Thursday, February 28, 2008

Lipstick Jungle vs. Cashmere Mafia

Two sets of women are in a rumble on 5th Avenue, to determine the show to take the title of Sex and the City replacement. In one corner, Cashmere Mafia on ABC, co-created by Darren Star who co-produced SATC, Beverly Hills 90210, and Melrose Place.

In the other corner, NBC's Lipstick Jungle has the disadvantage of starting a few weeks later (it's only on episode 4) but will now catch up as CM has aired all 7 episodes it made before the writers strike began. Candace Bushnell, who wrote the book of the same name, and executive produces, is of course the author and co-producer of SATC.

The big names in each are Lucy Liu on CM and Brooke Shields on LJ. Of the two, Liu is so far more likeable, but Shields is doing a more interesting job in her role than she did on Suddenly Susan.

What I'm enjoying is how much the shows are focusing on the work worlds of the women. It's not just about their sex lives. However, each show has a story line about one of the women dating a billionaire, which in my mind undermines the whole point of having a show about strong, successful women.

These women want to WIN at everything, and that's great. How their male partners fit in is the lingering question. One character points out: "Men want to console you - they want to say 'Don't worry honey, you'll win next time.'"

Maybe I'm naiive, but Cashmere Mafia at least seems stuck in an earlier era of gender wars. One woman asks "Do you know how hard it is for men to be married to us? We are so far from their ideal wife." Really? Do modern men still expect all of them will make more than their wives? Odds are, they won't. A recent Families and Work Institute Study shows that of working married women, 48% provide half or more of the household income.

In a bizarre open letter to her ex (via an editor's column), Lucy Liu's character, Mia Mason, asks for the Modern Man to accept that women are going to be not just his office mates but his boss, and that "more women" will be entering the workforce.

?? This is a letter from 1978, not 2008!

But overall, there's more humour in Cashmere Mafia. In the last episode, Mia's boyfriend falls asleep on her in bed and she gets rejected as a dog guardian. By the end of the episode, she's dumped the BF and gotten the dog.

Or when one mom quits her job because she got passed over for a promotion, a male co-worker critiques her: "Typical move for a mommy - run back to the playground when things get too rough in the office." In response, she hits him in the head with her son's soccer ball.
Lipstick Jungle contains more over-the-top dramatics like writing "Bitch" on a fur, or spilling red wine on a competitor's desk. It uses harsher, darker colours and settings.

The shows definitely want to nail down what it is to be female in the 21st century. Mia says, "I just want [my relationship] to be easy. I just want to come first." Her friend replies, "Don't we all."

These "Don't we all" moments are dangerous - there is no such thing as What (All) Women Want. And yet, there is something irresistable in defining larger sociological trends. Says one woman: "It's the classic mother war: We make Stay at Homes feel inferior for being throwbacks for living off their spouses. They make us feel guilty for not eliminating everything from our lives but our children."

I was sad that the lesbian story line on CM was killed, especially since it was also an all-too-rare inter-racial relationship. (Interestingly, The L Word is a show that overcomes that taboo all the time. Maybe breaking down one barrier leads to breaking down another?)

There are several unrealistic moments, like a woman kissing another woman whose sexual preference has not yet been established - right on the street. And New York power women who can say yes to dinner the next night.

The strongest theme running through each show, which I think is the secret to these shows, is paying homage to female friendship. The characters may be let down by men, but never by their women friends. The women on these shows give each other advice, help each other in big ways and small, and generally have each other's backs. That these women are able to make time for each other in the middle of family and work obligations is a fantasy for most of us, but an appealing one. The success of shows like Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives suggests that if we don't have this in our Real Lives, it's something many of us crave, and if we can't gather our Real friends around us for weekly gatherings, at least we can gather our tv friends.

The only question is, which clique will prove more popular? CM had much stronger opening numbers (10.7 vs. 7.5 million viewers), but by the third ep, both have settled down to 5-6 million, both third in their respective timeslots. Are they splitting viewers, or are women trying on both groups of friends to see who they like best? Maybe this will tip the scale: Cashmere Mafia gives us four friends for our hour's investment, while Lipstick Jungle gives us only three.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Cody, Oliver, Jenkins

Congratulations to Diablo Cody for winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Her acceptance speech was gracious and sincere, and I wish her well following up all the hype with her next project. And even she admits that a lot of her recognition has come from "the cheesy backstory" of her research as a stripper. I'm hoping her new description in news articles will be "Oscar winner Diablo Cody" rather than "stripper-turned-screenwriter" Diablo Cody.

I actually thought Nancy Oliver's script and story for Lars and the Real Girl was more compelling and moving. For me, the characters in Lars were more emotionally nuanced than those in Juno. Ryan Gosling should have been nominated for best actor for his performance in the title role. And two great women help him move through the emotional and psychological box he gets trapped in. Lars' sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) literally tackles him to get him to come out of his shell, and the doctor, played by the ever-wonderful Patricia Clarkson, who works with Lars, but also with Lars's brother Gus, to help him try to understand what Lars is going through, and come to terms with his own role in the family history.

Scene from Lars & the Real Girl

Of the three original screenplays written by women, the characters in The Savages are the least emotional accessible, though they are dealing with the painful life moment of placing a dying, demented loved one in a nursing home. Of course Hoffman and Linney are terrific in their roles, and the dialogue and situations do feel very "real," compared to some of the more playful moments in Lars and Juno.

The National Board of Review agrees with me - they awarded Oliver best original screenplay. The WGA, while also nominating Oliver and Jenkins, also went with Cody. Jenkins took home the Indie Spirit award.

Cody is not resting on her laurels. She's writing a television series for Showtime called The United States of Tara, about a woman with an identity disorder. Her film Jennifer's Body, about a demon-possessed cheerleader, is in production, and Universal has bought another script. Jenkins hasn't reported what she's working on next, though she hopes that it's not another nine year process between films.

After writing Lars, Oliver wrote and produced several of the complex tales that made up Six Feet Under. She's now working with Alan Ball on his new series True Blood, about a mind-reading bartender and her dealings with vampires, based on the novels by Charlaine Harris.

And while it's great to celebrate the women writers this year, the reality is that only 20% of the WGA's film members are women. And only 3 women have been nominated for directing in the history of the Academy Awards (Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, Jane Campion for The Piano and Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties).

What's been great is the mutual respect among the nominees. From Cody's speech:
I especially want to thank my fellow nominees because I worship you guys and I'm learning from you every day.

Having these nominees and winners helps women filmmakers out there learn that it's possible.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Week the Women Went

The production company Paperny Films claims their show The Week the Women Went (on CBC Monday nights) "looks at the roles of men and women in the 21st century. We are interested in what each gender does at home, at work and in the community."

But by picking a small town, the show has chosen a place where the career roles for women are more limited than their city-living 21st century sisters. Many of the men work for the oil companies, often gone for days or weeks at a time. The majority of women shown on the series stay home and raise the kids. A few help run family businesses. One works part-time at the post office, one at the library, a couple at the hospital, and two run beauty salons from their homes. One woman wanted to be a veterinarian when she was a teenager, but she got pregnant and has not yet made it back to school, though she works on their sheep farm. The single moms on the show have multiple jobs to raise their kids.

To be fair, the cost of living in cities is such that parents who want the option of staying home with their kids often have to work to pay for the city housing costs and lifestyle. And it would definitely be interesting to see how city-dwelling women would describe their male partners' contribution to child-raising and house-cleaning.

One of the teenage girls we meet says she plans to find out - she wants to get out of town the second she graduates from high school. She's also realized that having sex with the local boys isn't necessarily the best way to spend her time, especially if she wants to make sure she gets out.

What's eye-opening is that the show leaves no doubt that leaving the men home alone with the kids for a few hours, let alone a week, is for many of the women, an unusual occurrence, even in the 21st century. Several remark that this is the first time in years that they've been away from the responsibilities of childcare.

The bonding of the women while away from their daily duties is so-far an underplayed part of the show. One woman is working her way back into the group after gossip left her an outcast. When another woman falls in the water on a rafting trip, the group tries to rescue her, and comforts her when she gets back in. Seeing the men back in town get together to work on a community project brings home the point that the point of living in a small town is that you don't need to arrange bonding to get people to come together to help each other out.

While several of the women complain at levels ranging from of good natured to bitter about the lack of men's interest in child-raising or helping around the house, many of them also describe their strong partnership and mutual devotion.

In the first couple of days of the week, the men have so far projected that "It shouldn't be too hard" to do any any of the challenges they face -- what it will be like without the women, creating a gazebo for the town centre, or planning a wedding in a week. The question hanging in the air is whether their bravado will hold up as the week goes on and they have to put the kids to bed for more than one night.

Participants and viewers of the show have gotten a good discussion going over at the CBC blog. In one thread, a man asks when CBC will air a show on "The Week the Men Went"? A few of the female respondents reply that men always get to leave - for work, fishing trips, or just leaving their families. For many of the women on the show, this is their first, but hopefully not the last, chance to have some time for just themselves. I hope we'll see more of what they talk about and discover in this time on their own and with other women.