B-Movie Television: the Feminist Frontier (Part 2)

by Kate


A completely unrelated, but relevant B-movie poster of a movie I haven’t actually seen (dir. Lew Landers, 1938)

I ended my last post by saying that commercial cinema is failing women. Allow me to reiterate: As it exists now, the film industry is a betting game, and studios just don’t seem to be banking on women in creative roles, despite the fact that we still make up about half of the audience. Why not? There are many reasons. However, in my last post I argued the disparity may have something to do with attributing so much of a film’s worth to just one individual. In an ideal world, this recognition wouldn’t hold anyone back. But when producers need to make a return on investment, it may be pure sexism that guides their decision to fund one project over another.

In a now roughly 4-year-old article, the often contentious (I mean that as a compliment) Manohla Dargis bemoaned the lack of women in the industry. In the article, she notes how a box office failure doesn’t necessarily spell out the end for a male director. But for a woman, it can potentially wreck a career. Studios appear to be more forgiving to male directors – male auteurs, rather – who have a vision. However, the Hollywood machine doesn’t grant visionary women the same benefit of the doubt. 

Television: The strength of the collective 

Because of its collaborative nature, television offers better opportunities for those who work both in front of and behind the camera. There has been a greater tendency lately to focus on the creator of the show, but overall, television is still very team-oriented. A handful of directors usually trade off directing episodes and writers will change from show to show. Because narratives are so drawn out, characters even get to evolve in reaction to audiences. Television is responsive to the public in a way that cinema just can’t be. It’s an art that emerges from a collaboration between performers, writers, directors, technicians and viewers. And since the majority of the audience for television has historically been women, that gives us greater bargaining power.

One of the most interesting trends in television right now is the B-movie style aesthetic, as smartly coined by critic Maureen Ryan at Huffington Post. These pulpy, compulsively watchable shows contain fascinating insight and subtle criticism of American culture. Scandal and American Horror Story are two of my favorite examples of this formula. Rather than being auteur-driven, these shows tend to make thoughtful use of generic tropes, like melodrama and horror, in the cases of these two. Genre is the essential populism. Rather than being created by an individual, genre is created by the populace, arising out of the cultural zeitgeist – the American hive mind.

B-movie television often exaggerates the tropes of the medium. Both Scandal and AHS employ storytelling that moves at a swift pace, replete with whiplash-inducing twists and turns. Naturally, each episode ends with a hum-dinger of a cliff hanger and a smaller series of cliff-hangers prior to each commercial break. Rather than employing the archetypical anti-hero that characterized the new golden age of television (Tony Soprano and Walter White being the prime examples), these shows tend to feature collective groups and alliances – although these collectives may be just as maliciously intended as the classic anti-hero. These groups are often pitted against various institutions, forced to work inside them to subvert the status quo. On Scandal this institution is the government/publicity machine, on AHS it’s western medicine/religion. While these shows may lack the glossy, more muted production values of shows like House of Cards or Homeland they are equally relevant in the cultural dialogue. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to dismiss these works as vapid and derivative without realizing how intelligently they are put together. 

Power dynamics on Scandal 

olivia pope scandal

Olivia Pope’s Gladiators assemble

A fusion of soap opera and crime drama, Scandal focuses on the employees of a somewhat nefarious agency in D.C. that “fixes” public relations scandals for politicians and other prominent members of the community. Headed by Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), a former White House press secretary, the firm is comprised of a rag-tag group of misfits who lie on various places on the psychopathic spectrum.

The visual style of the show is both slick and sloppy. Consequently, the energetic shot-reverse-shot structure creates facial expressions that are as drawn-out, overly dramatized and laughable as anything that appears on scripted reality television. The ostentatious styling works, however, because surface details are what the show is all about. Underneath is a smart dissection of how America is perceived by Americans and what actually occurs beneath this veneer. This misleading surface image is consistently underlined by use of mirrors and scene cuts accompanied by the rapid-fire sound of a shutter clicking. In this town, every moment is constructed for the ubiquitous cameras.

Scandal - the conspiracy table

A secret coalition including Olivia, Cyrus and Mellie rig the election of Fitzgerald Grant.

That Scandal only rarely refers to Ms. Pope’s race is both a strength and a weakness of the show. In general, being black is “a non-issue,” as Emily Nussbaum puts it. While this commentary is, for the most part, hidden, Scandal offers a chance for a lot of underrepresented people to see themselves on screen, which is incredibly important, particularly for the young people who watch it. We get to see successful, complex black, queer and older female characters, and an older queer male character, which is still a rarity. Playing Olivia Pope also provides a lush opportunity for Kerry Washington to show off her chops.

The topic of race doesn’t come up often, but when it does, the result is riveting. As a fixer, Pope manipulates the images of those around her, and often, becomes a shadow standing behind the president. At one point she rightly accuses President Fitzgerald (Tony Goldwyn) of being a kept secretly like Sally Hemmings, the infamous enslaved mistress of President Jefferson. However, Fitz vehemently denies the existence of any kind of power dynamic between them (…right). In another telling moment, Cyrus (Jeff Perry), Fitz’s Chief of Staff, has a fantastic monologue about how he could have made a great president, except for being about a foot too short and having a sexual interest in men. At the time, he’s in conversation with Olivia, and you can’t help but think how his statements apply to her, as well.

The handsome, straight white man is still the most powerful individual in the country, despite being, well, not-too-bright, actually. In fact, Fitz has a whole lot of power he didn’t earn.  His influence comes from the cunning of people like Olivia, Cyrus, and his shrewd wife, Mellie (Belamy Young), who operate him as expertly as puppeteers. The election-rigging, orchestrated in part by these three, creates a subversion of the visible power dynamic, demonstrating once again how misleading the surface of U.S. politics can be in this insular world.

The terrors of patriarchy in American Horror Story

AHS Shelley arden

Dr. Arden admires his handiwork.

Anthology series AHS has a new set-up every season, each one with a critical eye towards feminist and queer issues. Coven, the season that just finished, finally tackled racial dynamics by focusing on a feud between white witches and witches of color down in New Orleans, although not as successfully as one may have hoped. Like some of its peer shows (Orange is the New Black), the series overall excels in feminist and queer dialogue, but so far hasn’t been as successful in addressing race.

Still, Asylum can be applauded for its intelligent portrayal of queer and feminist issues. The miniseries was a masterful work of fiction that bridged the present day and the early 1960s, where sexuality was often characterized as a mental illness. The show presents an array of complicated women, dangerous and dark, hatable and lovable. Like Scandal, Asylum is focused on the lives of a group of people who share similar circumstances: being employed by or confined to an institution for the criminally insane.

By contrasting Christian purity with unholy prurience, the show brings out some antiquated conceptions of female sexuality that are unfortunately very much still with us. In one compelling scenario, ex-Nazi doctor Arden (James Cromwell), a man with a fierce madonna/whore complex, chops off the legs of Shelly (Chloe Sevigny), a girl who has been confined, evidently, for nymphomania. This is just after Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), a beautiful nun with whom Arden is infatuated becomes possessed and exposes herself to him. Unable to her reconcile her purity and feminine wiles, he takes out his ire on Shelley, mutating her into a sort of human monster. This kind of scenario could only play out in AHS‘s unique brand of satirical horror.

AHS aversion therapy

Lana Winters undergoes aversion therapy with the help of Dr. Thredson.

The show also contained a very serious and disturbing scene in which Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), a queer woman confined against her will, voluntarily submits to aversion therapy to escape captivity. In the sequence, psychiatrist Oliver Thresdon (Zachary Quinto) injects Winters with a substance that induces nausea and vomiting. Meanwhile, she is subjected to a slideshow containing images of women, one of which is her former partner. It’s an astonishingly grotesque reminder of a queer legacy that goes far beyond today’s marriage equality battle. Simultaneously, the moment reminds us how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go when it comes to queer acceptance. 

Horror is already the best genre for addressing gender and race, since many folkloric monsters are based in – or at least have acquired- racist or misogynistic sentiments. True to its name, this series examines a dark underbelly of the U.S., where ghosts, witches and other suburban demons are representative of the hauntings of a dark past filled with less supernatural, but equally monstrous evils. By switching back and forth between time periods, the show demonstrates how America continues to live these horrors in various ways. In haunted spaces, the past penetrates the present, providing a grim memory of the atrocities we have inflicted on one another.

Planting the flag with television

These shows can be sloppy. They throw out loose ends that don’t get tied up. But they leave you with something to chew on. Like the best B-movies of yore, these television shows reveal honest ideas about our time, wrapped up in a sweet package that leaves us always wanting more. Unlike the movies, though, these shows provide more jobs for women than cinema does. And the team-based structure helps to ensure that the prestige is distributed more evenly. When it comes down to it, women need to write and create our own stories. We need to represent ourselves in all of our diversity. In commercial cinema, we’re fighting a losing battle. While the landscape on television isn’t a whole lot better, it offers a ray of light that may eventually lead us to greater representation in popular media.