Posts Tagged ‘Salon.com’

Leno? Conan? Who cares? Late night TV hasn’t been funny since… well, I can’t remember. But if you think the jokes are lame, brace yourself: a recent piece in Salon.com suggests that perhaps the reason the suck-o-meter seems to be stuck on high might have a little something to do with diversity in the writers’ room. Or, more accurately, the total lack thereof. (Did you know that if you added up all the women writers for Leno, Letterman, and Conan O’Brien, the grand total would be… zero? No, that–alas–is not a joke.) In her piece about the not-so-funny world of late-night comedy writing, Lynn Harris says:

…The 2007 Hollywood Writers Report by the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW), found that not only had women and minorities not made any hiring gains since 2005; in some areas, they had actually moved backward. And the 2009 report found little improvement, with women ‘stuck’ at 28 percent of television employment and 18 percent of film employment…[The report states] ‘America will continue to become increasingly diverse – this much is guaranteed. And reflecting these changes in staffing and stories is just good business.’

Harris goes on to describe the comedy writing process, in all it’s crude, immature, sometimes offensive, presumably very funny glory. And then, some stuff that’ll turn that smile upside-down:

Crude we can deal with, women in the business insist. Viciously sexist too, even, in context. That’s what’s fun… We can stand the heat, they say. We like the heat. That’s why we’re here. ‘It’s a very aggressive medium, and it’s not the medium for fragile flowers,’ says the venerable Janis Hirsch. ‘It’s a job. It’s not a perfect world. Women have to either nut up and get into the spirit of it or not look for a job on a show that’s all about men.’

Still, even some of the most florid trash-talkers – Hirsch included – also said that other lines do get crossed. And that’s where things get tricky. With so many bitch, asshole and cocksucker stories already flying, of course, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly when that happens; that’s the problem. But some women do say they’ve felt it like a sucker punch when everyday chain-yanking makes the leap from ‘process’ to personal. Just one example of many, from an experienced female writer: Once, in the writers’ room, she told a couple of jerky ex-boyfriend stories she thought could be good script fodder. This prompted another writer to start ranting – angrily, not riffing – about how women ‘always date jerks.’ Another narrowed his eyes at her. ‘A guy acting like an asshole? That’s what makes you spread your legs?’

Her observation: ‘When a guy tells a story about an ex-girlfriend screwing him over, he gets laughs and maybe sympathy. When a girl tells a story about a guy screwing her over, she gets a lecture, or worse. The whole discussion becomes a referendum on women’s sanity,’ she says. ‘I call this ‘nice guy misogyny,’ she goes on. ‘The real problem comes from the supposedly nice married guys who secretly resent women for being on their turf and take it out on them in various subtle ways.’

But it’s not only that. The fact that these women are so outnumbered is also likely to blame for a return to the old-school, blend-in style of Women at Work, an ethos that comes with its own buzzkills:

‘It’s hard to speak up and say, ‘I’m offended as a lady,’ because the whole point is you’re trying not to be different,’ says one female writer. (Aside: When she interviewed for one recent job, the executive producers had the following conversation right in front of her: ‘We already have a woman. Do you think she’ll mind?’) So – perhaps putting to rest some alleged male fears – women may sometimes wind up going along with stuff they wish they hadn’t. As sitcom writer Corinne Marshall put it in an essay on the Huffington Post: ‘While off-color humor suited my palate just fine, there were times when I felt I was selling out, taking something a little too far just to impress the boys. For example, joking about an actress’ weight. In my mind, it’s never OK to talk to guys about how fat a girl is and yet I found myself doing just that. Later, I felt really shitty… because I had betrayed a principle just to be down.’

There is pressure to prove that you’re impossible to offend, women say, which causes some to ‘overcompensate by being incredibly dirty,’ said one female sitcom writer…

For related reasons, they sometimes also keep some material to themselves – sometimes even the good stuff. ‘Even if I thought I had a really great dating joke I think I wouldn’t put it out there because I’d be afraid of being pegged as a little too boys-and-pizza — you know, girls-in-pajamas stuff,’ said the comedy variety writer.

Ugh. The truly offensive kicker in all of this: according to the piece, the late-night shows are all consciously looking for more women writers. I wonder if it’s ever occurred to the honchos at the helm that, perhaps one of the reasons more women aren’t banging down that door is because they’re still expected to check that second X chromosome before entering it? No matter how much they might “like the the heat”–might, in fact, thrive on the heat–these women are outnumbered, and, by virtue of that token status, feel forced to endure sexist missives, to out-gross-out the guys–even when they hate themselves for doing it–and to keep their mouths shut for fear of being called out as ‘that girl.’ With all that to contend with, it’s a miracle these women are funny at all. Imagine how funny they’d be if they could just be themselves.

It’s an extreme version of what so many of us face every day, when “trying not to be different” forces us to walk the line, dwelling in the space marked by the tension between blending in while trying to beat them at their own game and standing out and striving to change the rules altogether. And I’d venture to say such circumstances make our choices harder. After all, who (okay, who other than Sarah Silverman) would want to put herself in such a position? And, as it is with the writers, I wonder: how much does our performance, our contribution, suffer, when we’re expending so much energy managing our image? How much better could we be?

But the thing is, the more of us there are–and not just (wo)manning the pen, but everywhere–the more likely things will change. And that behooves everyone:

For that to really work, though, there have to chicks, plural. Not just one woman who’s therefore the woman and — as in some cases — diverted from the free-wheeling fart-topia by the demands of constant triangulation: pipe up, shut up, nut up?

…The bottom line here is what makes better comedy. And as [former Letterman scribe Nell] Scovell says, ‘It’s been my experience that a room with a fairer sampling of humanity will always produce funnier material.’

And that might just be worth staying up for.

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Now that the flurry that is August has subsided, a few quick hits to remind us that we are all, well, Undecided.

And apparently there are enough of us out there to prompt our own marketing niche. Hence, The New Decider Watch? Terminally undecided? Simply sneak a peak at your wrist:

The New Decider helps you make decisions: as the seconds tick round the words “yes” and “no” are alternately displayed. When you need to make a decision, simply glance at the watch for your answer. A magnifying dome sits just above the answer window to aid visibility
The New Decider may not always be right, but as Tony Soprano observes,“a wrong decision is better than indecision”.

The wisdom of Tony Soprano notwithstanding, we may think that indecision leads to stress. And clearly, it does. But a new study out of Portugal suggests that stress itself can lead to bad decision-making. The study, published in the July 31st of Science, reveals that chronic stress can switch our brain onto automatic pilot, so that we make choices out of habit, rather than thoughtful cognition:

The researchers looked into goal-orientated decisions (so those where consequences are taken into account) and automatic decisions (so those resulting from habit) as well as the switch between the two, and how this was affected by chronic stress.
To answer that Ferreira and colleagues used rats exposed to chronic stress and, together with normal control rats, put them through training to learn to press a lever in order to obtain food rewards. Both stressed and control rats responded very similarly, rising the number of pressings with time as they learned that this would increase the rewards obtained.
But when the situation was changed by feeding the animals on the side, so making the food rewards less appealing, while control rats were able to re-evaluate the situation and diminish the number of pressings, stressed rats continued to push the lever constantly despite the effort this required. This suggested that once a habit was established stressed animals were no longer capable of switching the response back.

On another topic, but clearly related, Meryl Streep riffs on work-life balance and gender issues, Hollywood style, in a ten-minute interview she granted
salon.com a few weeks back. Love what she says here:

You had a famous quip in the 1990s about how difficult it was for older women to get good roles — that Hollywood producers don’t want to cast women who remind them of their first wives. Recently, you’ve said that you don’t think anything has changed dramatically. And yet you’re wildly in demand …
I don’t think they have changed dramatically, otherwise all the actors my age would be working as much as I am. And I think I have surfed a wave of very good fortune. I guess, starting with ["The Devil Wears Prada"] it has to do with the money coming back in big blockbusters. But if there were more female-driven, interesting projects that were widely distributed … That audience is there, they want to go.
There does seem to be a strange amnesia after women-targeted films, like “Mamma Mia,” are huge hits.
In the blogosphere. Because the blogosphere is still mostly fellas. Somehow they have all the spare time because — I guess, someone else is cooking, or cleaning, or doing whatever it is that needs to be done. [Laughs]

In other words, we may be the breadwinners, but we’re still expected to, um, butter the toast? USA Today reports that by October or November of this year, women will represent the majority of workers. But will numbers give us parity or equality. Nope. From the article:

The change reflects the growing importance of women as wage earners, but it doesn’t show full equality, Hartmann says. On average, women work fewer hours than men, hold more part-time jobs and earn 77% of what men make, she says. Men also still dominate higher-paying executive ranks.

On the other hand, we may not be fully represented in the boardrooms, but we do have spending power. According to “WOMEN WANT MORE: How to Capture Your Share of the World’s Largest, Fastest-Growing Market” (HarperBusiness, September 2009), educated working women may drive the new economy, with some $5 trillion in incremental earnings to spend. Which may give us some leverage, at least as consumers. From a press release about the book:

“WOMEN WANT MORE” is based on The Boston Consulting Group Global Inquiry into Women and Consumerism, a survey of more than 12,000 women in 22 countries around the world, comprehensive one-on-one interviews, as well as the authors’ decades of experience with companies and consumers worldwide. The survey results show that women are dissatisfied with the products and services available to them in many categories, largely because companies misunderstand women’s issues and fail to answer their needs. Most of all, women are overwhelmed by demands on their time and the challenges of dealing with the many roles they typically play — as wives, mothers, partners, professionals, friends, colleagues, sisters, and daughters.

And finally, this being the day after Labor Day, a back-to-school item. Newsday.com reports that as the economy falls, the number of college students stressed about choosing a major spikes. (Dirty little secret: Your major? Doesn’t always matter.) The response, on some campuses, is to relieve students’ anxiety by encouraging them to take a taste test to find what they truly love, rather than worrying about a career. Others, such as Hofstra, are piloting programs to help students navigate the decision-making process:

Ten students will meet once a week for two months and participate in a series of exercises designed to reveal their talents, skills and interests. By the end of eight weeks, the goal is for each to choose a major.
“They come in thinking they absolutely have to know what they’re doing from the beginning of freshman year,” said Jayne Brownell, assistant vice president of student affairs. “But they are putting false pressure on themselves, and placing too much importance on the choice of a major in determining life success.”
Brownell ought to know. She majored in women’s studies at Rutgers University. “When people asked me my major and what I was going to do when I graduated, I didn’t have an answer,” she said. She spent five years as a business manager for an advertising company right after graduation.
“You’re not going to have one career anymore,” she said. “That isn’t the way the world works. I think my education served me very well over time.”

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2mad_men_10_restrict_width_792The newest “Are You A ….” game to pop up here in cyberspace involves Peggy and Joan, the two female stars of Mad Men, the spot-on series set in an advertising agency in the early 60′s. It starts its third season on Sunday. Full disclosure: I can’t wait.

For those new to the series, Peggy is the mousy twenty-something who starts as a secretary and works up to being a copywriter, the only woman with that title in the entire agency. Maybe even in the whole testosterone-charged industry. She’s a little bit frumpy and somewhat sexless — though she did get knocked up the first season. Joan is the sexy red-headed office manager who runs the ship while the guys are out drinking martinis. She wears tight dresses in bold colors (who says redheads can’t wear red?), hair in a sky-high beehive, and is clearly smarter than most of the men around her. But no one notices.

This new game, MadMen Yourself, invites you to get your Peggy or Joan on via virtual paper-dolls. You can play with fashions, hairdos, accessories — you name it — all to find your persona in a mid-century fantasy.

This is only the latest in a long line of games inviting women to define themselves in terms of TV characters, from SATC to Golden Girls: Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha or Miranda? Dorothy, Sophia, Blanche or Rose? The thing with those games, though, is that you always knew who you wanted to be before you started — and tried to game the answers accordingly.

Which makes me wonder: as it is in sit-com games, also in life? Do we first choose a character, then make decisions based on type? Do we allow ourselves inconsistency? Self-discovery? Forks in the road? And is that what gets us into trouble?

But back to Peggy and Joan. The girls from Salon’s Broadsheet recently had great fun playing with MadMen Yourself, writes Tracy Clark-Flory, who pondered why her crew of “brassy feminists” is so eager for some retro role-playing:

Well, I happen to think there’s plenty of room within feminism for personal contradiction — or, as I prefer to call it, evolutionary growing pains. That said, you don’t have to be a psychologist to recognize that a large part of the satisfaction derived from this kind of silly exercise comes from simple self-identification. It’s the “oh, I’m that type” recognition that people get from personality tests — whether it’s Myers-Briggs or the “Sex and the City” character quiz. In the “Mad Men” world, choices are pretty limited: Peggy or Joan? Jackie O. or Marilyn? Or, put in timeless terms: Wife or whore…

I so agree with what she says about room for personal contradiction when it comes to feminism. (And, in fact, didn’t a certain intolerance for that contradiction once push some feminists out of the tent?) But it’s the either/or that gets us into trouble. Especially when it comes to decisions — why we make them, why we can’t, and why we keep looking over our shoulders.

Meanwhile, back to that full disclosure I mentioned up top. For a few minutes (or, alternately, what seemed like an eternity) after college — long after the Mad Men era — I worked at an advertising agency, where I was caught in my own slice of Peggy-Joan land. The only woman in the small shop, I hired on as a copy-writer. Great, the bosses said. But you still have to sit at the front desk and answer the phones.

Oh yes. And look cute.

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You know what I love about cooking? I love that after a day where nothing is sure–and when I say nothing, I mean nothing–you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.

So says Julie, the modern-day half of the heroines featured in Nora Ephron’s new comedy “Julie & Julia.” By now I’m sure you know the backstory: in 2002, then 29 year-old office drone/aspiring writer Julie Powell decided to cook her way through the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, and blog about it. Well, the blog turned into a (bestselling) book, and the book begot the movie, which charts the parallel lives of Powell and Child, both looking for something to do with their lives–and stumbling upon their calling. Of the premise, food defender Michael Pollan wrote in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine:

The movie shuttles back and forth between Julie’s year of compulsive cooking and blogging in Queens in 2002 and Julia’s decade in Paris and Provence a half-century earlier. Julia Child in 1949 was in some ways in the same boat in which Julie Powell found herself in 2002; happily married to a really nice guy, but feeling, acutely, the lack of a life project. Living in Paris, where her husband, Paul Child, was posted in the diplomatic corps, Julia (who like Julie had worked as a secretary) was at a loss as to what to do with her life until she realized that what she liked to do best was eat. So she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu and learned how to cook. As with Julia, so with Julie: cooking saved her life, giving her a project and, eventually, a path to literary success.

Granted, the argument that cooking can save a woman’s life leads to some relatively dicey territory, although I don’t think Pollan’s motives sexist (though decidedly foodist). In fact, it’s worth noting that 1963, the year Julia Child’s “The French Chef” went on the air, was the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique.” Rather than arguing about who wanted whom out of–or stuck in–the kitchen, I think it’s safe to say that Julia Child became a sort of feminist trailblazer. As Kate Harding put it on Salon.com’s Broadsheet:

I love [Child] in large part because she proved that a woman could follow her bliss to succeed wildly in a male-dominated profession. I love Julia Child because her going into the kitchen helped a lot of women with different dreams and talents get out of it.

And that she did. But I think what’s most inspiring about both Child and Powell is, ironically, that their willingness to go forth without a recipe–to follow their bliss and take it as it comes–led them both to their calling.

There’s a certain, passive implication inherent in the notion of ‘finding your calling.’ It’s as though the skies will part, lightning will strike and we’ll hear a voice, calling us to whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing with ourselves. But waiting for lightning to strike seems like a pretty pointless–not to mention frustrating–endeavor. Maybe we while away our days twiddling our thumbs and pondering our navels while awaiting the great revelation; or maybe we feel somehow deficient for never hearing the great Call. Obviously, we all want to be doing something meaningful. But maybe we’ve got it backwards. Maybe the smarter recipe for this kind of fulfillment is to just set off towards something–anything–and see where it takes us.

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Yesterday in Cary Tennis’ advice column in Salon.com, he doled out some wisdom to a tormented soon-to-be law student. Or maybe not. In her letter, “Terrified” has this to say:

With every day that passes, I am fighting a rising sense of utter panic. I don’t know if I want to do this. I have been working my whole life toward this moment… all with my eye on the prize of admission to law school and an eventual J.D. My father is a lawyer and since I was a little girl I have dreamed about following in his footsteps. The problem, I think, is that law school has been my goal for so long that I’ve never really stopped to examine it, and now I’m afraid that it’s way too late to change my mind… Despite the fact that my dad and I are very similar people, he never had experiences like mine. My priorities are just… well, different. He graduated from a state law school and has practiced in his home state ever since. I am a mover; I yearn to go; I don’t want to stay in one place and work myself to the bone… When I think about being a lawyer, I panic. In my heart I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

My heart bleeds for the girl—maybe because I’ve been there. Haven’t we all? That unpleasant place where it feels as though you’re on cruise control, being driven by inertia, watching the time go by, second-guessing every decision you’ve ever made that’s brought you to this point, and convinced that stopping the train would take strength of superhuman proportions. “Terrified” describes feeling that it’s “way too late” to change directions. I stuck on those words, let my mind ramble, and lingered on a thought: do you ever hear men talk this way? Do you think the message we as women are fed—that our stock goes down as our age goes up—makes us extra conscious of the clock, an underlying worry that seeps into everything, intensifying the pressure we feel every time we find ourselves at a crossroads? And then there’s Jack Welch’s “women can’t have it all” comment, which Barbara blogged about yesterday. It’s 2009, and still we fight that idea, even as we internalize it: if I can’t have it all, I better pick wisely. And in a hurry. The clock’s a-tickin’.

Tennis’ advice? Think happy thoughts, go to law school. You can always drop out if you change your mind.

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