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once more, with feeling: on TV’s working women

It’s become something of a cliché to say that television has never been better. Whether that’s just the natural progression of production and arts or a sudden spell of great stories and storytelling (or both) is subjective. I’d argue that what everyone is reacting to are the incremental steps toward diversity, to the voices of people shoehorning their way into predominantly white and male writers’ rooms and production companies – even starting their own, along way.

Naturally, this prompts criticism and discussion over what those representations really mean. Take the much-derided New York Times piece about Shonda Rhimes; the expectations piled onto Mindy Kaling; the way critics have followed Lena Dunham’s career.  Consider the rise of Laverne Cox. And it’s not insignificant that the few Asian men on the small screen are finally, maybe, getting some. If it seems like the act of watching television has become too serious, too critical, too introspective and academic, it’s because the evolution of television has absorbed our social politics.

Emily Landau’s piece ‘Do Girls Run the World?’ in Flare’s September issue understands this. Rather than accept at face value the presence of professional women on television, Landau is critical of the characters themselves. It’s one thing, she writes, to give women lead roles as judges, CIA analysts, surgeons and lawyers. It’s quite another to dilute the nod to women’s economic mobility with personal drama and an embarrassing lack of professionalism in the face of it: ‘Underneath their glam facades, however, they’re volatile basket cases whose hang-ups bleed into their careers.’

Landau is unimpressed with Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) on Madam Secretary (an ‘all-business stateswoman anxious that she’s abandoning her husband for work’); criminal lawyer Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) on How To Get Away With Murder (‘law professor and possible sociopath’), and Laura Diamond (Debra Messing) on The Mysteries of Laura (‘A Liz Lemon-level hot mess.’) Only Julianna Margulies’s Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife – ironically enough – gets a pass.

It’s a fair assessment. To an avid television watcher and cultural critic, the depiction of professional women constantly derailed by domestic problems is not in itself a problem. The problem, as with all characterisations, is when that is the only narrative on screen. Landau argues that men on television do not fall apart in the same way. Conflict is ‘created by work itself.’

But there is a deeper discussion to be had here about the way we view gender binaries and work.  (Save for a brief moment in Orange is the New Black, there is little if any representation of trans or gender non-conforming people in the workplace.) Taken in that context, there’s an equal argument to be made that claiming the way men on television approach work is the right way, is harmful. Especially when it’s not all that different.

‘As any good management manual will tell you, it’s time to take the emotion out of it.’  It’s interesting to me that, despite how much time we spend at work – how much of our lives are devoted to finding and keeping jobs and being successful at them – we are expected to draw a hard line between feeling and producing. Even as work creeps into our personal lives, we are expected to stay stone-faced on the clock.

Fair enough, I suppose, until it isn’t. Landau takes issue with Katherine Heigl’s character on the new State of Affairs. Not only is Heigl’s Charleston Tucker ‘preposterously named’, the CIA analyst also falls apart when her fiancé is murdered by terrorists. Record scratch. Wouldn’t you? At what point is it okay to be emotional at work? While I have yet to see State of Affairs, what Landau describes isn’t incompetence but a natural human reaction to death, especially one so brutal.

People get sick, loved ones die – when we spend hours of our time at work, this is bound to interfere. Maybe not in the dramatic ways they play out on television but certainly in some capacity. What Landau seems to demand is more of the stoic aforementioned Alicia Florrick in the face of personal crisis. Even better: more Don Drapers, Walter Whites and Houses. Writes Landau, ‘Conflict is created by the work itself.’

This isn’t necessarily true. I have never considered either Draper or White particularly good examples of professionalism. They are terrible compartmentalisers, even if only the audience can see it. Just as Tucker is thrown by a suspect who looks exactly like her dead fiancé, Draper wastes an entire weekend of work when an image in an advert reminds him of an ex-lover. In fact, the character’s work life is intricately tied to his family. His infallibility at work depends on his ability to keep up the charade that is his home life. His eventual unraveling in season four and again in season six, is not because of work. Rather, his work suffers as his relationships fall apart. Walter White is driven to crime because he fears for his family, but there is clear tension between his ability to moonlight as a hardened criminal, teach high school chemistry and evade the suspicions of his wife, child and in-laws.

In contrast, the women on television still manage to be brilliant – as Landau acknowledges – despite the wrecks that are their personal lives. It’s the men who self-destruct in the office.

It’s a paradox of capitalism that we are increasingly expected to merge our home and work lives when it’s convenient, yet remain emotionless and productive when home, health and family implode. And, interestingly, women are expected to be better at this than men while shouldering the burden of balancing the two.

While I agree, in essence, with Landau’s general point (after all, how many stories of women who can’t get it together in their personal lives do we need?) I wouldn’t hold up male protagonists as an example of getting it right.

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