lives of men, hero-worships extremely morally ambiguous and sometimes actively evil male characters, and treasures the experiences of men as some sort of universal experience? Doesn’t this just reinforce common and damaging attitudes about gender, society, and our gendered existence? Why can’t Call the Midwife command the same attention as male-centred dramas?
Because, of course, it’s about women, the lives and suffering of women, the sometimes difficult and frustrating choices women have to make to stay alive. These are universal things too, not just because half the population is female, but because many people have to make difficult and frustrating choices, many people act in morally ambiguous or uncertain ways at some point in their lives, and many people are touched by evil during the course of their lives. These are universal experiences, but they’re not when they’re presented as something that only happens to men, and something that’s only of interest when it happens to men.
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