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
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.