Thursday, August 06, 2009

November and Sarah Haskins

I can’t remember when the character descriptions for Dollhouse first leaked. I was surprised, and happy to read November’s:

20’s, any ethnicity, beautiful and heavy. Another Doll, a hopeful child in the house and everyone else you need her to be outside. A comforting, radiant presence, who tends to get fewer of the criminal gigs and more of the personal ones. Recurring.

Later, when the casting was announced and I saw Miracle Laurie, I was disappointed, more than surprised. Like Amp, I assumed that ‘heavy’ had turned out to be an optional part of the character description.

Miracle Laurie is only a recurring character, and her media appearances appear to be arranged by her saying yes when people ask her, rather than by any publicity department. She’s given several, reasonably in depth interviews with fans of Dollhouse, and I’ve realised that I was wrong. Heavy wasn’t, in the end, treated as an optional part of the character description. The truth is far more disturbing.

In two recent interviews Miracle Laurie talked about being cast as November. She says that she read the cast break-down and thought: “This is it – this character is perfect for me. If I don’t get this part it’ll be my fault for not working hard enough.” In one of her interviews she even recites the character description. When I read the character description, I had no idea of how limited “beautiful and heavy” really was. Miracle Laurie may only have one other credit to her name, but she understands Hollywood better than I can.

But there was more to it than that, because Dollhouse had quite a complicated development process. Fox didn’t like Joss’s original plan for November, (I’m really curious about what the original plan for November was, but there’s been no leaking in that department. I can’t imagine it’d be cooler than what they ended up doing with Mellie, but I could be wrong) so pretty much on the fly (as Miracle Laurie describes it) the writers came up with a new idea for November as Mellie, as Paul Ballard’s next-door neighbour.

Miracle Laurie has said that Joss had to fight to keep her in the role, to keep his vision of November. To take a small step and there conclusions are, Fox wanted to recast November when it was decided that the character would have sex with Tahmoh Penikett, and that this would be the only on-going sexual relationship in the first season

I want to tease why I think Fox wanted to recast November. I don’t think it was as simple as her not being ‘attractive’ enough, or at least not in the sense of being sexually attractive. Dollhouse is not short of scenes designed to appeal to those attracted to women, the dress that is actually a shirt, or the dominatrix outfit are only the most obvious. Fox has plenty of material that is geared to what it thinks its 18-34 year old male viewers want to watch.

The casting description made it clear that November would be having sexual scenes. There is no reason that November being Mellie would change the extent to which Miracle Laurie would be in scenes that were sexual. (I’m deliberately ignoring the fact that I find the idea that Miracle Laurie would be considered ‘not attractive’ enough for, well anything, patently ridiculous.)

What changed, when November became Mellie, wasn’t the way her body would be seen on the show, but the meaning of those scenes. Fox didn’t want to re-cast November because Mellie was going to have sex scenes, they wanted to re-cast November because she was going to have a sexual relationship with the male lead character.

It’s not about what Fox thinks its male viewers want, it’s about want Fox thinks its female viewers need - in order to buy whatever is being advertised. Ratings may be king in TV-land, but the raison d’etre of TV isn’t actually to get viewers, but to get viewers to watch advertisements. Or, more precisely, get viewers to watch advertisements and for those advertisements to work.

Which is where Sarah Haskins comes in. For those who don’t know her, Sarah Haskins is the genius feminist comedian who focuses on the way media targets women (really if you haven’t seen her stuff – just go and spend a couple of hours on youtube and come back – its that good). She shows how inane and ridiculous media targeted at women is. Here is her segment on yoghurt:

Here is her segment on chocolate:

Everyone who watches those ads knows that 150 calorie warm delight minis aren’t going to be that good (Whittakers Dark Almond chocolate isn’t as good as they make warm delight minis look, and it has sugar and cocoa butter in it), and calling yoghurt key lime pie doesn’t make it key lime pie rather than yoghurt.

But the advertisements make more sense if you think about the programs that contain them.

The women screaming and rioting in the 100 calorie oreo advertisement will only resonate with a woman who believes she should take up no space. Comparing yoplait to a private island makes sense only if you think you should be denying yourself the sustenance and pleasure that comes from food and yoghurt is as good as it gets.

And all these ideas fit better after watching a sex scene between Tahmoh Penikett and (hypothetically) Amy Acker than they do after watching a sex scene between Tahmoh Penikett and Miracle Laurie.

For most women, looking like Miracle Laurie is just as much as an unattainable beauty standard than looking like Amy Acker (who is an awesome actress, and I’m just using as an example because she’s also in Dollhouse). Miracle Laurie is somewhere round the bottom 15% of American women when it comes to height and weight ratio and her body is of a particular type (plus her hair looks like shampoo commercial).

But Miracle Laurie as Mellie, given her story arc, does disrupt an idea that advertisers rely on. I think any single image of what is attractive is damaging (particularly for women, given how we are taught to view our attractiveness as a primary factor in our value). But one of the things that I think is particularly damaging about the standard of beauty in our society is that there is no end, there is no ‘thin enough.’ Our society has an anorexic vision of women – where any flesh, any fat, any space is too much.

And it’s a profitable vision. Advertisers, and therefore executives, don’t want it disrupted.

This may sounds conspiratorial, clearly television works that way, at least in part, but is it conscious I it designed? What justification do the Fox executives themselves give when they want to recast November? Obviously I have no idea, I live in New Zealand. But I think it’s important to understand that such profitable ideas don’t just exist, they have to be created and maintained.

I think the easiest ways to understand this is to turn to an earlier way of selling women things. The Feminine Mystique is an incredibly strong exploration of one of the problems women faced in the post-war period (it’s much weaker as a total explanation of women’s situation at the time). Betty Friedan’s famous book outlines the ‘problem with no name’, a situation where women who are trying to be what women are told they should want, are in fact miserable, even if they succeed. Of particular relevance to this discussion, she asks “How did this happen? How didso many women get persuaded that they needed to be something that would never make them happy.”

In the second chapter, Betty Friedan outlines how, in the 1940s, the parameters of what a heroine was allowed to be changed in fiction aimed towards women. She talks in some details about how women with jobs, careers, education, or a desire for any of these things, were slowly written out of the fiction that ran in the women’s magazines. Then in Chapter 9 she starts to ask some of the bigger questions:
Some months ago, as I began to fit together the puzzle of women’s retreat to home, I had the feeling I was missing something. I, despite the nameless desperation of so many American housewives, despite the opportunities open to all women now, so few have any purpose in life other than to be a wife and mother, somebody, something pretty powerful must be at work.

There are certain fats of life so obvious and mundane that one never talks about them. […]Why is it never said that the really crucial function, the really important role tat women serve as housewives is to buy more things for the house In all the talk of femininity and woman’s role, one forgets that the real business of America is business. But the perpetuation of housewifery, the growth of the feminine mystique, makes sense (and dollars) when one realizes are the chief customers of American business. Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that women will buy more things if they are kept in the underused nameless-yearning, energy-to-get-rid-of-sate of being housewives.

She doesn’t just state this as a theory; she explores how this happened. She talks to advertisers’ researchers and survey takers. They tell her how important it is that women are persuaded of the validity of roles that they actually find unsatisfying in order that the advertisers can sell products. They describe the research they do to measure how women respond to different ideas. How they use the research that they have, and the media that they have access to maintain the image of women that will allow them to sell the most stuff. She ties it all together, by going back to the magazines that changed the sorts of stories they carry, and showing the connections between them and the advertisers.

The Fox executives probably didn’t say “If November’s sleeping with Ballard we want her re-cast, because otherwise she won’t make women feel bad enough about themselves.” The process has probably got more complicated sine the 1950s, but the process will have remained the same. Researchers and marketers will tell the networks what the advertisers want them to hear.

The range of bodies that get shown on TV is so narrow, that Miracle Laurie has been trumpeted as exceptional. She was asked what it felt to look different from other women on set – as if the difference between a size zero or two and a size six or eight or whatever was a rubicon between the normal and the great unknown and unaccepted. She answered:
Let me start by saying thank you to those of you who have said ridiculously kind and sweet things about my work on the show, but also about my figure. It’s a very satisfying feeling to have one of the most influential creators, producers and writers in the industry fight to have “normal-sized women” on his shows. To have Joss Whedon say, “You’re beautiful, sexy, strong and normal and there should be more women like you on TV and I don’t know why there aren’t” feels incredible, as you could imagine. I think everyone wants to be skinnier than they are, it’s just the way it is

That Miracle Laurie is an exception when it comes to the amount of space women are allowed to take up on screen is ridiculous. That this is how far Joss Whedon can get when he fights is an indictment on the industry. Television can portray many things – but it needs to deliver an audience in a frame of mind to buy stuff - and self-hatred is a starting point advertisers love.


At comicon Joss was asked why he was fascinated by the idea of The Dollhouse:

Have you been in America? I mean I like to consider a myself great documentarian. The entire structure is designed to mess with your mind to combined selling you things with entertaining you. To keep you in line, to think that you need the thigns they want you to need, and to stay away from the things they want you to stay away from. To keep them in power, to share none of it. This is all happening. There are lights in the darkness. The art that we get to create because the powerful patrons let us is one of them. But sometimes, yeah, it’s like running the daycare on the death-star.

I love Joss; I love the television he creates. I’m convinced his politics have got more radical and outspoken since the writers strike, which is awesome. And if this speech is a tad self-indulgent, I’d be self-indulgent too if I got treated the way Joss gets treated at Comic-con.

But sometimes it’s not the daycare.