The Moth Chase

Elevating the Art of Procrastanalysis – Academics wasting time on pop culture

Bless the Woman, Bless the Child

with 2 comments

Dear Natalie,

In the midst of our various TV conversations this fall, we’ve drawn comparisons and connections between many of the women characters on these several shows. In this season, replete with womanly virtues and meta-narratives, it seems a ripe time to try our hands at our own meta-reflections on the various visions of womanhood offered to us in this present moment of televised fiction.

Like the Madonna whose virtues and story billions of people will celebrate in the next few days, many of the leading ladies we’ve been loving or loathing are caught up in a bind of ideal femininity transformed by the excesses of consumerism into a stunted, childish version of adulthood. We recognize the type when we see it: women so fueled by desire for middle class stability, represented in the perfect home, the perfect marriage, the perfect family, that they are reduced to shrills, naggers, and whiners. There seems to be at least one on every sitcom made in the last 30 years. And if the main woman on these serialized soundbite comedies escape this stereotype, it is only because they have to play mother to their even more infantile husbands (which is to say, men can fall prey to the infantalizing excesses of consumerism too, but that is another conversation).

In the shows we’ve been tracking this type is exemplified in characters as diverse as Rita on Dexter and Terri on Glee.  I first started thinking about this when both of us confessed, somewhat shamefacedly, that we liked Rita so much more when she was a broken, wounded soul, Dexter’s equal in the effort to fake a normal life. The transformation from wounded companion to nagging wife was so swift and complete this last season, and so intimately tied to her ascendancy to middle class paradise, it was hard not to dislike her, even if that dislike still didn’t warrant the season’s end. Rita was always something of a child – helpless, naive, vulnerable to the machinations of wicked men – but she was never as childish as when she finally had the material comforts that were supposed to represent adulthood, but none of the character development that allowed her to actually lead an adult life (and by that, I suppose I mean something like the capacity to discriminate, judge, and act for herself, against the pressures and demands of a pre-packaged suburban life). Which is why, I think, we were both so excited by the prospect of her adultery. At least there was the hope that she would be forced to confront her own unwieldy desires and do something besides just react and respond (even if, at least since that quintessential woman/child adulterer Anna Karenina popularized the part, adultery forms a predictable act in the middle class script). It is also what made the ending of this season so striking: in that shocking ending, she is transformed from nagging child-wife, to beatified mother – madonna and child coming together in her death.

Perhaps in an effort to parody this pattern of saintly motherhood and childish womanhood, Terri was such a delight in her over-the-top horribleness. She is trapped in her own high school melodrama, desperate to be that 16-year-old girl forever, trying to hold on to her marriage, not presumably because she cares about Will in any of his particularity, but because her marriage to Will is a necessary accessory to the life she imagines she deserves, much like the bigger house she angles and fights for. I loved the evil Terri because she made the childishness of these suburban fantasies so transparent. And I was frustrated by the sudden desire to make a “real” character out of her near the end of the fall run because such a move capitulates to these stereotypes instead of playing with them and exposing their ridiculousness. I guess I never thought we were supposed to think of Terri (or Will or anyone on the show for that matter) as “real” characters in a “serious” comedy-drama, but were supposed to embrace their two-dimensional natures and fast and loose characterizations, much like the amazing family in Arrested Development, which was able to comment more profoundly on suburban family life than any other recent sitcom, precisely because it took those stock characters and exploded them to their outer limits.

In all the shows we’ve discussed together, I saw an origin point to the vision of suburban womanhood stunted by manufactured consumer desires in Trixie of Deadwood. I loved Trixie all the way through the series, but I found her increasingly difficult to watch as the show progressed: namely as she strives to achieve something like economic autonomy. She gets shriller, angrier, and in a way more childish as she leaves Al’s protection and oscillates between terror and exhilaration at her own freedom. As we discussed in our brief conversation about Deadwood, if that show is in some ways about the birth of free market capitalism, the brunt of that birth is born by women, and by the violence inflicted on women in order to create the new order. Trixie represents this and the schizophrenic desires it produces: new potential for autonomy but also new pressures to conform to or be crushed by a rising respectability.

What might alternatives to these narratives be? Interestingly, some of the best examples we’ve seen are in the supernaturally haunted women of Vampire Diaries and True Blood. Perhaps the afterlife of the undead represent a way out of the trap of suburban hell. If you are too busy worrying if your lover will kill you, or someone else, or if your best friend’s ghostly ancestor will unleash 27 starving vampires on an unsuspecting town, it kind of makes the question of what to bring to the neighborhood pool party pretty insignificant. This is just one of the things I love about the realm of supernatural fiction – the light they shine on the insignificance of many things that otherwise require so much time and energy. And the way they can inspire a kind of love and longing for those homey desires, superficial though they may be. It might be true that suburban pool parties and car pools are a sad thing to build an entire inner life around, but they are also the only chance at community, fellowship, and common feeling many people (on and off TV) have access to. For that very reason the very lifestyles that can cripple these women characters into childish stereotypes are also the only stage they have for working out an alternative.

I’ve already gone on way too long and probably too incoherently (the pressures of my own middle class family commitments make writing this blog a piecemeal affair). There is much more to say, about other women on these shows, as well as other women on other shows. For instance, there are other threads that might tie our female characters together, especially if we started with, say, Quinn from Glee, Elena from Vampire Diaries, and Becca from Californication instead. I look forward to hearing what you might be thinking about all this, either on my own reflections or an entirely other track.

In the meantime – happy Christmas and may the graces of the season, womanly and otherwise, be with you and yours.

xoxo,

K

Dear Kathryn,

Thanks so much for starting this conversation!  You’re right, we’ve been so captivated and frustrated by so many of the women in these shows; it’s definitely worth a discussion!  And, yes, I had forgotten that our own ruminations regarding women on tv began with Trixie and our frustration both with her as she tried to step out into her own economic independence and with ourselves at being mad at her as she did so.  She was just so mean to Saul, acting constantly out of fear and pettiness rather than any sort of confidence or self-assuredness.  And it drove me nuts!

And of course, we’ve been endlessly frustrated with Rita.  Even though she was a broken mess in season 1, at least she was seeking to discover some self-determined desires and some stabs at authentic relationality.  By this current season, she seems much more interested, as you say, in a pre-programmed suburban dream than engaging her own desire.  Sure, it was wrong for her to kiss Elliot, but at least for a moment she was complex again.  At least for a moment she was taking risks with her emotions again rather than trying to wrap up her shrill complaints with a plastic smile.

So what’s the difference between the way in which Trixie conflates her romantic dream with her economic one, and the way in which Rita does the same? 

Trixie’s trade was her sexualized (and feminized) body.  And in moving from life as Al’s property to life as Saul’s sexual partner and professional protégé, her sex becomes relational as her trade becomes economic (literally – she keeps the books for his business).  In her public identity, the sexual gets separated from the economic but, at the same time, by playing house with Saul, sex and economy still remain somewhat connected.  Which is where I think much of the ambivalence she feels for Saul comes from.  For all the ways she is finally able to separate her sex from economy, they are also still linked – and she sees the injustice in that. 

What frustrates me with this is that I want her to respond with self-determination; with a self-assured reclamation of her public position and a loving response to accepting what Saul offers (what she wants) and changing what she doesn’t want.  And even as I feel that frustration, I realize that’s not really a possibility for her; that in the struggle to survive, she’s deploying every form of power she can grasp…even ugly forms.  And the real reason I’m frustrated with that is because it’s such an accurate picture – in places of oppression, pulling oneself up is rarely able to be done with dignity.  It’s, in fact, a much scrappier process than dignity allows.

So Rita – she’s different.  Rita began as an asexual character.  That’s what made her safe for Dexter who, at first, was also asexual.  In fact, when Rita found her sexuality, that messed things up for Dexter, and that was super fun to watch!  And so even the genesis of sexual desire was, for her, relational.  And Rita works or, at least, she did.  She was a badass single mother who supported her kids, raised them creatively, and found time to have a relationship.  Then she gets married and can’t do much of anything. 

Trixie’s and Rita’s paths to domestic partnership are different, and what frustrates us about each is different too.  Sure, they’re both mean to their partners, and that’s annoying.  But the cause of their meanness is different and that’s what makes me like Trixie more. 

Trixie is seeking independence and she fears that loving Saul will undermine that possibility, so she struggles against him.  Rita is seeking to give up her independence – she wants to be utterly dependent on Dexter and she’s mean to him because he doesn’t perfectly fit the mold of what she is seeking to control him into. 

Of course, Dexter’s no prize, and that needs to be mentioned.  A lot of the Rita-haters out there get mad at her because she tries to make Dex come home at night, and then they get frustrated because she nags him after a hard day at work.  What those folks fail to notice is that Dexter hasn’t actually worked a full day at his job, but that he’s worked at killing people…so, I’m sort of with Rita on this – one wishes one’s husband could make it home to help around the house rather than hack up bad guys, for sure!

But if we’re mad at Trixie because the by-product of her independence is annoying meanness and we’re mad at Rita because she’s annoyingly mean in order to be able to give up her independence, I have to wonder how that relates to their fates. 

Trixie is supposed to be killed because she acts too independently – she takes it into her own hands to shoot Hearst.  But her spunkiness is what makes her loved and thus protected.  The fact that she has separated herself from the other women as a person, not a possession, is what saves her life; it’s what makes Al kill one of his many woman-possessions instead. 

Rita, on the other hand, winds up dead and, in a strange way, and while very sad, it makes sense.  She’s so willingly sacrificed so much of her selfhood, her identity and agency – who she is as a person – for her relationship with Dexter, it almost makes sense that she’d end up sacrificing her actual life too. 

But this over-sacrifice or willing sacrifice certainly doesn’t happen only with Rita.  Indeed, Trixie is in the minority, I think, in her unwillingness to give up selfhood for a male counterpart.  We’ve certainly saw it with Christine and her sacrifice for her father; all the women on Lost continually submit their own power and ability to the men; Karen on Californication used to preserve selfhood, but we’ve noted that this season she’s gradually given it away (not to mention all the other women on Californication); Pam has become more and more annoying and boring on The Office. 

And the women who aren’t willing to do this are 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, Glee’s Teri or Sue, Californication’s Marcy, Dexter’s Deb…all the single ladies; the ladies who can’t hold together a relationship! 

When we take Twilight’s Bella out of the equation, you might be right about the vampire-lovers.  Facing supernatural danger, these women seriously consider preservation of their own lives – of the sense of self they want to maintain – and that makes for some much more interesting women!

Merry Christmas, Kathryn – I hope you had a wonderful day with family!

oxo,
Natalie

Written by themothchase

December 24, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Posted in Dexter

Tagged with , , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Interesting analysis of Rita from Dexter. I don’t watch Glee or Deadwood or any of the vampire shows, but I have to agree with your frustrations about Rita, because I really didn’t want to dislike Rita and it actually made me resent the writers for what they’d turned her into in season four. I do still defend her, though, because I fell in love with her in season one and because it’s hard to fault her for wanting a husband who’s physically and emotionally present, especially when we know the truth about Dexter, and for wanting what she didn’t have with her abusive ex. In the first season we saw how easy it would have been for Rita to fall into that same old routine with Paul, thinking that he would change and that she would one day get the fantasy she wanted, so it was frustrating to see her do almost the same with Dexter. It was interesting to see Dexter realize in the fifth season premiere that what Rita wanted was something he could never give her, and I actually got chills up my spine when he said that what she deserved was her dream life and a white picket fence, and what she got instead was him.

    Jen

    January 31, 2011 at 4:31 pm

  2. […] continues to intrigue me! I see Andrea trying to undo this, but I think we might need to add her to that post we did on women and power and annoying female characters, Kathryn). I tend to agree with Shane’s assessment of nostalgia, though. Nostalgia isn’t the same as […]


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