The news regarding women directors of fictional films in Hollywood continues to be bleak: in 2007, only 6 percent of these films were directed by women. But the non-fiction film world is a whole different story. While no one has exact figures, anecdotally most experts in the documentary community believe that women directors make up at least 50 percent of the directing ranks. Take a look at all the major film festivals that include documentaries and you will see women's names as prominent as the men's.
Lisa Jackson is a woman on a mission. She is determined to relay testimony from the thousands of women of the Congo who were raped and mutilated during many years of war. Like the team of producer Abby Disney and director Gini Retiker -- who tell how the courageous women of Liberia stood up and said no more to war -- Jackson is part of a growing movement of women filmmakers who, as Cara Mertes of Sundance notes, are making an impact by "matching their passion for storytelling with an issue."
They are pushing the boundaries of the documentary form by taking on daunting, large-scale topics and exploring them through intimate, relatable stories. Abby Disney was in Liberia for the inauguration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first African female head of state. Moved by the legions of women behind the Sirleaf victory, Disney felt compelled to bring the story to the public so it would not disappear. She used her own funds to start a production company and hooked up with Retiker to make Pray the Devil Back to Hell. She is now exploring the best distribution mechanism for the film, which recently premiered and took the best documentary feature prize at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film has already made its way to such countries in conflict as Georgia and Sudan, where women use screenings to help create their own peace movements.
Jackson, a 35-year doc veteran, had no funding when she began filming The Greatest Silence. She cashed in her own frequent flyer miles to get to Kinshasa. Once there, she got a U.N. ID from a friend and made her way east. As she said in a recent interview "I was a one-person band. I shot it, did the sound, directed, and edited it." Her experience told her "that once I got over there and started filming, I would get support. People would see the women's faces and hear their stories and realize what a compelling subject it was." Now these women's stories have gone mainstream. Jackson's film premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival (where it was awarded a special prize), aired on HBO and will be shown June 19 at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York.
So how come women documentarians have achieved a success that has eluded those in the fiction business? It could be because "a lot of the funders in the broadcast world are also women," says Sean Farnel, the programming director at Hot Docs, one of the big documentary festivals in Canada. It's true. Everywhere you look there are women -- from Sheila Nevins and her team that run HBO's documentary division; to the three-year-old women-run producing/funding entity Chicken and Egg Pictures, which, in a variety of ways, has supported 37 women-directed films (including Lioness and Going on 13, which both premiered recently at the Tribeca Film Festival); to Women Make Movies, which has been distributing, promoting and producing films by and about women since 1972.
Another reason is not so upbeat: documentaries have lower budgets, smaller staffs and, in turn, less prestige. Cara Mertes, director of the documentary film program at the Sundance Institute, says that the doc field "is notoriously not a good way to make a living and men tend to be interested in things where there is a lot of potential for a pay-off so they will gravitate towards fictional films."
Women have been an integral part of formation of the documentary genre, with veterans like Barbara Kopple, Kim Longinotto, Chris Hegedus and Lourdes Portillo leading the way. In the 1970s, women picked up cameras to document the feminist tumult happening around them. They have traversed the abortion rights struggle since Roe with films like Dorothy Fadiman's definitive series (including The Fragile Promise of Choice and From Danger to Dignity); Jane: An Abortion Service by Kate Kurtz and Nell Lundy; and On Hostile Ground by Liz Mermin and Jenny Raskin.
Now, when abortion doesn't get as much media attention, women filmmakers keep focus on the issue with evolving views. Gillian Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgardner used women's voices and experiences to make I Had an Abortion. Faith Pennick felt compelled to make Silent Choices, about African-American women and abortion, after a friend said that "abortion is a white women's issue and black women have more important things to worry about." Pennick knew full well that "if Roe v Wade were overturned tomorrow it's going to be black and brown women who will be affected first and hardest." Angie Young took her camera to South Dakota while working against that state's attempt to ban abortion. As only someone who grew up post-Roe can do, she is making The Coat Hanger Project to speak to her peers who know little if anything about abortion rights.
Documentaries have always been a crucial way to get information out about media neglected issues and lives, especially from the world's poorer countries. This function has been helped along in recent years by the rise of the Internet and improved technologies like smaller digital cameras and computer home editing programs.
Several films telling women's stories with international focus have been able to garner attention precisely because of little competing coverage from mainstream media. Women have been using docs to engage the media at least since the early 1990s, when Alice Walker went on the Today show and spoke about female genital mutilation in conjunction with the documentary Warrior Marks. When Lourdes Portillo's film Senorita Extraviada was released in 2002, it prodded the media to cover the missing and murdered young women in Juarez, Mexico.
The list of films women make to awaken the world is too plentiful to name them all here. There is the Oscar-winning Born into Brothels (co-directed by Zana Briski) about the children of prostitutes in Calcutta and God Sleeps in Rwanda (directed by Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman) about five women rebuilding their lives after the Rwandan genocide; more recent are The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo (directed by Lisa F. Jackson), Pray the Devil Back to Hell (directed by Gini Retiker) about how women were integral in the fight for peace in Liberia, and The Sari Soldiers (directed by Julie Bridgham), which highlights six women on different sides of the Nepali conflict trying to remake their country and has its U.S. premiere June 20 at the New York Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.
But making these documentaries -- like many ventures centering on women -- is very hard to fund. Even a film with the high profile subject of women in the U.S. Senate was nearly impossible for one entertainment business insider. Mary Lambert had spent most of her life in the music video world working with stars like Madonna and Janet Jackson. She was drawn to make a documentary about the women in the Senate when her sister Blanche Lambert Lincoln won election from Arkansas. What she thought would be a simple project "has proved to be one of the most difficult things I have done in my life."
14 Women, like so many others featured at film festivals around the world, does not yet have distribution for either TV or the theaters. But such filmmakers are undaunted, believing deeply in the importance of the stories they are telling. They use grass roots outreach and innovative techniques on the Internet to give their films lives beyond the festival circuit. Carol Ciancutti-Leyva, whose film Absolutely Safe examines safety problems with breast implants, reached out through women's studies program to create a conversation among young women and men. "Breast implants are just a symptom in the culture," she says. "The bigger picture is something much larger. "Amy Sewell and Susan Toffler have decided to self-distribute their film -- what's your point, honey? -- which looks at seven young women and the future of women's political leadership. Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake, the director and producer of The Business of Being Born, felt compelled to "provide more resources and information to people who were stirred up by the film. We are slowly growing our website into a birth resource guide for more holistic childbirth options," says Epstein "and we are coming out with a book and sequel DVD next year."
In a movie world dominated by escapist fare, women documentarians are making sure that women's voices and experiences are part of the conversation. Seek out their films on TV stations like A&E, Discovery, HBO, Showtime, Sundance, IFC, and especially PBS. Others can be found on Netflix or for purchase on the web, or join Women's Independent Cinema where for $21 a month (plus shipping) you can get four films by women (one fiction, one doc and two shorts) sent right to your home. These documentaries may be hard to find, but it will be worth the effort.
Unless you've been under a rock for the last week or so you know that the women from the TV show Sex and the City are back, this time on the big screen. Four years after we said goodbye to Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte, the women have taken the movie industry and the country by storm, besting all projections with an opening weekend take of almost $56 million dollars.
Sex and the City made almost $27 million on its opening day, which is the same amount that The Devil Wears Prada made in its opening weekend. It earned the highest opening box office for a romantic comedy ever. The most stunning news is that it won the weekend by beating Indiana Jones, a feat not even the most optimistic observers predicted. Variety reported that "Sex and the City whips Indiana Jones" and went further, stating that the "film's performance took Hollywood by utter surprise, shattering the decades-old thinking that females, particularly those over 25, can't fuel a big opening or go up against a male-driven summer tentpole."
Carrie & Co. have sent Hollywood into a frenzy -- and according to website Deadline Hollywood "looking through their film and TV libraries to see what else they can produce for the fortysomething-and-older female" -- thinking that maybe women, even those over 40, are a real potential audience. Finally.
Whatever your thoughts on the actual content of Sex and the City, you can't help but acknowledge that this is a cultural watershed moment for women's films; that's true for a couple of reasons.
- Everyone (who talks about movies) has spent the last couple of weeks discussing a film that stars and celebrates women and women's friendships. Indiana Jones, which has two of the most successful moviemakers attached to it in George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, is so yesterday's news, just one week after being released after an almost 20 year wait!
- Everyone (who talks about movies) was scratching their heads trying to figure out how much money an R rated movie targeted at adult women could make. Imagine, women preoccupying the minds of Hollywood's men. The New York Times reported that studio execs were shocked at the interest.
- The male misogynists in the film blogosphere have outed themselves in a big way with their extreme meanness about the film, one actually calling it a "Taliban recruitment film."
- The film sold 1 million advance tickets through Fandango, at one point selling 10 tickets per second.
Harry Medved of Fandango monitored the growing interest and excitement: "We haven't seen anything like this before -- it's unusual for a female driven movie to inspire so much fan anticipation." In a survey on Fandango, 71% of the 10,000 respondents said that Hollywood does not create enough movies for adult females. They've got a point there: in 2007 only five of the top 50 grossing films starred or were focused on women and in 2006 the number was three.
But even in its overwhelming success, it's hard not to be disturbed by the double standard this film has been held to and the nasty tone in the media last week. So few films are targeted at women that when one is, it is held to an unreasonable high standard. The women's film world got lucky this time, and the movie was a success; but this film became more that a movie, it became an event. What happens to the next film about women that doesn't engender this event-like status?
Additionally, the gendered marketing campaign placed the burden of success directly on the wallets of women. No other film has that burden. As Philadelphia Inquirer movie critic and blogger Carrie Rickey said on her site last week: "Remember when movies -- and books -- were mass-marketed? When studios assumed that moviegoers were equally interested in Working Girl as Superman?"
Think about last year's hit film Wild Hogs. It was about four guys, including Tim Allen and John Travolta, on a middle-age road trip. The film opened in March 2007 to $40 million. This was not a film targeted at women, but women went to see it. The point is that women never got the impression that seeing a movie about four guys going through a mid-life crisis was not worthy of our time or money, the way Sex and the City was described to men.
No movie about men or starring men has ever had to deal with headlines like "Can Women Alone Make Sex and the City a Hit?" (AP); "Sex sells, but will men see City?" (Variety); Time Out NY ran a cover photo which had duct tape over the four women's mouths with the headline: "No Sex! Enough Already -- we love 'em, but it's just too much." As Carrie Rickey said, "the personal attacks on Sarah Jessica Parker not being conventionally beautiful are creepy. Why is it OK to be unconventional if you're a guy (Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Will Smith) but not a gal?"
All detractors aside, women proved themselves as a force this weekend as never before. Sarah Jessica Parker, the star and one of the producers of the film, knew that her film could have wide implications in the industry. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly she said: "I want people to make good movies for women of all ages, whether they're 11 or 68 years old. I want to convince those people who hold the purse strings that it's worth their money and their time. I want to be part of proving that."
You sure did.
This article was originally posted by The Women's Media Center at www.womensmediacenter.com. The WMC is a non-profit organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, dedicated to making the female half of the world visible and powerful in the media.
The summer movie season kicks off this weekend with Spiderman 3 descending onto thousands of screens at a multiplex near you. Hollywood prognosticators predict the biggest grossing summer ever with such sequels as the Pirates of the Caribbean, Fantastic Four, Harry Potter Die Hard and Shrek among others opening over the next three months.
As an alternative to this mostly teen-targeted fare, look beyond the multiplex for films that highlight women's stories. They also feature women as writers and directors, which is no accident. With women directors virtually shut out from the big budget films-according to the 2006 study from Dr. Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University, women directors account for just 7% of the top 250 films released, the same as 2005-the independent cinema world has become their place to thrive. Granted, thriving might be a stretch, but at least they are present. Less likely to receive offers of many films to direct, much less la crÃƒÂ¨me de la crÃƒÂ¨me, women are more likely to write scripts that they in turn can direct. Ironically, this dearth of opportunity at the highest level has created a wealth of stories of interest to women on the indie circuit.
Three films that illustrate the richness of women's contributions to independent cinema are currently in limited release: Waitress, Away From Her and Stephanie Daley. (If you can't find them in your neighborhood, complain to your local theatre.) Each film is written and directed by a woman and gives prominence to women's issues in different, provocative ways.
Adrienne Shelly is the director who was murdered November 1, 2006, in New York City. Her third, and final, feature Waitress tells the story of Jenna (played by Keri Russell), an unhappily married woman who finds herself pregnant. Shelley wrote the story when she was eight months pregnant and full of questions about the life she would lead after the birth of her daughter. In fact, the process of making Waitress led to her most creative period.
Sadly, Shelley died before she found out her film was accepted into Sundance where it was embraced by both critics and the festival audience. Shelley uses the film to ask classic feminist questions that many women face alone as they go through pregnancy-especially those caught in abusive relationships. Jenna wonders why women are universally expected to be happy about pregnancy while she has a fleeting thought about selling the baby. Being pregnant enhances her fear of being stuck forever with her tormentor husband Earl. "How lonely it is to be a woman so poor and so afraid," she remarks, imagining others caught in the same predicament as she discovers her own talents and works her way through these issues.
Stephanie Daley, the second feature to be written and directed by Hilary Brougher, deals with pregnancy and childbirth in a profoundly different way. Amber Tamblyn stars as Stephanie, a 16-year-old girl about to go on trial for killing her baby. Tilda Swinton plays Lydie Crane, a forensic psychologist hired by the prosecutors to determine whether Stephanie knew she was pregnant before giving birth on a school ski trip. Lydie, herself 29 weeks pregnant, had conceived just three months after suffering a stillbirth. Brougher fluidly addresses such hot button issues as sex education, abstinence, the role of religion, and abortion as well as teen pregnancy in the story without one ounce of preaching. Lydie, in her late 30s or early 40s, knows that the window is closing on her ability to have kids and is convinced her husband is sleeping with someone else. She is guilty about the loss of a baby she never grieved for and nervous that her body is once again going to betray her.
But it is the relationship between Stephanie and Lydie that is at the heart of the movie, as Stephanie doggedly sticks to the belief that she never knew she was pregnant-an all too common occurrence nowadays. The resolution of the story is handled with impressive tact and challenges the moviegoer in ways that most movies are not interested in doing.
Away From Her , at the other end of life's spectrum, deals with the challenges faced by a woman descending into the haze of Alzheimer's. This is the first feature directed by 28-year-old indie actress Sarah Polley, which she adapted from Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." Polley immediately pictured Julie Christie in the role of Fiona Andersson, and, happily for her audience, she succeeded in a heated pursuit to get the semi-retired actress to take on the role. Fiona has lived a contented life and settled into a comfortable retirement with her husband of 44 years. As they both become increasingly aware of her forgetfulness, Fiona makes the decision to enter a long-term care facility-her legacy to her husband, who will not be burdened with her care. Both Christie and Gordon Pinsent, who plays her husband Grant, are extraordinary as we see the loss on both their faces as he leaves her at the facility, neither of them knowing what to do next. This film defies Hollywood's conventions, featuring a couple at the end of a long marriage and refusing to gloss over either their pain or their wrinkles. Polley brings the same intensity and emotion to directing as she does to her acting. May this be the first of many films with her at the helm.
These films are just a sampling of the depth and breadth of women's vision onscreen. Other movies to look for this summer-featuring women's stories but not directed by women-include: Georgia Rule, Gracie, La Vie En Rose, Evening, A Mighty Heart, Broken English, Fay Grim, No Reservations, Becoming Jane and Bordertown. As long as it remains difficult for women to get financing to make their films, and doubly so when those films focus on women's issues, filmgoers need to seek out these movies that reflect their interests and sensibilities.
Three years into the Iraq War, the American public is making next weekÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s election a national referendum on the policies that got us there and seem to offer no end in sight. In a democratic culture with free speech at its core, one of the earliest challenges to those policies came from an unlikely source: three Texas-bred women called the Dixie Chicks. They may not have seen themselves as a political band, or even political people, when they made their antiwar feelings clear on the eve of the invasion at a March 2003 concert in London. But they put themselves squarely against the momentum growing in the country music/red state community, which was lining up behind the governmentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s march to war.
The story of what happened to the band after lead vocalist Natalie MainesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ fateful comment -- Ã¢â‚¬Å“just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from TexasÃ¢â‚¬Â -- is the subject of Shut Up and Sing, the latest documentary from Barbara Kopple and co-director Cecilia Peck. To tell their story, the band made sure their experience would be treated seriously by teaming up with Kopple, whose films include the Oscar-winning Harlan County USA (striking coal miners in Kentucky) and Bearing Witness (women war correspondents in Iraq). On her part, Kopple was drawn to a story that, she says, has Ã¢â‚¬Å“become the center of a larger political debate. Their personal transformation in so many ways has come to represent the political climate we have in the U.S. right now.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Dixie Chicks were country music superstars in 2003 and the best selling womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s band ever. Having been named entertainers of the year by the Academy of Country Music two years before, their Top of the World tour sold out $49 million worth of tickets in one day, and they won eight Grammies including the 2003 best country album. But once MainesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ comment became known, and when the band refused to back down, the country community quickly turned against them.
Did the Dixie Chicks pay a higher price for speaking out because they were women? Kopple believes women get into trouble for speaking their minds when the expectation is that Ã¢â‚¬Å“men are the ones to speak out, to take a stand, and a womanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s role is to stand with her man. I think these ideas still permeate our culture.Ã¢â‚¬Â Apparently to the country music world, seeming unpatriotic in a time of war is a far worse sin than being a convicted wife batterer like Tracy Lawrence, who has been able to rehabilitate himself with his fans.
The least discussed piece of this story is how the continuing consolidation of media into the hands of a few large corporations created a situation that allowed the Dixie Chicks to be literally erased from the airwaves. Ã¢â‚¬Å“TravelinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ SoldierÃ¢â‚¬Â was the number one single when it was removed from playing rotation. Cumulus Media, a consortium of 306 radio stations, told their affiliates not to play the Chicks' music. Several disc jockeys who broke the ban were fired according to press reports. First denying there was a blacklist against the band, Cumulus CEO Lewis Dickey was forced to admit the truth during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on July 8, 2003.Commenting on the dangerous effect of media consolidation, with enormous power and influence falling into very few hands, Kopple says, Ã¢â‚¬Å“too often those hands are attached to men more interested in the bottom line and blind Ã¢â‚¬ËœpatriotismÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ than creativity, risk-taking and progress.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The hate pouring onto these women was clearly sexist. Fans trashed their cds. At arenas, protestorsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ signs and slogans ranged from the ugly to the ridiculous -- Ã¢â‚¬Å“strap her to a bomb and drop her over BaghdadÃ¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“try the chicks for treasonÃ¢â‚¬Â to Ã¢â‚¬Å“free speech is ok except in public.Ã¢â‚¬Â Kopple points out an irony: Ã¢â‚¬Å“WomenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s voices are often considered dangerous. Ours are often the voices of change, of peace, of moderation, and of forgiveness.Ã¢â‚¬Â
While shut off from their country fan base, the Dixie Chicks were propelled into a completely different musical and political universe. On the cover of Entertainment Weekly and interviewed by Diane Sawyer, the band was introduced to an audience that fell in love with the music and the message. The recording of their new Ã¢â‚¬Å“comebackÃ¢â‚¬Â album is highlighted throughout the film. Recording it and writing their own songs for the first time functioned as a catharsis for the hell they went through. Their dismay with the country world is clear in the first single, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Not Ready to Make Nice,Ã¢â‚¬Â an anthem of unrepentant anger.
Theirs is the best sort of feminist story: all about what happens when women stand up for what they believe in. At the end of the documentary, Kopple shows the Dixie Chicks returning to the arena in London where the controversy began. Maines restates her comment, this time with a big smile on her face. Kopple got to know her subjects well while following them around for over a year. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think, more than anything,Ã¢â‚¬Â she says, Ã¢â‚¬Å“their experience has highlighted that -- although the cost of speaking your mind and being yourself can be high -- the cost of being silenced is much higher.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Women's National Basketball League celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer, and with 14 teams, the league's doubters have been silenced. But each season fans wonder about the absence of a stalwart player or two normally on each team's roster. Retirement? Injury? No, not necessarily.
The missing players -- stars like DeMya Walker and Marie Ferdinand -- may be pregnant or have recently given birth, one of the realities of the WNBA and other women's professional leagues. Seeing athletes play out their postpartum weight loss on national TV offers an up-close view of what it takes to get back into game shape. Houston Comets star Sheryl Swoopes is proof it can be done. She has been named MVP a record three times since having her son Jordan 10 years ago.
The athletes of the WNBA are the best of the best, and their league has a supportive pregnancy policy. Not every athlete is so lucky. Take Darnellia Russell, a high school player in a new documentary about a girls' basketball team from Seattle.
In "The Heart of the Game," directed by Ward Serrill, the Roosevelt High Roughriders are stuck in the losing column until tax professor and novice coach Bill Resler walks into their lives. He gives them permission to be competitive and ruthless on the court allowing the team to thrive. When Darnellia enrolls and walks into the gym, Coach Resler, a father of daughters, smells her talent. The team's wins pile up, even with Darnellia playing most of her junior year pregnant without knowing it.
Darnellia gave birth to her daughter Trekayla in December 2002. When she tried to return to the team as a senior, she had too few academic credits to play because of missed school during her pregnancy. She made up the credits, yet still was denied eligibility under Washington state rules that govern high school athletics -- her pregnancy was not a "hardship," a designation that would allow her to make up the credits and qualify. Darnellia had hoped, through an athletic scholarship, to fulfill her dream of becoming the first in her family to go to college. She had letters of interest from a number of schools before she got pregnant. After the baby the interest pretty much disappeared, and with it, Darnellia's dreams of a college education and maybe even the WNBA.
Women's basketball has come a long way since the first game at Smith College on March 21, 1893 -- with a major boost from Title IX passage in 1972. It's no news flash that young women accidentally get pregnant, and Title IX regulations would seem to offer students some protection. They state that recipients of federal funds "must treat disabilities related to pregnancy the same way as any other temporary disability in any medical or hospital benefit, service, plan or policy which they offer to students. Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ Following this leave, the student must be reinstated to her original status."
Yet no uniform policy at either the school or professional level protects a pregnant athlete's rights. The resulting insecurity, especially for athletes on scholarship, can cause women to hide their pregnancies or have abortions. Of course, the guys who get women pregnant suffer no repercussions, financial or otherwise.
Stepping into the void, Elizabeth Sorensen, a nurse and the faculty athletics representative at Wright State University, has become an authority on athletes and pregnancy. She created a policy for Wright State, and is now trying to build momentum for a comprehensive, proactive policy that focuses on an athlete's well-being. In 2003, she submitted her policy to the NCAA, but the collegiate athletic governing body has not taken up the issue. The women's community is taking notice, however. The Women's Sports Foundation is about to release its own position paper on athletic competition and pregnancy, and the National Women's Law Center has also begun to consider the issue.
No one pretends that it's easy to return to play at the same level after a pregnancy. But for WNBA players, basketball is their job. Although a league veteran, Allison Feaster was still nervous when she got pregnant: "I was really concerned about just announcing my pregnancy and how it would affect my ability to stay in my job. I'd say put the pressure on the lawmakers to do their part so that we are protected."
Darnellia Russell would love the opportunity to show a school that she has come back from her pregnancy. She is waiting for the phone to ring with a college coach giving her that chance.
I first saw the poster at the bus stop. "Same Sex Different City." Initial thought -- smart, clever. Upon closer look I saw some of the most gorgeously made up and Lara Flynn Boyle-skinny women. I didnt know whether to be titillated or disgusted, I guess I was both. I realized that the first lesbian show on TV couldnt have regular-looking lesbians on it -- everybody has to look better than 99.99 percent of the American public. Thats what TV is about nowadays.
Optimistically, I had hoped that "The L Word" would have been exempt from that rule; its supposed to be more than just another tawdry soap opera. The series was created, produced and the pilot was written by a credentialed lesbian, Ilene Chaiken, and directed by another, Rose Troche. And its supposed to be the first show that reflects the lives of lesbians in America, who have not yet had a show to call their own. But its not. Its a soap opera, but its a lesbian soap opera. So for every negative thing I say, remember that this is the first show of its kind and hopefully the next one will be better, and the one after that will be better still.
You have to give props to Showtime for producing "Queer as Folk" and now "The L Word." They spent a lot of money promoting this show. The media hype around the show has been crazy. Magazine covers. Premiere parties. Youd think they had discovered something new. They tried to make these women seem like rock stars. I heard they even sent the stars on a lesbian cruise during premiere week. I couldnt believe the press materials that I was sent by Showtime. So glossy. So expensive. So unlesbian. The pink materials with the actresses posed was ringed with many different L words -- lush, lashes, lyrical, lofty, looking, loose, latent. One word that was very hard to find was the word "lesbian." It seemed as though they were trying to make The L Word stand for just about everything except lesbian.
Showtime is smart. Lesbians are starting to catch up to gay guys as a market segment (even though women still make less money to the dollar than men), and the world is getting more comfortable with queer people in general. I mean if "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" can be a hit on "Must See Thursday" (though it airs after the gayest show on TV, "Will & Grace"), we must all be ready to see some dykes.
To watch the pilot I got myself invited to one of the "L Word" parties that were happening across the country to celebrate the launch of the series. My friend Esther took me along to a nice lesbian couples coop in Brooklyn where 20 lesbians and one gay man settled down with some fondue in anticipation of seeing lesbians on screen. It was a very cool group. There were teachers, event planners, dancers, actors and bi-sexual women in politics. Everyone was excited, to say the least. The evening did not start out well as the show kicked off with a commercial for a Brittany Spears concert. The boos died down when Marianne Faithfulls luscious voice welcomed us to the world of "The L Word."
Jennifer Beals, the 1980s Flashdance icon, is one half of the couple at the heart of the show. As Bette Porter, the director of the California Arts Center, she is in seven-year relationship with Tina Kennard, played by Laurel Holloman. They decide that in order to save their relationship they are going to have a baby and Tina quits her job as a movie development executive in order to prepare herself to get pregnant. Really? How many lesbians can afford to do that? It get even stupider when they go to a therapist to the stars who is kind enough to tell them what they already know, that their sex life sucks.
When Tina interprets something the therapist says with the phrase, "the lesbian urge to merge," we shriek in dismay. Its only 15 minutes into the show and the cliches are already running rampant. The first episode also focuses heavily on the straight couple who live next door to Bette and Tina. Tim, (Eric Mabius) the hot young swim coach, who wears wife-beater shirts all the time and his brooding writer girlfriend, Jenny (Mia Kirshner), who moves from the Midwest to be with him. And thanks to them, you see less girl-on-girl action than boy-on-girl action -- a directorial choice that pisses off my fellow Brooklynites. There was so much straight sex in this episode that it seemed to be made for frat boys or to make straight people feel comfortable. Inevitably. however, the straight girl falls for one of lesbians -- Marina (Karina Lombard) fondly remembered as Tom Cruises one night stand in The Firm. When straight girl kisses the lesbian she runs home, cries and gives her boyfriend a guilt-ridden blow job. And when she has hot lesbian sex with Marina and then crawls into bed with Tim, the boyfriend says "you smell different" and he likes the "other" smell better.
I was about to dismiss the series as a straight persons fantasy of what a lesbian would be, when I remembered that lesbians made this show. Im sure that it was politically difficult for the creators to deal with network executives, but did they have to play into every scary stereotype out there? Straight people are already afraid that lesbians are going to corrupt their daughters and bring them over to the other side. But I guess its okay if they look as beautiful as the women do on "The L Word" cause they really only play lesbians on TV.
The women hang out in the lesbian clique and the local hangout The Planet owned by Marina. Others in the group include the bi-sexual magazine writer Alice (Leisha Hailey) who writes top ten lists and stories on vaginal rejuvenation for LA Magazine. Her most ambitious project that spans several episodes is a six degrees of separation type chart for lesbian relationships. There is the closeted professional tennis player Dana (Erin Daniels) who cant come out for fear of losing her sponsors. One of the rare good moments comes when Alice tells her that she is going to "pickle in her self loathing homophobia." We also have the resident slut hairdresser Shane (Katherine Moenning), oozing ambiguous sexuality. Moenning said she modeled her character after Warren Beattys character in Shampoo. They all seem to hang out at The Planet like the Friends characters hang out at Central Perk. At the beginning of Friends I had the same question I have of these women -- dont you ever have to go to work?
On the periphery is Pam Griers character, Kit, the one woman of color and also the woman who is truly a walking disaster. Shes estranged from her half-sister Bette, and the rest of her family. We first meet her as she is being pulled over for a suspected DUI and gets caught with a suspended license. But what really bothered me is that there were no dykes on the show. There is so much diversity of women in the lesbian community and yet there was no diversity in the type of lesbian on this show.
I dont want to give the impression that there are not many redeeming things about The L Word. Just the fact that I can sit and be critical about a show that is wholly focused on lesbian lives is fantastic. The other plus was the sexy girls. Granted most of them are straight, but honestly they did cast some hot chicks and they has some good sex scenes that made me smile and thank the goddess for Showtime. I was one of those people who was excited about "Queer As Folk" but was immediately turned off. It felt like I was watching gay porn. Finally, I love hearing a line like "bush confidence" on television, knowing that it does not refer to George Bush and but to how vaginas can be life changing for some questioning young woman out in the world.
I later solicited the opinions of my friends, some straight but mostly gay. Most of the emails were negative especially from the women of color. A bi-racial couple said it was the worst thing they had ever seen. Their response came back in capital letters, almost a scream. But storyline about Bette and Tina having a baby drew the biggest reactions. Some said the whole "lesbians having babies" is so played out, but one person was especially mortified by the way that Bette and Tina conducted their search for a sperm donor. When lesbians and gay men decide to have babies it is a very long and difficult decision that takes a lot of planning. When Bette and Tina brought home a straight guy to steal his sperm not only was it repulsive it was completely unsafe -- ever heard of HIV?
I really wanted to like this show. All I can do is continue to watch, and hope that the show gets some courage, because no matter how you cut it, the show is revolutionary -- a show about gay women.