Monday, June 25, 2007

Starter? I Don't Even Know Her.

When I visited New York a few weeks ago, I could not enter a subway station or pass a bus without seeing Debra Messing’s smiling face pushing the television series The Starter Wife. Given that I teach classes on representations of gender and sexuality in the mainstream media, I consider it part of my job description to watch such media ploys. Hey – It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

The massive publicity campaign (which began sometime in January) led me to expect that The Starter Wife would be a bit more, um, good. The promos implied that the program would consider the travails of marriage, divorce, and aging among women in this society. Okay – Maybe I had too lofty of expectations. At the very least, though, I expected some sort of vicarious revenge narrative involving a wronged spouse making her lying man come to terms. Instead, The Starter Wife managed to disempower just about everybody.

Perhaps its main problem was that it offered a remarkably unsympathetic heroine and a cadre of flat supporting characters. As the title implies, Molly, played by Debra Messing, finds out that her movie-executive husband has dumped her for a young starlet. Rather than being emotionally destroyed by his deceptions or heartbreak, Molly is mostly concerned about how it will impact her social standing. Indeed, she spends little, if any, time considering the demise of the actual marriage. While we are clearly supposed to hate her sleazy ex, we aren’t really given any indication that Molly ever thought of him as anything more than a means to her own ambition. Instead, Molly mourns that she can no longer attend the posh clubs or swank parties.

As a result, her liberation does not come through a rejection of the sexist Hollywood expectations that demanded physical perfection or slavish women (or through the lighting of her ex’s truck on fire (which I would have personally liked to see)). Instead, her alleged liberation comes through committing herself to even more self-indulgence. In one scene, Molly takes “revenge” on the Hollywood wives who snubbed her by becoming the arm-candy for another, more powerful, man. Yeah, there’s a feminist message that we can all get behind.

The Starter Wife acknowledges that society is built on a sexist patriarchy that keeps women in vulnerable and unfair positions. Molly’s ex husband, Kenny, personifies the worst stereotypes of heterosexual men. He is self-indulgent, sexist, cheats on his wife, and demeans all the women around him by making them do the most menial tasks imaginable. Yet, The Starter Wife also implies that sexist patriarchy is the only option out there and the only possible way that society could be organized. When men treat you like garbage, the show says, simply find another, more powerful man. Kate Millet would be so proud.

Given this message, it’s no surprise that Pond’s cosmetics sponsored this train-wreck of a series. Indeed, Molly spends a serious amount of film time in her bathroom engaged in methodical cleansing rituals that involve prominent Pond’s products. The message of “empowerment” is not a rejection of youth and beauty. Instead, it’s that older women need to fight to stay looking young and beautiful. There is hope for older women, but only if they slather their face with a jar of Time Rewind© night cream.

Surrounding Molly are a crew of totally cardboard characters. Judy Davis appears as a friend named “Joan.” Really, though, Davis seems to be confused and apparently thinks that she is still playing Judy Garland. Joan drinks, makes a bitchy comment to Liza Molly, and returns to drinking some more.

Molly does get to show her magnanimity through a set of homeless characters. In one case, The Starter Wife makes a clumsy stab at racial diversity when Molly allows Lavender, the African-American security guard for Molly’s gated-housing complex, to move into her house. This sassy ghetto-girl might have the name of a stripper, but she has a heart of gold. Lavender lost her apartment when her mother refused to get rid of her yapping dog. Thanks to Molly, though, Lavender avoids homelessness and can keep attending UCLA. Well, as long as her mother agrees to clean Molly's house. Through the gentle generosity of white women like Molly, Lavender will eventually be a credit to her people. Hey, Starter Wife, welcome to the year 1935!

If that version of homelessness/economic-class-dynamics didn’t appear problematic enough, the miniseries includes the absurd character Sam. Repenting for his sin of drunk driving, Sam willingly chose to be homeless many years before meeting Molly. Yes – There is a character who has repudiated shelter from the elements. According to The Starter Wife, being homeless can be downright glamorous! Sam spends his days wandering around Malibu’s beaches without his shirt and sleeping with bored housewives. When he and Molly have sex in his "sleeping space," it looks a lot like an ad for Bombay Company.

Characters like Lavender and Sam make light of real economic injustice in this nation. In both instances, it was the personal choices of Lavender (refusing to toss the dog to the pound) and Sam (his desire for penance) that left them without a domicile. They weren’t homeless because of a crushing economic system, lack of health or psychiatric care, or even bad luck. Nope – They chose their fate.

Yet, even with Sam and Lavender’s poor choices, the wealth will trickle down just as Ronnie Reagan promised many years ago. Rather than pointing to the grotesque disparity between the rich (and exclusively white) people dominating Molly’s world and the nation’s poor, The Starter Wife gives hope that the wealthy will save the downtrodden. Indeed, helping the homeless is a little like hosting a slumber party for Molly.

Perhaps the most disappointing character of all, though, is Molly’s BFF: Rodney. The show’s official web-site describes Rodney as “Molly's dashing, loyal friend and gay interior decorator extraordinaire,” Consider him a cross between a golden retriever and Dorothy Draper.

Rodney puts a not-so-thick retread on some pretty worn-out stereotypes. I’ll pass on commenting on the obvious (“interior decorator extraordinaire”) and move directly to how Rodney is the new clichéd representation of gay men in film.

Increasingly, gay men exist in film and television as accessories for straight women characters. Unlike many real-life gay men who have strong and equitable friendships with straight women (including myself), the relationships depicted in films like The Starter Wife are decidedly one-sided. Gay men exist in these fictional friendships as selfless (though fussy) caretakers for their hetero gal pals. Rodney provides snappy zingers and expert advice on selecting shoes. He gives a shoulder for Molly’s ever plentiful tears (They, sob!, canceled her spa membership!). Characters like Rodney aren’t there to be real humans. Instead, they are presented as a means to show that the female character is both “hip” and “generous” enough to have a gay man as a friend. They are just mirrors to reflect the straight women’s coolness, wipe away their mascara stains, and highlight their heterosexual desirability.

Most times, gay characters like Rodney aren't even given much dialog. The director usually just tells that actor playing the gay best friend to stand in the corner while the rest of the cast talks about how gay he is. Unless, of course, he happens to be a good-looking actor. Then he will stand in the corner while the rest of the cast talk about what a shame it is that he is gay.

To their credit, the writers did attempt to give Rodney a slight side-story of romantic interest. That’s more than most gay men get on television (Think Debra Messing’s other series). Even if Rodney is allowed a romantic subplot, you get the distinct sense that the writers had no idea what happens when two men date each other. One can imagine the meeting in the writers’ room. “Well,” they would say, “What do gay men think is romantic?” “I don’t know,” another says, “How about criminal stalking?” “Yeah, that’s probably what they do. Let’s go with that. Write it up.”

So, even though Rodney makes it clear that he was not romantically interested in the guy, his accountant lurks around his house, secretly leaves him baked goods on his door, and shows up at his house uninvited (with dinner!). In the last episode, the accountant planned a weekend getaway together with Rodney without, you know, actually asking Rodney if it is okay. According to the show, Rodney seemingly sees this as taking charge and endearing.

Let me tell you, if a guy who I paid to balance my checkbook suddenly showed up at my door with a bag of groceries or booked plane reservations for the two of us without asking me, I would not consider that a romantic gesture. I would consider it a reason to put the police on speed-dial. Healthy gay dating doesn’t start with stalking – unless you are into that. I don’t judge.

Of course, Rodney is also portrayed by a self-identified straight actor. Hollywood still gets a kick out of a straight guy pretending to be gay. Actually, they seem to feel better knowing that the actor is just “pretending” and underneath he is pure heterosexual. A gay man portraying a gay male character apparently isn’t acting at all (because all gay men are basically the same – to be one is to know us all). And we all know that a gay male actor couldn’t possibly portray a straight man.

See – This is why I think Hollywood doesn’t have a clue about how superior gay men are as actors. What do straight actors do when they portray gay men? Well, usually they make lots of kissy noises, adopt a lisp, and add some type of flailing arm gestures. Then they call it a day.

Gay men often spend years studying how to pretend to be a straight man before they come out of the closet. Heck, I deserve an Academy Award for grades 8-10 alone. Because of this, we are also much more authoritative judges on who is portraying a gender that seems authentic to the character.

The Starter Wife ad campaign promised an escapist fantasy and quirky satire. Sadly, it just suggests how little television has advanced in terms of gender and sexuality in the last twenty years. The Starter Wife, in the end, is a not-very-interesting clone of Jackie Collins’ Hollywood Wives.


Dorian said...

Ugh. Shows like this make me glad I don't have cable. (And I don't mean that in a "I'm too intelligent and sophisticated to watch TV" way, but in a "$80 a month for freakin' BASIC? No thanks!" way.)

Debra Messing alone is enough reason to turn me away, but yet another gay "best friend"/accessory character? I hate that character, in all his guises.

Baron Scarpia said...

There's an interesting twist on the 'gay friend' character in Doctor Who, where one of the Doctor's companions, Jack, is bisexual and feels no shame in flirting or sleeping with anyone (gay, straight or blue alien insect) he's mutally attractive to. Jack comes from far in the future where it appears mankind has got over all its sexual hangups. He is also, for want of a better word, 'straight-acting'. I suspect this is an attempt to get away from the cliches surrounding LGB characters.

Intriguingly, the Doctor considers Jack's sexual life unremarkable and certainly not sinful in any way. Considering the Doctor's inherent liberalism, his attitude makes complete sense. Neither is it harped on constantly; it's simply one element of the character.

Jack is portrayed by am openly gay actor, John Barrowman, and is mainly written by the openly gay writer Russell T Davies.

I watch virtually no television so I can't tell how many UK programmes are waving the flag like Doctor Who, but at least there's a slight crack in the wall.

Bill S. said...

From what I understand, Pond's not only sponsored the program: representatives actually participated in its development. So the message the final product delivers is hardly all that surprising.

I am so sick of the Gay Best Friend thing. For a long time, I overlooked being seen as an accessory for the forward-thinking straight women in movies, but as I've gotten older, it's grating on me more and more. I have plenty of straight, female friends, but at no point do they ever ask me to help them decide what to wear. Well, OK, my mom does, but that doesn't count. But I also have gay friends. And, horror of horrors, I have straight, male friends, which I honestly would be more interested in seeing dramatized.

I do not lisp, I do not flail my arms about, and I almost never wear ascots. I am also not portrayed by a straight man.

tornwordo said...

Well I'm glad I don't have to watch that! Was this a half hour show? Because that's quite a commentary if it was.

vuboq said...

Color me clueless, but I have no idea what this Starter Wife thing is. A movie? Comedy series?

Of course, given your review, I'm guessing that not knowing is probably a good thing.

Steven said...

I turned the show off after the first half-hour as I could see that the storyline was going to be somewhat shallow. And I was a bit disheartened (believe it or not) that Debra Messing has allowed herself to be type-cast into a character like this instead of trying to take on more serious or dramatic roles.

pacalaga said...

I tivoed it a while ago and never got around to watching it. Apparently my subconscious was doing me a favor. ;-)
It's interesting to me that you point out that Hollywood likes straight men to play gay characters and not vice versa. I notice a little of the opposite when it comes to women - people want the actress to be what she's portraying. Felicity Huffman (Transamerica), J Lo (Selena), even Rene Zellweger (Beatrix Potter) all got hassled because they had to ACT like they were someone else. Isn't that the whole point of acting?

Les said...

Captain Jack on Dr Who is truly awesome. I would go further than saying the Doctor is accepting and say there was definitely sexual tension between them when Jack returned this season.

The Brian said...

I went from disgusted to intrigued. Your breakdown of the flaws got me interested in how a show could get it all so wrong.

I just finished watching Broadway Melody on TCM and here I was thinking about how far women's roles have come. I guess, not so much.

Doug said...

I suppose not every show can be a winner. "To make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs." I'm not sure who said it first, but it seems to apply to a lot of situations.

The marketing blitz is probably just Ponds doing what it does best: advertise. Oh, and make face cream. Right.

Chad said...

I wonder if you can make the case that this is yet another result of the anti-feminist backlash. I think it owes just as much to this weird fetishism of the very rich, which has always existed but has gotten worse somehow lately.

Rufus said...

So gay men, straight men, the rich, the poor, whites and blacks are all stereotyped in the most insulting ways imaginable? Someone might want to tell Ponds that contempt doesn't sell products very well.

Clio Bluestocking said...

You have deduced the full title of the series: "The Starter Wife: A Study in Modern Regressive Stereotypes. Coming soon and repeatedly to Lifetime, Television for true Women and their pet Gay Male and Magical Negro Female Friends. You go girl!"

GayProf, you watch so we don't have to.

Rebekah said...

To me, it's like a train wreck. I keep coming back to see if it will get better and it just gets worse.

Thank goodness it's only six weeks long.

And you know, there isn't one sympathetic character on that show.

Although, I have to say, looking at the actor playing Sam isn't difficult.

On another note: I would NEVER ask my good friend who happens to be gay (hmmm... wonder who that could be?) for fashion advice. He simply doesn't spend time thinking about it.

MaggieMay said...

Great analysis. Strangely, I had hopes for this series, too... perhaps because I am just so desperate to see gay/straight friendships written and acted in a way that seems at all realistic.

And Clio's last comment cracks me up.

GayProf said...

Dorian: It seems like cable television will soon be outdated as video on demand takes over.

Baron Scarpia: I really need to get into the new Doctor Who. I feel so left out.

Bill S.: Hollywood would be shocked -- SHOCKED -- to learn that gay men are friends with straight men.

TornWordo: While I could easily spin out this length of commentary on a 30 second commercial (I love the sound of my own typing), this show was a miniseries of five or six hours.

VUBOQ: It was a miniseries on the USA network. I am surprised that Pond's didn't hire a skywriter for the D.C. area.

Steven: If I were Messing, I probably would have balked when they told me that 10% of the film time went to product placement.

Pacalaga: You can free up that TiVo space.

Les: Again with the Doctor Who. Sigh -- Now I know how all those non-Battlestar people feel.

The Brian: Being narcissistic, I assumed that you were talking about me until I read your comment further. Though, maybe...

Doug: Well, I don't think anybody is going to be going back to this breakfast bar after the nasty, nasty omelet they cooked up.

Chad: There is a new fetish around the rich. I thought that shit was over when Dallas and Dynasty went off the air. Apparently, no.

Rufus: I am willing to bet that Pond's night cream is selling like hotcakes. We, as a consuming public, seem to like being abused.

Clio: I do it for you -- For all of you. Don't cry for me, blogosphere.

Becky: Sam was hunky -- It helped dull the pain of the show.

I am much more likely to ask my straight women friends for their help in choosing my outfits than vice versa.

MaggieMay: I had hoped for better -- or at least to be entertained. More than anything, The Starter Wife was boring.

James said...


dykewife said...

so, does this mean that you're not going to lay aside that trifling little phd to come here and help me decide whether i should wear my flat ecco sandals or the old walking snearkers? or help me coordinate which tatty t-shirt i should wear with the one pair of sweats that don't have a hole at the bottom of the right leg from the bike gears? my 4 year old cleansing cream that's at the back of the bathroom cupboard is crushed.

i hope the show dies a quick death, but i know it won't. afterall, look how long married with children lasted. *shudder*

lisalogic said...

Wait, wait...ostentatious cosmetics product placement...bitchy female friends..I see...jungle-red! The plot so remindeed me of Cukor's "the women" (which would perfectly match your timeline, since the movie came out 1939). Just as I think, 'who, this is so...outdated', it seems, that I have hit home: Austrian newspaper 'der standard' claims that there will be a remake of the movie as a series (even though the title is not mentioned), involving ... Deborah Messing! It's getting better and better...eventually Julia Roberts will guest-star.

lisalogic said...

um hm, seems I got carried away a bit...after some research it seems 'the women' project is something completely Debra messing gets to rehearse her role? In 'the starter wife'? For 'the women'? Or will the all-cute Meg Ryan carry away the cheating husband and the jungle-red? We cannot tell.

Lacey said...

OK now about that Academy Award...I'm sorry, but I've already claimed that, for ages ten thru fifty!!

Understudy? Oh, OK, SLOW study.

Tenured Radical said...

Honey, you should be watching Army Wives oon the Lifetime channel. Now that's fun. And the husbadn of hte lieutentant colonel with battle fatigue is most certainly gay, but properly closeted, as all army husbands should be.


Castle of Stink said...

I have to disagree with you on this one, gayprof! Not that almost everything that you said isn't true. It is. However, I think your expectations were part of the problem...

USA did promote the series as a "sexy, savvy comedy". That's a big part of the problem.

Gigi Levangie Grazer is the author. She also wrote the screenplay for "Step-Mom". She attended Hollywood High and was a cheerleader and was offered a job by Aaron Spelling very early on. I think she epitomizes the empty, vapid sort of life that The Starter Wife portrays. So, I think the script (and the characters) represent that shallowness.

I see the mini-series as a shallow, idealized view of the world through the writer's eyes, and as a reflection of that spoiled, entitled group, I find the whole thing fascinating. The prime example is the Shangri-la that is made of the homeless guy's living spot--it's more like some exotic outdoor retreat in Tahiti that would cost a thousand a night.

And, finally, I find Debra Messing very watchable. Granted, the character lacks depth and can do no wrong in this world, but Messing brings a quirkiness and a charm to her roles that I find hard to resist (even in those bad films she insists on doing).

The observations you made about the show are correct, I just see them from a different perspective.