TV

Friends and the representation of women

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Friends has arguably dated, and dated poorly. The series, released on Netflix this month, has once again attracted discussion regarding its representation of homosexuality in particular. While this subject has, quite rightly, attracted much discussion, the representation of gender, especially women, has not received the same attention. This discussion is entirely warranted, and needed, given the objective influence of the series. Such is the hyperreality of the series that viewers regularly view themselves through the lens of the characters, questioning which character they most resemble, or using the narrative of the series to influence the manner in which they interact within their own relationships.

When teaching English Language A Level, there was a specific clip from the series which was regularly used to demonstrate the supposed differences between gender and language. The clip regularly garnered both laughter, and recognition from students, with students genuinely believing that the clip represented an accurate depiction of the manner in which men and women interact, as well as view pivotal moments in relationships. While this may be true for some, the fact that the clip is often the starting point, rather then merely a reflection for the majority is concerning. Many viewers of a particular generation grew up watching the series, and indeed, viewed these gendered interactions and assumptions about relationships before they were in relationships themselves. Subsequently, then, the series has been viewed as a learning tool, encouraging the viewer to use the myriad of relationship difficulties depicted in the series as a model through which they can position their own.

This in itself is questionable enough, but the very depiction of the women in the series, particularly the three female leads, must be questioned. Each woman, despite her own identified independence, is ultimately diminished by the men around her. Each, forging their own successful career, is compelled to compromise both their original ideals and their own concept of their career.

Rachel for example, proving herself to be so successful within the fashion industry is offered a job in Paris. A role that she readily describes as both exciting and scary. Despite the potential of this role, she is, once propositioned by long-term romantic interest Ross, quick to return to New York. There is then little mention of her career prospects, suggestive that ultimately, it is family that is the ultimate goal.

This idea of family as being the true measure of success is echoed in both Monica and Phoebe. Monica’s life is deemed complete once she is able to adopt two babies. Her previous lack of success in conceiving a child with her husband is, seemingly for Monica, some marker that highlights her as lacking. The topic, of the difficulty in conceiving, is given little rumination and all suggestion of difficulty is quickly forgotten once the prospect of adoption is proffered. In earlier episodes Monica is regularly seen at work, forging a career as a successful chef, but as the series continues, these insights into her work seem more sporadic, suggesting that this is no longer important to Monica’s character development.

Similarly, Phoebe heralded as the quirky and eccentric member of the group who disdains convention becomes utterly conventional. In marrying Mike, Phoebe shows that her attempts at kookiness were entirely superficial. Her lifestyle, previously a defining feature of her character, is entirely uprooted. She struggles with spending money on her wedding and considers donating it to charity in order to help people who have had similar experiences to her. Rather rapidly, however, she is willing to use this money for her own means, decrying it as deserving considering her previous life. It is surely at this moment that Phoebe has consciously rejected her own nature, and instead, freely submits herself to convention and married life.

Each character, when comparing the first series to the last, is entirely unrecognisable. Of course, character change over the duration of a series, particularly one that has the duration of Friends but these characters have not merely naturally progressed, but rather rejected past incarnations of themselves arguably in order to submit to the men around them.

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The merits of First Dates

Channel 4’s First Dates and Gogglebox were released around the same time. Both, fairly similar in tone and style, have enjoyed huge success, but while Gogglebox‘s premise has become increasingly tired, with its supposed regular featured viewers demonstrating that they are ever more aware of their own audience, First Dates has, despite Channel 4 attempting to inject the series with a new appeal through the hotel concept, remained enjoyable. The series’ premise is incredibly simple, so much so that it seems strange that the series was not developed sooner. Featuring a range of couple each first on a date, the series charts the featured participants as they embark upon the prescribed date. For some this experience is exciting, for others, it presents a situation in which they feel increasingly vulnerable.

It is this opportunity for vulnerability that engages, and in turn, compels the viewer to consistently watch. Scenarios in which participants have lost a loved one, or endured difficult, at times abusive, relationships immediately connect with the viewer on an emotional level. Similarly, it is the universality of these situations that so aid the series’ success. Each date is well-orchestrated, and there is never any sense of meanness or maliciousness on the part of the producers when matching couples.  Rather, it is clear that the producers, in creating the show, have recognised that for sustained success viewers don’t want to witness awkwardness or conflict, but instead, want to experience positive connections between participants. This is rather notable, as the regular tendency with reality programming is to attempt to generate aggression and argument in order to attract viewers. Instead, First Dates is, simply, a nice show.

Call the Midwife: dangerous hyperreality

Given the nature of the Christmas period, it is inevitable that many end up being subjected to television programming that would not have ordinarily been selected as part of their festive viewing. As such, it was my misfortunate to be subjected to BBC’s Call the Midwife Christmas special on Christmas Day. Having some insight into the nature of the programme I have, thus far, intentionally and purposefully avoided the series finding the clichéd, halcyon representation of life in the 1950s entirely questionable. Having no option but to endure the episode on Christmas Day, it became rapidly apparent that despite my initial misgivings, the series is far worse than I could have anticipated, largely due to what it attempts to represent and the manner in which it is received by its targeted audience.

The central narrative needs little explanation, with the numerous subplots focusing on the various entanglements that the midwives become involved with through the nature of their work. The storylines themselves are not entirely questionable, despite their saccharine nature, but rather the manner in which they are presented. The world of the series is entirely cosseted, harking back to an era that, for its targeted audience, is one that is desirable. A time in which, despite the hardships and prejudices, was one in which things were simple. It is this attitude that proves to be so damaging, with viewers noting the lack of central heating, and the hyperbolic weather as a rite of passage, or as a marker of hard work and determination.

Such an attitude creates a divide, both in terms of generation, class and gender. The careers of these women are still largely restricted to the domestic sphere, and the myriad of intrigues are similarly centred. The gender roles of the women featured are lacking in progression and predominantly rely on stereotypes: the matriarch, the unintelligent woman focused on her appearance, or the overly emotional. While these approaches in themselves are questionable enough, it is the interaction that it encourages from its audience that highlights the series is far more ominous than its first appearance may present. Viewers, obtaining information from one specific media source and then finding their television viewers habits similarly aligned, simply create an echo chamber for their views.

The problem with Christmas 24

The form and tone of a Christmas film is an interesting one. Given the nature of the holiday season, viewers are far more likely to be forgiving when it comes to a film’s quality, allowing for poor acting or cliché so long as the film’s central conceit of celebrating Christmas, is successful. There can be little other explanation then, as to why so many films that largely focus on the same theme or topic attract multiple viewings. While some of these films are permissible, despite their failings, some, such as those that feature on the Christmas 24 channel is entirely questionable in their entire premise and execution.

Those films that are offered and presented for consumption at Christmas time on this channel are seemingly innocuous, with their entirely vanilla representation of relationships and family dynamics apparently entirely innocent and inoffensive. Arguably though, it is this very presentation, in its simplicity that is actually so sinister.
The world of Christmas 24 is overwhelmingly white, and WASP. The relationships are heterosexual, and the representation of all involved is entirely heteronormative. The diegesis that exists within these films is one that is entirely unrecognisable in reality, but though its persuasive presentation and manipulation of festive emotions, form some manner of hyperreality with viewers believing that these worlds did exist, and can exist once more.

Given the overwhelming conservative approach that these films take, and the core ethos that it attempts to engender to its audience, these films despite their seeming inoffensive nature, are in fact utterly pervasive and should be treated as such.

Thoughts on The Miniaturist

Adapting any text, particularly one that has proven to be hugely popular, is always a difficult feat. The tendency is, often, to adhere to the text with little deviation, fearing the ready-made audience may baulk at any error in textual detail. In adapting Jessie Burton’s wildly successful The Miniaturist, the approach has been, as may have been predicted for a Christmas airing, to largely retain the events of the text, representing the narrative faithfully. While this approach is largely acceptable, it is only admissible when the direction and rendering retain the central mood and tone of the text. In creating an adaptation for a less discerning, and in turn, arguably more mainstream audience, the creators have arguably taken a less progressive approach.

Thus the narrative, in attempting to appeal to many, fails to truly engage. The cast all perform admirably, particularly Romola Garai and Anna Taylor-Joy, but the dialogue is restrictive. Little is done to truly create atmosphere or tension, and there appears to be little to really concern the audience or drive the central conceit forward. Burton’s text, while engaging, does largely rely on the interior, a difficult narrative function to demonstrate onscreen. It is not merely this though that results in such a lacklustre affair, but rather a culmination of a myriad of factors. The pacing, in its restrained manner, is simply sedate, while its characters, despite some backstory, never feels fully developed.

Easy Season 2

For some, Easy’s anthology based format felt jarring, allowing little room for organic and sustained character development. Certainly, this is a point to be noted in regards to this style of narrative. Focusing on numerous stories and characters, some interconnected, others entirely isolated, can, in lesser hands, lead to characters that leave very little impression or impact.

Joe Swanberg’s Easy is not such a series. Its characters, while often flawed in execution do, largely, land with the audience. The second series sees the narrative returns to many of the same thematic concerns: affection, marriage, and the banality of the mundane nature of our lives.

The first episode, ‘Package Thief’ for example, focuses on a small, select neighbourhood who find themselves entirely focused on the exploits of a man who routinely steals their deliveries. The group of neighbours, all ostensibly liberal and middle class, quickly descend into their own interpretation of the martial law, deeming it appropriate and necessary to install CCTV cameras in order to identify the thief. Members of the group, feeling empowered by their own ability to extend their dominion beyond the confines of their own property, seek to further exert their own vision of the community upon passing visitors.

The episode, while seemingly innocuous, leaves the viewer with a clear sense of how little it takes for such a community to band together and attempt to prevent those of a disliked disposition from entering their living space. Its simplicity, on the surface, ensures that the narrative remains with the viewer long after.

Other episodes, focusing on the dynamics of both long-term, often constrained relationships, and new, tremulous couplings, are wonderfully natural, with the dialogue feeling realistic and relatable. The final episode of the series focuses on a thirty-seven-year-old woman (a familiar face from the first series) who, after the breakdown of her relationship, helps a friend in distress by looking after her young baby for several days. The episode largely consists of several scenes of the woman and baby interacting, playing in the park, partaking in bed-time routines and the activities that some may find banal. The interaction between the pair, while containing little dialogue, is given emotional depth given that the viewer recognises how much these moments mean to the woman. Not having had children of her own yet, and previously believing that she would have done by now, the opportunity to play mother provides her with moments of real revelation and warmth.

Not all of the episodes are wholly successful, and the narratives that return to the male writer of the first series do not always fully engage. Arguably this is due to the very nature of the writer himself, whose arrogance and self-belief does, at times, lead to the story feeling male-dominated. Certainly, this is intentional, given the nature of this writer, whose self-perceived intelligence means that he seeks to dominate conversations with women, or does not always recognise their worth.

Regardless of the trajectory of the series as a whole, the format and the presentation is refreshing. Netflix, in its funding of such projects, is once again, highlighting its worth as a producer of intelligent and unusual writing.

 

The Welsh Woman in National Dress

The history of the Welsh National Dress is well-marked. Encouraged by Lady Llanover of Gwent, the wearing of the National Dress was intended to serve as a rebuke to a perceived loss of national identity. The dress, despite its impracticalities, was designed then, to serve as a pointed reminder of a very clear and separate identity for Welsh nationals.  

It is telling then, that this mode of dress, one originally intended as a distinctive mark of national pride and identity, has seen its use subverted. While the dress is still celebrated in Wales, with schoolchildren encouraged to dress up on St David’s Day, the dress, when viewed through the lens of the nationality of Britain, immediately conjures characters whose very national identity becomes a projection for comedic purposes.  

The dress, particularly the women’s national dress, has, for some, become synonymous with the very specific stereotypes so often associated with Wales: a lack of progression, an inward focus, with a lack of awareness of anything outside of a localised geographical location.  

Beddoe’s notes that the Welsh Dress, in its original incarnation, was intended to be used as a device of tourism. Created at a time when the ‘old peasant costume was dying out’, the dress was, as Beddoe’s marks, decorous and as such, was difficult to work in. It is worth highlighting this apparent original intention in that the dress is armpact upon its audience. dic rochrial ales, but rather the manner he dress is arguably used for the same reasoning today.o be cguably used for the same reasoning today. Not necessarily by those resident in Wales, but rather the manner in which it is presented by the media. The use of the dress is perceived as something almost antiquated, and parochial. Something to be indulged in. Its intentional usage often timed to create a comedic impact upon its audience.  

Arguably this concept of the Welsh National Dress is one that has become increasingly abstract, but ever present. Thus, while the dress itself may not be included, a character’s adherence and steadfast pride and belief in the value of Wales above all else is widely held up for mockery. The dress then, while not necessarily a physical incarnation of Lady Llanover’s creation, still exists, rendered as something very tangible and real in a character’s assertion and declaration of a specific geographical location holding dominion. 

It is there in Stacey’s continued pontificating as regards the value of Barry in the stupefyingly popular Gavin and Stacey. It is not Stacey’s unquestionable regard for Barry that is problematic, but rather the manner in which this affection is treated by others. Gavin is frequently disdainful, heralding Stacey’s devotion as questionable. Given that Stacey is regularly highlighted as being less intelligent, and often simplistic in her approach and understanding of concepts, her love of Barry is immediately questioned. This, when coupled with the depiction of Gavin as more reliable and mature, creates a reductive notion.  

Stacey, in sending Gavin property in Barry which is within their budget, is roundly rejected, with the implication being that Barry’s low property pricing is in line with its lack of desirous location. Gavin, despite eventually moving to Barry with Stacey, never truly aligns himself with the area, and its continued othering (with the Owain Hughes joke, and the statement by Smithy that no one speaks Welsh in the area) is clearly intended to question Stacey’s continued link to the area.  

Indeed, her assertion of missing the place in which she grew up, the place within which she first formed her identity, is consistently questioned by Gavin, and there is a sense that he has only allowed the move to Barry to placate Stacey. He never attempts to discuss, or uncover her emotional ties to the area.  

Similarly, The Valleys, the deservedly much-maligned MTV series while ostensibly not explicitly heralding its women as Welsh, does so through the very creation of the series. Following the trend of such scripted reality series, the show focuses on a range of extreme stereotypes. While different from series such as Gavin and Stacey in the sense that they are, purportedly, a depiction of reality, the clear scripting element arguably renders series such as The Valleys as constructed as any fictive creation. In fact, the very fact that the series supposedly imitates reality is more damaging for the viewer, who when watching the series, is encouraged to believe that they are watching real life.  

For the cast, their very national identity is intentionally, and specifically, brought to the viewer’s attention. These women then, through their very Welshness, so purposefully highlighted by the central conceit of the series, are presented as if in a form of national dress. This, when combined with the encouraged viewer voyeurism when viewing their various exploits, rather reductively compels the viewer to once again, other the women onscreen. For the viewer, there is almost some comfort in the thought that these women, so questionable in their activities and misdemeanours, are entirely unlike them.  

What then does this suggest about the very national identity of these women? Stacey’s continued, unconditional love for Barry marks her as unintelligent and immature, while the women in The Valleys, so explicitly Welsh, are reduced to figures of derision and scorn. Seemingly then, any sense of national pride, or unhindered national identity, is quite intentionally held up for ridicule and contempt. These women, lacking in any sense of multifaceted depiction, are marked by their very Welshness, and in turn, made questionable. While Beddoe’s highlighted the use of national dress as a means for tourism, here, and too frequently, it is used to once again, isolate and contain identity.  

The Girlfriend Experience Season 2: thoughts so far

The first series of The Girlfriend Experience was, and remains, groundbreaking. Those unfamiliar with the series may find this statement to be deceptively hyperbolic. How, in the days of a myriad of streaming services, can one series be referred to in such a way? Simply through reasserting and redefining the confines and constraints of what television can be.

Co-creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz have, in creating the series, intentionally set out with the purpose of ensuring that they do not adhere to the predefined television narratives or styles. The first series of the anthology narrative focused on Riley Keough’s Christine, a law student who engages in call girl work. The focus was entirely progressive in its presentation, with Christine’s power and desire to partake in such work never in doubt. The series stylistically too was utterly refreshing. Restrained, but perfectly posited music, with stark settings and little camera movement, the direction allowed the narrative to simply unfold.

Series 2, moves the focus away from Christine, to a triptych of characters, who, thus far, have not met. Both Kerrigan and Seimetz have taken on each half of the running order for the series and made the episodes entirely independent of one another (including writing, direction and characters). The first strand of the narrative centres on Anna and Erica (Louisa Krause and Anna Friel), and the various political entanglements that they become caught up in through each of their sphere of work. Anna, a call girl, is privy to the political discussions of the powerful through her presumed anonymity and powerlessness. The men that Anna meet view her simply as an object, one who is only present to serve their means and desires, and it is this that proves to be their hamartia. Anna, through the men’s perception of her, becomes entirely empowered and is able to provide delicate information to Erica’s powerbroker.

The second narrative strand features Bria (Carmen Ejogo), the mistress of a crimelord, who, through contacting the police, is compelled to become part of a witness protection programme. Through her newfound state, one which no longer contains the riches and wealth of being married to a criminal, finds herself compelled to continually manipulate.

Thus far, four episodes in, it is apparent that the very identifiable and specific aesthetic is still present. Yet, the focus, while engaging, is simply not as compelling as that of Christine’s. Perhaps it will develop in time, but the focus simply doesn’t connect in the same manner. Bria’s story is the stronger narrative, but Erica and Anna’s in its highly charged moments does, at times, feel like it’s simply subservient to a rather typical male gaze. Christine’s sexuality, entirely her own, while overt, never truly felt like it was pandering to a gendered audience, yet Anna and Erica’s does. Their numerous sex scenes are not always necessary to narrative development, and as such, do at times serve to merely titillate rather than make any specific statement.

 

 

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: The flaws of season 12

I am, thanks to Netflix, a fairly recent convert to the wonderfully acerbic It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s fast-paced, complex, and often bizarre storylines ensured that all of the available 12 seasons were quickly and readily consumed. As such, and as is often the case when binge-watching a series, it was difficult to, at least initially, identify the decline of quality within the series. Watching episode after episode with very little break in between results in series rapidly blurring into one, thus making it difficult to pinpoint a marked change in writing or success. It was only when rewatching the episodes for a second time that it became explicitly apparent. Series 12, while still containing some excellent episodes, presents a quite clear departure from the previous series. Certainly, series 12 is still well-written, but previous series, while containing moments of pop culture, are largely rendered timeless as there is little reliance on overt cultural references.

Watching an episode in series 12 then, in which very direct reference is made to Obama, or Making a Murderer immediately feels jarring. Much of the humour and character pathos within the series stems from the sense that they, in frequenting their bar, remain very much separate from popular culture and are unable to truly understand it. In introducing this very obvious Meta-tone, the series instantly and rather precisely dates itself. Thus watching series 12, the episodes, through these references, feel more dated than the earlier series in which no such explicit reference is made.

The series is still intelligently written, but it is almost as if the writers have felt the need to prove their worth by demonstrating their awareness of specific cultural moments and movements which largely feels clumsily done. In shifting focus, the characters lose some of their vicious tendencies, and in turn, feel less engaging. Given the success of the series, and the maintenance of quality for such a long run, it’s quite intentional and deliberate shift in tone and mood is both questionable and disappointing.

Stranger Things: Eleven’s lack of agency

Note contains spoilers.

When a series, or indeed any media text, so embeds itself within the public consciousness, as is the case with Stranger Things, it is necessary to interrogate the representation of the marginalised. Much discussion surrounding the series has focused on the representation of women. The series, notably, features a roster of women from a variety of ages and roles. Each of these roles represents not only a worthy opportunity for the actress involved but an opportunity for the writers to depict a progressive representation.

As noted before, the series’ representation of Nancy, in particular, is hugely successful. Nancy is both intelligent and capable, and this depiction continues in the second series in which she once again readily participates in aiding others against the threat of the inhabitants of ‘The Upside Down.’ When potentially confronted with hundreds of creatures towards the end of the series, Nancy is the only character who readily, and willingly wields a weapon in order to help protect others. She stands on the defensive line with the other men, ready to fight if necessary.

Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is a depiction that should be similarly applauded. Her maternal instincts compel her to both fight and act decisively.  Towards the end of the series, when Will’s conscious state alerts the being to the characters’ whereabouts, Joyce willingly and freely injects Will with a sedative in order to protect the others. This desire to protect, much like Nancy’s, compels Joyce to act and think logically and in a measured manner. Her love for her son, while never in doubt, does not allow her to lose control of her emotions or act hysterically.

It is these successful and positive representations then, that serve to emphasise and highlight the failings of the depiction of Eleven/Jane, who suffers an entire lack of agency for much of the second series. Eleven has spent much of her life being dominated by the men around her. Her pseudo father in the first series manipulated and controlled Eleven without regard to her own personal feelings or desires.

It is interesting to note then, that Hopper, in adopting the role of Eleven’s patriarch does, worryingly, mirror many of her previous Papa’s actions. While Hopper’s intentions are purer, in that he cares deeply for Eleven and wants to protect her, his methods are similarly controlling. Bribing her with food, and the promise of additional television, he hopes to keep Eleven hidden away supposedly for her own safety. Given that when Eleven does emerge from the isolated dwelling she demonstrates herself as being entirely capable of defending herself, and controlling a situation, Hopper’s previous assertions are immediately brought into question.

He hopes to effectively control Eleven, seeing her as a replacement for his deceased daughter. Eleven is never given the opportunity to truly decide if she is happy for this role to be impressed upon her. Later, after meeting her mother, she does express a desire to connect with Hopper but arguably this is only after she notes that any relationship with her mother is not possible. Perhaps then, this relationship is one that Eleven feels compelled to embark upon.

A similar lack of agency is demonstrated when visiting New York. Eleven, meeting her sister, hopes to find a community in which she can happily exist. She has, hitherto, found herself misunderstood and isolated. Her so-called sister represents a familial tie with who she can develop a truly meaningful relationship. While Kali does show some understanding, she too hopes to manipulate and use Eleven for her own ends, admonishing her when she exerts her own will and desire. Even her dress, representative of a new, empowered character, is one that is not of her own choosing. Rather it is foisted upon her without question, resulting in her supposed empowerment feeling shallow and superficial.

Mike, in his continual admiration and care for Eleven, is the only character who really recognises Eleven’s own agency. For him, similarly feeling misunderstood, Eleven is a kindred spirit. One who he can care for, and who he can seek care and comfort from. While Eleven does happily submit to Hopper’s patriarch, it is important to note that it is only when Eleven herself agrees to the dynamic that the relationship can function. This can only take place once Eleven has demonstrated her abilities, and her worth, returning to save her friends.