On Sunday night, Seth MacFarlane hosted the Academy Awards (now re-branded as “The Oscars”), and according to the online commentariat, it was a shockingly misogynistic and mean-spirited affair. From his opening act (which included a musical number entitled “We Saw Your Boobs”), to his description of Zero Dark Thirty as “a movie about how women can never let anything go,” to his assertion that what Salma Hayek says doesn’t matter because she’s attractive, every line was dissected and pounced upon within a matter of hours. By the next morning, MacFarlane was one of the most reviled people on the internet. Writers from small blogs to usual suspects like Jezebel to more august publications like The New Yorker were frothing at the mouth and calling for a revolution in the way women are portrayed in the media.
But most of those writers are just spewing bullshit. They don’t care about women in Hollywood, or the portrayal of women in the media, or the role of women in our popular consciousness.
Wanna know how I know that?
Because Hollywood’s most human, complex, powerfully drawn characters this side of Mad Men are all women. They’re all on the same show. And the day after MacFarlane’s ignominious turn hosting the Oscars, that show finished its first season with little fanfare and just as little hope of a second-season renewal.
The show is ABC Family’s weird, wonderful Bunheads.
For those of you who don’t know (which, let’s face it, is most people), Bunheads follows ABT-dance-prodigy-turned-Vegas-showgirl Michelle Sims (played by the incredibly talented Sutton Foster) as she tries to start a new life in the sleepy, well-read, quirky coastal town of Paradise, California. She forms a strained, often-volatile relationship with Madame Fanny, an accomplished dancer who has retired and now teaches ballet in Paradise. (Madame Fanny is played by Kelly Bishop, who is an absolute force of nature.) She also forges a deep camaraderie with four teenage dance students who are intrigued by what—to their parochial experience—is Michelle’s “glamorous” past.
These six characters are written and played with a level of nuance and depth that is nearly unheard of in American television. Their dreams, ambitions, fears, insecurities and shortcomings are all handled with such grace and empathy by the people behind the show that just watching those six characters play off of one another for an hour every week would be compelling enough to keep me coming back. But the town of Paradise is just as much a character on the show as any of the leads, and its wider population is as endearing as any crowd of Springfieldians or Pawneeans you could assemble.
Look, I’m selling this show short. Let me put it this way: Three quarters of the way through its 18-episode first season, they introduce Michelle’s brother (played by Sutton Foster’s real-life brother). They each laugh over the way the other has dealt with their deeply dysfunctional family, and as that laughter slowly melted into a violent argument, I suddenly realized for the first time that all of the lead characters are women. Even though the lead characters’ points-of-view are deeply rooted in the female experience, the show is so funny and so compelling that you never stop to care about the gender of the leads.
Watching Michelle struggle with shame and regret over the way she squandered her talent, hoping for a second chance but knowing that it’s too late; watching Fanny’s attempts to appropriate a surrogate daughter after the sudden loss of her son; watching four incredibly talented young actresses portray four very different approaches to dealing with the shift from adolescence into adulthood; and watching them all try to love their small town without losing sight of the wider world has been TV’s most unexpected delight since Parks and Recreation found its voice in its second season.
And it went all but ignored by most Americans. No matter how much certain segments of society may cry out for change, if the only shows people tune in for are dark, edgy dramas about morally ambiguous male anti-heroes, then producing dark, edgy dramas about morally ambiguous male anti-heroes is going to remain the most bankable business model for TV executives. Diverging from the established formulas by deepening female characters and making them stand as compelling agents of drama and comedy in order to capitulate to appeals from society’s better angels isn’t going to be worth the effort for them.
These are the stories that shape our cultural values, and anyone who recognizes the significant problems with the way women are portrayed in most of our media–primarily as sexual agents rather than primarily as people–should have a vested interest in getting more stories like Bunheads told.
I understand that righteous outrage without any kind of active commitment is a huge and deeply loved component of the American way of life: We are the country that complained about the OJ verdict while shunning jury duty, and posted Kony 2012 image macros rather than rather than volunteering with organizations that promote good governance and rescue people from human trafficking. We like getting credit for being politically and socially aware, but we don’t like the inconvenience, work or sacrifice that being engaged often entails.
But watching TV—and entertaining TV, at that!—requires hardly anything of you. Seriously. This show is smooth on the palate.
If you didn’t watch Bunheads live, DVR it to watch within three days, or subscribe to it on iTunes or Amazon Instant, you have no right to complain about Seth MacFarlane or the role of women in the media. You’re part of the problem.