She had me at ungraceful exposure of honest thought, Part 1

Dear Millicent,

The attacks against and defense of Tina Fey in the past week have made for an interesting keyhole to peek in on the state of women’s humor in our fine media.  Fey has been called out on being too attractive, judging other women, and saying whore all the time.  My biggest problem with her grand work on 30 Rock is that Jack always saves the day for Liz Lemon when she gets in a pickle.

But what I love love love about Fey isn’t her insistence she is ugly, as much as the depiction of society’s insistence that she is ugly–that she lives in a world where the aptly captured pretty bubble exists for the likes of John Hamm and Cerie (the braless socialite receptionist).  Jack also lives in this bubble, though his is also padded by extreme wealth, and the joke is that the world does suck for the not infinitely blessed.   We can’t hate on Fey for being good looking.  That isn’t what she is doing here.  As our parents told us all through high school, we  are all very attractive, and as we learned in high school, that does jackshit for your self esteem when you are swimming with beautiful sharks every day who don’t have the same trials of plainitude as the masses.  How can anyone fully announce their prettiness, when they are obviously not within the pretty bubble? I think Rebecca Traister nailed it in her defense of Fey when she said “Occasionally suffocating self-awareness is the hallmark of Fey’s style. She’s not pretending to be anybody’s ideal, least of all her own.”

But what this really got me thinking about is how my favorite TV creation, and one that is rarely stumbled on, is the messy woman that is neither adorable or nunnish.  This might be considered the omega female, but it doesn’t have to be.  Instead of full out loser, she is simply as uncensored as the menfolk.  She is allowed the ambiguities and inanity of being a real human.

She may be attractive or unattractive, but what makes her interesting is that the camera doesn’t cut away when things get unladylike.    Also, I should add that I’m not suggesting that fictional characters have to be painfully set in realism, as much as that male characters (especially in comedy) are allowed all kinds of disgraces and the depth they offer, where women usually don’t.

For lack of a more creative term, I’m calling these dames the Nu woman, as Nu is  stuck in the middle (like most of us) of that Greek alphabet which has become our powerseat rating system.  (Let me know if you think of a better name, the other choice I had was the Mu, or the MuNu?).  The Nu women have a little sprinkle of both Alpha and Omega in their landscape, and they are a very rare breed.  I get so spooked (happily) when I see one on my TV that I usually lean forward, and my pulse quickens. “They went there!” I think, or “A woman definitely wrote that.” or “Oh, I do get that.”  I watch with glee and worry at what they are exposing about the darker corners of my adult charade.

Faux Nu women are rampant, and perhaps we owe them a trailblazing award, but I’m not feeling generous.  They are usually identified by their escapades with the nitty gritty of grooming or birth control (I’m thinking of Bridget Jones cursing as she waxes herself, or Rachel Griffiths in the very good Me Myself I watching as her diaphragm zings across the bathroom). I’m also thinking of all the sitcom tries at this…Rachel, Monica, Phoebe…Caroline in the City…even the ladies of my beloved Girlfriends.

Elaine Bennis leans heavily toward the Nu woman, especially with her lack of sentimentality (who can forget her questioning of “sponge worthiness”), and it was her prickly self-absorption that made her a character first in that ensemble cast, instead of a woman that was only there to prod the boys along in their understanding of themselves.  We also have Maude.  Yes.  Maude was definitely a Nu.

Also, as I have mentioned before, I think the 70s were kinder to Nu woman development. We have Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, leaving her body during sex, and all the ambiguity that her character symbolizes about relationships and their unarticulated endings. And, Ellen Burstyn  in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, who treats her child with a less than standard ideal of care.  They often have moments where expected sentimentality is strikingly lacking (a woman untender and unhysterical towards her lover, a mother disliking her child or her station), and it ultimately isn’t because they are lacking, as much as resisting any pat formula that is ready to fall on them and wrap them in the expected veil.

And that is why I love the women on TV who exist as creatures of the same universe as the men.  Sarah Haskins embarked on this well with her “Women and Advertising” series, always contrasting the image of a woman (tamed, perfumed, in love with housework) to the earthy existence that wasn’t a Cathy version of pathetic ladyhood as much as the fact that girls live very much as men: they drink beer, they poop, they wake up looking less than pert.  Are their differences? Yes, but the brass facts exist that a real woman is a sloppier less attractive thing than what is usually presented, and a more interesting thing as well.

And, as we’ll discuss in Part II, the Brits are so much better at this than we are.



3 Responses to She had me at ungraceful exposure of honest thought, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Part 2: The Brits Get It « Millicent and Carla Fran

  2. Pingback: Sloppy Jane « Millicent and Carla Fran

  3. Deb Chasteen says:

    Love the phrase “faux nu women.” I have been so enraged tears sprung to my eyes at one movie, at which conclusion I stormed to the ticket counter to demand my money back. (No dice.) The flick? “Thelma and Louise.” Progressive? Feminist? No. It’s an overwrought and picaresque episode of “I Love Lucy,” where Lucy and Ethel have to keep wading in deeper and deeper (eating assembly line chocolates, faking names and accents), when they go for something they want. Thelma and Louise started out being naughty when disappointed (rather than looking for life-enhancing alternatives), then manically let situations escalate a’ la Lucy. But the movie’s best achievement is how it combines most previous forms of visual entertainment, from Homer to Hitchcock, and brings it to the same head: THE WOMEN HAVE TO DIE AT THE END BECAUSE THEY WERE BAD. Same message you get from the teen slasher movie, when the girl who puts out is the girl who ends up with her entrails out. Thelma and Louise are not nu women.

    Did I mention that I’m glad the fug girls brought me over? I’d already read your article on 17th cent. boob-wrangling, but didn’t know the source.

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