Some assert women fare better on television than in films: more complex roles, feminist issues explored. With some feminist series receiving nominations – Parks & Rec, Mad Men, The Killing, Friday Night Lights, The Good Wife – I hoped the Emmys awards show might reflect its nominees. Well, it did…and didn’t. The night was a veritable see-saw, bouncing between brilliant moments of feminist clarity and cringe-inducing sexist moments.
One of the finest (and funniest) moments occurred during the obligatory opening number. After ironically singing about “sexism, smoking and Scotch” as elements for “a good workplace environment,” host Jane Lynch strode onto the set of Mad Men. Don tells her to fetch him coffee, Pete says she should learn to type. Lynch responds that “a lot has changed since 1965” and that “women can marry other women.”
Peggy Olsen – “Does that mean women don’t have to sleep with men anymore to get to the top?”
Jane Lynch – “No, you still have to do that…”
Not only is “sexism” uttered on national television, but a commentary is made on how little we’ve evolved. Throughout the night, Lynch exuded humorous charisma, especially during a segue, when she says:
“A lot of people wonder why I’m a lesbian. The cast of Entourage!”
But apparently, not acting in accordance to your prescribed gender does matter. In the opening number, Leonard Nimoy tells Lynch she’s “the most logical choice” to host because:
“To men, you’re womanish; to women, you’re manish.”
Um, yeah. I’m not sure if this can actually be construed as a compliment or if it’s one of the most insulting things I’ve ever heard. Apparently as a lesbian, Lynch transgresses stereotypical gender roles. So that’s comical. Naturally.
This theme continued when during Ty Burrell’s acceptance speech for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy, he imagines his dad, agog over the amount of make-up he wears for work, saying:
“Couldn’t you just wear a little powder? Why do you have to look like a harlot?” And I would say, “Dad, just think of me as a very masculine lady.” “I already do, son.”
Why the hell did he need to make a joke about effeminate men?? Oh, right, because men acting like ladies is hi-lar-ious. Silly me.
When Modern Family won for Outstanding Comedy, writer Steven Levitan mentioned tolerance and representing gay families. Of course he followed with a joke about “hot, young women” with “old men,” referring to the plethora of May/December romances. Ugh.
Beyond sexist comments, the Emmys not only conveyed gender inequities in Hollywood but racial disparities too. Yes, I saw women of color on-screen as presenters (Loretta Devine, Kerry Washington) and nominees (Sofia Vergara, Archie Panjabi, Taraji Henson, Veena Sud). But for every win, aside from the categories specifically designated for women, it was a white dude. No surprise.
Regarding gender disparities, one of my absolute favorite moments came when brilliantly hysterical Amy Poehler (one of my fave feminist celebs) and hilarious Melissa McCarthy took the stage. Before presenting the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie, the two comediennes joked:
“This year men finally broke through the glass ceiling. No more just looking pretty.” – Amy Poehler & Melissa McCarthy
YES…LOVE them! They went on to declare how it’s great to see men getting strong, complex roles and how they’ll still need to how a little skin, satirizing the sexist reality female actors face.
But for me, the best (and worst) moment of the night came during the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. After an awkward and insulting joke about Sofia Vergara’s accent (really?!), co-presenter Rob Lowe read the first name of the nominees, Amy Poehler who proudly strutted up onstage. What?! Hilarious! Then Melissa McCarthy went up, followed by Martha Plimpton, Edie Falco, Tina Fey (love her too!!) and Laura Linney. All the women stood onstage holding hands while the audience gave them a standing ovation. It was a beautiful moment conveying sisterly solidarity.
Then Lowe ruined it, calling the women “girls” (oh, how cute…puke) before reading Melissa McCarthy’s name as the winner. Everyone immediately swarmed around her with hugs. But the feminist spell of camaraderie broke as McCarthy was handed a bouquet, her head donned with a tiara. A freaking tiara. Because of course all women must be reduced to a beauty pageant contestant.
Now, I’m fully aware the gag was Poehler’s idea, at least going onstage. Initially, it was hilarious. I’m also pretty sure, especially as she’s inspired by Secretary Hillary Clinton and thanks her nannies at awards ceremonies, Poehler intended to make a mockery of pageants and their vapid focus on women’s external appearances.
But here’s the thing. With many people not understanding the subtle complexities and commentary on sexism from a show like Mad Men – and I’m not talking about people critiquing the show, disagreeing with my assertion that it’s incredibly feminist, accusing it of perpetuating sexism rather than commenting on it – instead focusing on the sartorial eye candy, waxing nostalgic and popping out 60s era clones (yep, Pan Am and The Playboy Club, I’m looking at you), I worry too many people won’t get the joke.
Despite the spiraling regression of gender equality in media and TV losing female screenwriters, people often view feminism as pesky and unnecessary, thinking we live in a post-feminist world. Yet we still have so far to go in achieving gender equity, on-screen and off. And even if (or hopefully when) we get to parity, there’s no guarantee sexist stereotypes, which hinder both women and men, will be automatically eradicated.
Yes, the Emmys addressed sexism. And I’m absolutely thrilled they did. But every time a moment gave me hope that people are tired of confining patriarchal stereotypes, another moment pissed me off.
I shouldn’t have to constantly be vacillating between laughing and cringing; I don’t want to shelve my feminist radar just to enjoy a show.
Megan Kearns is a blogger, freelance writer and activist. A feminist vegan, Megan blogs at The Opinioness of the World, where she writes about gender in pop culture, sexism in the media, reproductive justice and living vegan. She is the first Monthly Guest Contributor featured at Bitch Flicks, reviewing films and TV series from a feminist lens. Megan’s work has also appeared at Arts & Opinion, Feministing’s Community Blog, Italianieuropei, Open Letters Monthly, and A Safe World for Women. She earned her B.A. in Anthropology and Sociology and a Graduate Certificate in Women and Politics and Public Policy. Megan lives in Boston with more books than she will probably ever read in her lifetime.