Once upon a time, in season 2’s “Maidenform,” the creative department of Sterling Cooper proposed a campaign to Playtex: Jackie and Marilyn as two sides of one woman. The men pointed at different women around the office, assigning them to a category. This secretary was a Jackie, that one a Marilyn, another a Jackie, Joan certainly a Marilyn. Peggy, they said, was neither (“Gertrude Stein”). At that point, as their first female copywriter, Peggy had already left behind the typical roles for women in the Sterling Cooper offices. It was like she no longer counted.
Peggy’s fight on Mad Men has always been to be taken seriously. To be seen as more than a little girl playing in a man’s world. She didn’t go to college, but to Miss Deaver’s Secretarial School. She worked her way up because the right people noticed what she could do, because she had good teachers and, most of all, because she decided what she wanted from her life and wouldn’t let anyone take it away from her. She learned to be firm, to stand her ground, to say no. She watched Don and she tried to emulate him until she could get her own way. It made her a force as a copywriter. It also meant she had to sacrifice a great deal in her personal life, giving up repeatedly on loves that weren’t quite right, and giving up a child–and its domestic trappings–to single-mindedly pursue her career.
Joan isn’t seen as a little girl at all. Her battle has been with her own figure, and the expectations the world places upon it. When we first met her, in the pilot, she had more power than any other woman in Sterling Cooper’s offices. She looked at Peggy like a puppy she could train. She was pleased with her life, with her own understanding of how the office worked, with her ability to do her job well. Professionally, she didn’t want anything more. And over the years since that’s changed. She got married and realized maybe that victory wasn’t what she wanted. She became a single mother and realized she’d have to provide for her son. She took on new responsibilities at work and realized maybe there were opportunities she hadn’t seen before. Joan watched Peggy’s ascent and started looking up her own ladder, discovering it had more rungs than she’d previously thought.
But when Peggy called a bunch of used tissue a “basket of kisses” in front of Freddie Rumsen he saw potential. When Joan excelled in the media department Harry Crane saw it as a job so easy even a secretary could do it.
“Maidenform” is the episode where Peggy starts to figure out the path that will work for her at Sterling Cooper. She’s finding herself shut out of meetings on the Playtex account. She’s not invited to casting, nor to the after-hours partying where the real business gets done. And she goes to Joan for advice. “You’re in their country. Learn to speak the language,” Joan tells her. And: “You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl.” At the end of the episode Peggy shows up to boy’s night at the strip club with the Playtex executives. She wears a low-cut dress and her hair down. She sits on an executive’s lap and she smiles and she plays along with the men. And over the years since she’s excelled because she has learned to speak the language. She’s given up her old spoil-sport attitude toward the ways the men in the office behave and she’s learned to talk back. Her clothes have become more adult and more professional. She has asserted herself by defying people’s expectations of her.
Meanwhile, Joan has always used those expectations to her advantage. She’s seemed to grow stronger from them. She knew that she could swing her hips or wear the right dress and get her way with just about anyone. And that power culminated in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce pimping her out to a Jaguar executive in exchange for a partnership.
In that partnership Joan found a way to provide for her son. She found self-sufficiency beyond anything she’d ever imagined. And she’s also leveraged it into more fulfilling work. She’s got her own accounts. She’s got new challenges. She has a job that shouldn’t have anything to do with her physical assets, but with her brain and everything she’s learned watching business happen in the Sterling Cooper (Draper Pryce) (And Partners) offices over the years.
In the meeting that Peggy and Joan take with the McCann Erickson executives in last night’s episode, “Severance,” they are the only representatives for SC&P. Don’s not there, nor Pete or Ken or Harry. They sit across the table from three men who will listen to what they have to say, sure, they’ll even approve the request for support with Topaz Pantyhose. But first they’re going to make a whole bunch of jokes, they’re going to comment on Joan’s breasts and make references to her panties. They see the novelty of taking this unusual meeting with two women, and not the everyday of Peggy and Joan’s lives, working in this office.
Peggy has sat through these meetings for years. She’s rarely been targeted sexually, at least not the way Joan has, but she’s had to fight for men to take her seriously in her job. It’s wasn’t enough to gain the respect of her co-workers, because the nature of the industry required the clients to listen to her, too. Her ability to roll with the daily micro-aggressions, that advice she took from Joan back in “Maidenform,” to learn to speak the language, allows her to keep her cool in that meeting. To laugh a bit at the inappropriate jokes at her expense, and to keep chugging through her presentation until the men are ready to listen to her. But Joan has run out of patience for being treated like a walking bra. She’s not an office manager anymore. Topaz is her account. She expects more.
But over and over again Joan is reminded that people will refuse to look past her appearance. Hell, she’s a partner, but she has to wait with the models in casting to get an audience with Don (who, like the rest of the men in the office, has had his business hours consumed by the effort to find a beautiful woman to walk around in nothing but a fur coat and show off her smooth skin). And then, in the elevator after the meeting, so much rage boiling in her blood that all she can say is “I want to burn this place down,” Peggy twists the knife, blaming the comments on the way Joan dresses and then, in frustration, saying, “You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”
Of course, Peggy doesn’t know the price Joan paid to become a partner, the price she paid for her wealth. She’s seen men treat Joan like a sex object for years, and she’s never seen Joan angered by it. Peggy and Joan have both come a long way since they met in 1960, but they struggle to see past their initial impressions of each other. Joan still sees Peggy as naive, and Peggy sees Joan as worldly, and to a certain extent each of them envies the other. But Peggy is taken more seriously now. It’s hearing Stevie repeat back the compliments Mathis paid her that starts to shift her attitude on their date later in the episode, the respect that this man who works under her has for her, that he’d pass it along to his brother-in-law, makes her warmer, more open. Joan has not yet reached that point. Joan can’t even see it.
So instead she goes and spends some of that money she worked so hard to earn. She goes to the department store she once worked in, back when she was trying to support the husband who couldn’t support her, and spends her own money on dresses and boots that will show off the figure men and women can’t look past. She refuses the offer of a discount because she doesn’t need it, doesn’t want it.
She’s filthy rich, after all. She doesn’t have to take a call from a jerk at McCann Erickson.
It looks like last night’s Hart of Dixie finale marked the end of the series. Though there’s still a chance the CW could pick it up for another season, no one associated with the show seems to think that’s likely.
I loved Hart of Dixie. Even when it frustrated me, the hour of every week that I spent in Bluebell, Alabama, was a joy. The show always opted for small-scale human conflict over the life-and-death stakes that rule so much television these days. It was mostly about people who liked each other, and who enjoyed each other’s company, and the town they called home. Conflicts could always be resolved, often within the span of an episode, and while the show wasn’t overly concerned with “realism,” the characters all felt fully developed. They had histories and wants and specific points of view, and just about any combination of characters could produce interesting results.
With the departure of Parks and Recreation, there has been a lot of talk about Pawnee, Indiana, and the way that show built out a city, with recurring citizens and local lore, until it felt as real as any location you could point to on a map, and Bluebell was much the same. Zoe Hart may have been Hart of Dixie’s main character, but the finale was titled “Bluebell” for a reason. We’ve come to love the oddballs that filled out the town around Zoe: Lavon Hayes, Zoe’s best friend and Bluebell’s Mayor, and the other two corners of her primary love triangle: local lawyer George Tucker and local troublemaker Wade Kinsella; her cantankerous medical partner Brick Breeland and his daughter Lemon, Zoe’s primary antagonists over the course of the series, and also, eventually, her friends; then there’s Rose, Wanda and Tom, Dash, the Pritchetts, Crazy Earl, Annabeth and Cricket and their fellow Belles, Tansy, Lily Anne Lonergan, Meatball, and so many more than I can list.
Bluebell had an affection for town events, a long-standing rivalry with neighboring Fillmore, an illogical economy and a tendency toward outright goofiness. The people there struggled to accept outsiders, and that provided the primary conflict for Zoe in the show’s first season, but they came to consider her one of them.
A runner in the finale introduced three new characters, superficial stand-ins for Zoe, Wade and George, embarking on their own Bluebell love triangle. Zoe’s stand-in, a lawyer just arrived from New York City, as perplexed and scared and rude about it as Zoe was in Hart of Dixie’s pilot, mistook her for a native Alabamian, and try as Zoe did to deny it, there was more of Bluebell in Zoe as the show came to an end than there was New York. The Zoe we met in the pilot, who looked down on Bluebell with disdain, would have been horrified to see herself, four years later, with half the town present as she delivered her baby. Shocked to see herself marrying Wade on a hospital stretcher, or as one of Lemon’s bridesmaids, or even just happy to consider Bluebell home. But her evolution was a natural one; Zoe was won over by Bluebell just as Bluebell was won over by Zoe.
Few shows could pull off an ending like the one that closed out last night’s finale, a town-wide, all-singing, all-dancing musical number, but it seemed a natural fit to me, maybe even the only way Hart of Dixie could have ended. It was hardly the first time Bluebell broke out in song, though it was the first time a song broke the fourth wall, with the characters bringing the audience into the action, making us a part of the farewell. I watched it crying hysterically and grinning wildly. I can’t think of any way I’d rather say goodbye to a show I loved so much.
On The Flash, Iris is the only character left that hasn’t been told, or figured out, that her lanky best friend and sort of brother, the one she has seen pretty much every day for fifteen years, the one she knows has a crush on her, is also the skinny guy in the skin-tight suit that keeps flirting with her on roof-tops.
Meanwhile, on Arrow, Felicity, as a key member of the team, may be privy to most of Oliver’s secrets, including his identity, but after two years of growing respect and sexual tension, and a single date with a literally explosive ending, Oliver made the decision that they should just be friends, rather than begin a romantic relationship. Oliver was worried that she would be used against him.
Barry’s father figure, Joe, has known about his powers since The Flash’s pilot, as have the team at Star Labs. Even Barry’s actual father realized his son’s secret identity after a couple of brief encounters. But Iris has spoken to the Flash several times, seen him move, been in his arms. The Flash appeared almost as soon as Barry came out of a nine month coma. She is on a mission to find out the Flash’s identity, and she can’t figure out that it’s her best friend?
The problem with Iris is more serious than just her sort of silly inability to assemble a simple jigsaw puzzle. As annoying as it is that she hasn’t pieced together Barry’s secret identity on her own, the bigger issue is that nearly everyone in her life, not just her best friend, but also her father, and new friends Caitlin and Cisco, is actively conspiring to keep her in the dark, with the misguided idea that it will keep her safe.
Iris isn’t alone in this. Pretty much every superhero has a love interest they lie to, “for their own good.” And while that may seem noble in theory, it rarely works in practice. Iris may not know that Barry’s the Flash, but plenty of other people do, enough that Iris can still be used against him, that her safety can be threatened as a means to hurt Barry.
Arrow, too, has a single character that the team keeps in the dark, but when it comes to Detective Lance there’s still a certain amount of logic to the secret. No, it doesn’t make sense that Lance can’t tell from the Arrow’s posture, or his jawline, or his attachment to Felicity Smoak, that he’s actually Oliver Queen. And Lance is a detective. But lying to him has long been a way to keep Oliver’s mission safe. In early days he was a very real danger, because what Oliver is up to is illegal. Vigilantes aren’t actually a good thing, they operate outside of the law, and for awhile there Oliver was killing a lot of random bodyguards and lackeys. Lance had the power and the desire to put the Arrow behind bars.
But while Iris may have turned into an intrepid reporter, determined to get to the bottom of the Flash’s identity, it’s unlikely that she’d find out Barry’s secret and then put it on the record. Keeping Iris, not Barry, safe has been the root of the entire secret-keeping enterprise. And Iris is arguably less safe not knowing how easily she can be used to hurt her best friend. Because she’s kept in the dark she doesn’t know that she needs to protect herself, let alone why. And every time she is used this way she becomes, not a person, not someone he loves, but a device. She’s leverage.
This makes it difficult to care about her as a character, and to root for her and Barry as a romantic pairing.
And then there’s Felicity.
Oliver’s decision not to DTR, back in the season 3 premiere, doesn’t mean Felicity can’t or won’t be used against him. She’s often the most visible member of Team Arrow, and even if she’s not Oliver’s girlfriend, she’s still important to him as a friend and as support for his operation. They spend just as much time together as they likely would in a relationship, and not just in their underground lair. And he’s still blatantly in love with her. But Oliver decided he had to make the decision for both of them.
This sort of “for your own good” thinking didn’t seem noble and heroic when it was Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley, and it doesn’t seem noble and heroic now. What it mostly comes across as is a way to stall a romantic pairing out of a fear of what happens after they get together. While Oliver pines for Felicity as though he wasn’t the one to put a stop things, she’s stuck off in a side-plot with a new romantic interest, Oliver’s equally wealthy, handsome and tragic replacement as head of Queen Consolidated, Ray Palmer, a man with his own vigilante mission. The storyline doesn’t reflect well on either character. Oliver comes across as manipulative, and Felicity as shallow.
Arrow doesn’t shy away from physically and mentally strong female characters. Plenty of women (Sara and now Laurel, Nyssa, Helena, Amanda Waller, Shado…) have fought alongside or against Oliver over the last few years, and held their own, but I appreciate that Arrow has not attempted to turn Felicity into another female ass-kicker. Instead, the series has kept her at her computer, and allowed her to show that there are other ways to be a hero and to fight the good fight. She does just as much to keep the team alive as Oliver or Diggle, and, like Caitlin on The Flash, she does it using her own expertise. She also, more often than not, serves as Oliver’s conscience. She’s the person he talks to before he makes big decisions, and she tries to nudge him in the best possible direction, whatever that may be. Felicity has long been one of Arrow’s best characters.
And Iris has the potential to be a great character, too. She’s curious and friendly and prone to jealousy, because no one would want her to be perfect. She’s played by a charismatic actress. It should be easy to love a character that’s loved by puppy dogs like Barry Allen and Joe West.
Every unilateral decision Oliver or Barry makes to “protect” Felicity and Iris, though, undermines their agency, takes that decision out of Felicity’s or Iris’ hands. Whenever this happens, Felicity gets angry and goes off to help her stand-in Oliver Queen, and Iris continues on, none-the-wiser, chasing mysteries the audience solved months ago.
As of the end of last week’s episode of The Flash, Iris knows Barry’s secret, only because she happened to be there at a moment when he wouldn’t be able to make an excuse. But the revelation was immediately followed by Barry discovering his own ability to travel in time.
Time travel is a slippery device, one that allows for narrative fiddling and re-writing, and the moments before Barry went backward were full of potential events he could undo. The question is whether Iris’ discovery will be one of them.
Because of my own frustration, I really hope that Iris still knows Barry’s secret when the dust settles. I hope we get to see her get angry. She’s earned it. Even if she isn’t mad, even if, like Thea did on Arrow, she reacts to the information with understanding, Iris can only become a more compelling character once she’s aware of her own surroundings, once she’s caught up to the audience. Whether she knows the truth next week, or has to relearn it at some point in the future, I look forward to a time when I can root for her the way I do the rest of the citizens of Central City.
And as Arrow closes out its own season, I hope Oliver gives Felicity the opportunity to make some of her own decisions. That both Oliver and the show will get over their fear of moving forward with the relationship, or at least figure out a way to hold off on it that respects both the characters and the audience.
Maybe you noticed, but I’ve kinda got a thing for television. In that I love it. A lot. And I’ve also kinda got a thing for Nick Hornby. (In that I love him.) (A lot.) And the spine of Nick Hornby’s latest novel, Funny Girl, is a television show, a fictional mid-1960s BBC comedy called Barbara (and Jim). The novel is the story of the stars, writers and producer/director over the course of the show’s four series, and of the way Britain was changing in the 1960s. It’s also a story about high-brow culture versus low-brow culture, about who gets to make the decisions about which is which, and whether we should find value in one over the other.
Funny Girl’s titular character is an actress named Sophie Straw, but arguable the most compelling character is Barbara (and Jim)’s writer/producer, Dennis. Dennis is not a comedian, not as a writer or as a performer, and his colleagues regularly mock his attempts at jokes. He’s an Oxbridge intellectual, often the only square in a roomful of bohemians, “a BBC man from his head to the holes in his socks,” as Sophie puts it. But he loves comedy just as much as anyone else that works for the series, and that sets him apart from his BBC contemporaries and his thoroughly unfunny wife as much as it binds him to his co-workers.
Dennis is the character that most exemplifies the way Britain was changing over the course of the 60s. Sophie, a woman with dreams that far exceed the life of a Blackpool beauty queen, a woman who sees an affair with a married man as an unappealing but necessary step towards accessing a television for Sunday afternoon I Love Lucy reruns (her own personal church), is already a part of Britain’s future, as are Bill and Tony, Barbara (and Jim)’s writers, two men who met in a jail cell after being arrested for attempting to seduce the same undercover policeman in the same men’s bathroom, and Clive, Sophie’s self-absorbed straight-man co-star and on-and-off boyfriend. Dennis, just a bit older than the rest of them, is a man out of a different era, and a different culture. He lives on the border between high-brow and low-brow. And Dennis is the character invited onto a national television show to debate whether the two can co-exist on the BBC. To argue that comedy, specifically the situational television comedy, has value at all, let alone on a network funded by taxpayers.
This isn’t an argument that’s specific to the 1960s. You still see it now, 50 years later, any time a news organization attempts a conversation about pop culture (even on a pop-culture-specific blog), any time someone proudly announces that they “don’t even own a TV.” There’s a sort of hierarchy to the acceptability of culture, one that goes something like literary fiction > “film” (independent/foreign/“important”) > “prestige” (or really just cable) television > commercial movies > network dramas > genre fiction > single-camera network comedies > multi-camera network comedies > reality television > CW programming > genre television (this order is open to some debate, and probably missing several billion categories), and even when a particular piece of culture manages to break out of its usual role in this hierarchy, as has happened with comedies like Parks and Recreation and Community, or dramas like The Good Wife, and gain respect, it’s often seen as an exception that proves the rule, or it’s still undervalued by some who don’t see exceptions as possible.
Even the comedy-obsessed characters that work on Barbara (and Jim) don’t necessarily agree on what makes comedy good, or on what they want their comedy to be. The central marriage of Barbara (and Jim) is not the one between the eponymous characters, but between Bill and Tony, the writers. Though their stories start the same, in that jail cell, over the course of the novel they find themselves diverging in interests. Tony falls in love with a woman, gets married, has a baby, and though he loves his job, loves to make people laugh, he sees comedy as a means to a means. It’s a way of supporting his family. Bill, meanwhile sees comedy and writing as an art form, and as a vehicle to challenge the status quo. To some extent he looks down on the show, and on Tony, for taking what is, in his opinion, the easier road. (Not just in comedy. While Tony does not quite know how to define his sexuality, Bill doesn’t believe that there can be a middle ground between gay and straight. He sees Tony as taking the easy way out in life as in comedy, by marrying a woman and embracing a sort of Christmas card life.)
The differences between Tony and Bill are what give Barbara (and Jim) its tension. It premieres a year before the real show Till Death Us Do Part, the program that inspired All in the Family and fundamentally changed what a situation comedy could do, and while Barbara (and Jim) marks a new era in television, from Barbara’s broad Blackpool accent to the titular parentheses indicating that Barbara is the boss and Jim’s along for the ride, it is not, to Bill’s chagrin, the bold step forward that Till Death Us Do Part, with its head-on confrontation of racism, sexism and personal politics, would be. As Bill and Tony’s opinions about their show diverge, the comedy on Barbara (and Jim) becomes broader, more situational, and then begins to disintegrate as Barbara and Jim head into marriage counseling for the course of the show’s fourth and final series. They become a metaphor for their writers, whose differences have finally grown too significant to hold their partnership together.
The novel doesn’t present either Bill or Tony as right about comedy. Tony’s methods are more conventional. He writes for the every man (or woman). He just wants to make people laugh, and to have a steady paycheck. And he’s successful at both. And while Bill is perhaps more ambitious, using his writing to challenge his readers, and wishing for an audience he sees as superior to the one he can reach with Barbara (and Jim), he’s also less traditionally successful. The audience he wants, the one for a searing, semi-autobiographical novel of a gay man in 1960s London, is much smaller than the one for a TV comedy about a modern marriage, and there’s very little overlap between the two.
Funny Girl takes place in a specific period of time because it was one of marked change, and series like Barbara (and Jim) were only a small part of that. By 1967, the year the program goes off the air, it was no longer illegal to be gay in the United Kingdom. Divorce was more prominent, and more socially acceptable. Women had more autonomy. But many of the debates at the center of the novel are still taking place today. We still argue the value of culture, still disagree on comedy (hence the collective critical groan every time Modern Family takes home another Best Comedy trophy, despite its continued commercial appeal). There are still viewers who can’t see the difference between The Good Wife and any other case-of-the-week drama, who think single-camera means quality where multi-camera doesn’t. These debates rage on. And they will, in different shapes, for years to come.
The point that Funny Girl best makes is that these arguments are worth having. They won’t be solved by one great television show, or one network changing of the guard. Barbara (and Jim) goes off the air and it’s replaced by new series that reflect and affect the world, as happens with every television show, and these same disagreements mutate with their times and carry on.