The actress who rethought gender in the workplace

MTM

Originally published in Politico Magazine

To understand the complex dynamics of gender and equality in the workplace, you could read academic treatises, review statistics, absorb a million think pieces in a million magazines.

Or you could watch the 49th episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In The Good-Time News, which first aired in September 1972, Mary Richards—the only female associate producer in a Minneapolis TV newsroom—discovers that her male predecessor made $50 more per week than she is paid. Incensed, Mary storms into the office of her boss, Lou Grant, but suddenly loses her nerve. She fumbles through her complaint, finally spits it out, and finds Grant genuinely flummoxed by her anger. Why was this guy paid better than she? “Because he was a man,” Grant says, matter-of-factly.

Some women’s rights advocates have complained that Mary Richards, the working woman Moore played for seven influential seasons on CBS, was too passive and congenial to be a true feminist icon. But it was those contours of her personality—the authentic sense that she was grasping for the best way to assert herself in a man’s world—that made these scenes so meaningful. It’s easy to craft righteous speeches in your head or, these days, to pour out earnest, abstract diatribes on Twitter. It’s harder to navigate real-world relationships, to assert yourself in the thicket of power, hierarchy and respect. So it is in The Good-Time News: Grant’s sexism isn’t hostile so much as perfunctory. (“He had a family to support. You don’t,” is his further explanation of the pay disparity.) Richards truly likes him—and loves her job. Later in the episode, she is not afraid to contradict Grant in front of his boss. And in the end, out of respect, he gives her the raise.

Read the rest here.

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Why Matt Lauer’s firing feels different

Matt Lauer.jpg

Originally published in Politico Magazine

Even if you weren’t a faithful viewer of NBC’s “Today”—even if you were inclined to feel a little cynical about the whole morning TV enterprise—the news of Matt Lauer’s termination hit like an earthquake. It’s not just that another prominent media name wound up on the list of men behaving badly. It was this guy, who had come to symbolize morning TV for the past 20 years. This guy, reminding us that the friendly, dad-like figure onscreen at dawn was problematic, possibly sinister, impossibly flawed.

Lauer was fired on Tuesday over an allegation of sexual misconduct at NBC. Afterward, Variety published an account of several more accusations against Lauer, including that he gifted a sex toy to a colleague, and dropped his pants in front of another. It was a shock. Rumors had swirled around Lauer for years. His personal life was not spotless. But he’d endured as one of TV’s best-known, best-paid anchors, in part because his public persona was so intertwined with the gauzy mood of “Today.” NBC’s on-again, off-again ratings giant remains the apotheosis of the morning show, setting the tone for the genre across the TV dial long before Lauer occupied a seat on the couch. It was hard to imagine that the morning show’s host might be any less pleasant than his cheerful surroundings.

Read the rest here.

Why won’t TV show people who aren’t rich?

The Middle

Originally published in Politico Magazine

This year marks the final season of what might be the most underappreciated sitcom on TV, ABC’s “The Middle.” It’s a single-camera show about an Indiana family—the title refers to its characters’ Middle-American, middle-class existence—and unlike the edgy comedies and tear-jerker dramas that dominate awards time, its humor is unapologetically middlebrow. But “The Middle” is charming, appealing and funny, in no small part because it has another distinction: It’s one of a precious few shows on TV today that focuses, consistently and honestly, on economic anxiety.

If there were ever a time to double down on stories of the American middle-class struggle, this is it. We’re in the midst of a new Gilded Age, with soaring inequality and stagnant wages—the phenomena that helped make Donald Trump president. We’re also enjoying a golden age of TV, with more networks and platforms creating more scripted shows than ever. Plenty of smart, acclaimed series have tackled complex social themes with sophistication and sensitivity—think “The Wire” for the urban drug war; “Mad Men” for gender; “Atlanta,” “Black-ish” and “Insecure” for race; “Master of None” for the Muslim-American experience. Even “Game of Thrones” teaches real-world lessons about politics and power. At its best, television holds up a mirror to society and helps us better understand who we are. So the dearth of shows that focus on financial insecurity feels especially glaring.

Read the rest here.

Why I wouldn’t buy sneakers from Manti Te’o

Manti Te’o and Katie Couric have the same publicist, which goes a long way toward explaining how Couric — as opposed to, say, Oprah — landed the first on-camera interview with Te’o yesterday on her syndicated talk show, “Katie.” It was an unmitigated success for Couric, whose ratings soared to their highest levels since her show’s debut. She has been praised for her willingness to ask follow-up questions, and for the fact that she seemed tough, channeling a nation’s skepticism about the world’s weirdest supposed love-story hoax.

Couric wasn’t Oprah, so she didn’t have that grand bearing, that Oprah-esque way of suggesting that someone has Wronged The Nation and Must Be Set Right.
But then, Te’o didn’t wrong a nation so much as he confused and unwittingly entertained it. So Couric’s demeanor fit: She was more like your high school friend’s nice-but-nosy mom, who would sit you down at the kitchen table and pour you a Coke and ask you probing questions about your life. With Te’o, she couldn’t believe the answers — not because she’s a journalist with a killer instinct, but because she’s a human being with a normal amount of sense in her head.

(Read the rest of my post from Boston.com’s The Angle blog here.)

Hollywood’s gun fetish

SO I just watched the trailer for “Gangster Squad,” and it goes something like this: Gun, gun, shot of phallic-looking building, Ryan Gosling, gun, firefight, is that Nick Nolte?, firefight, guns getting handed out like candy, someone getting hit with a gun barrel, guy pointing gun in other guy’s face, gun, gun, firefight, explosion, raid involving guns, casings falling cinematically to the floor.

It’s two and a half minutes long, so I left out a lot of guns.

Less than a month after the Newtown tragedy, this is what Hollywood is peddling, without shame: A firearms-glorifying culture that competes, inside our brains, with the impulse to stop the spread of actual firearms. A few weeks ago, the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns posted a video featuring outraged-looking movie stars, urging the public to rally for gun control. Someone soon reposted it on YouTube, spliced with images of those actors shooting guns onscreen.

The blanket charge of hypocrisy wasn’t entirely fair. Some of those scenes were actually trying to spoof gun culture. Sometimes violence is used in the service of art. And studios wouldn’t make these movies if the public didn’t want them, right?

Well, maybe, maybe not.

(Read the rest of my Boston Globe column here.)

Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o, and the power of the story

YOU’VE GOT to hand it to Oprah. She has established herself as America’s confessor, which, in a way, makes life easy for her interviewees. Oprah’s not going to absolve you or coddle you. She’s going to raise her eyebrows with majestic skepticism and speak grandly, for the nation. And so the person in her crosshairs — this week, Lance Armstrong — is freed to play his own expected part: the relieved confessee.

That’s how Armstrong tried to present himself for the last two nights, criticizing himself while displaying scant emotion, declaring — unconvincingly — that he’s happier now, with the truth laid bare, than he was when he was winning all those races.

The substance of his confession isn’t really news: He doped for years, lied about it, and vilified anyone who told the truth. That’s why the most instructive thing he said came Thursday night, when he offered a damning explanation of why he did it: not because he wanted to win, not because everyone else was doing it, but because he was too weak to put an end to the story he’d helped create. His was the “perfect” tale, he said, the athlete who beat cancer and went on to win the Tour de France seven times.

“Behind that picture, and behind that story, was momentum,” Armstrong said. “And I lost myself in all that.”

It was a clever statement, because it implicated the rest of us, too.
(Read the rest of the column from the Boston Globe here.)

A TV list for 2011. Just because.

In my previous job, covering TV for the Globe, I took it upon myself to write an annual top-10 list. Not all critics like doing this; my friend Wesley Morris is always trying to bend the rules, coming up with 11 or 21 entries, or expanding the definition of a “list.” But I like reading lists, and I miss writing them, though my TV viewing isn’t as complete as it used to be. So I wrote one, rules-free, Wesley-style: my top ten favorite TV shows/moments/experiences of 2011, in no particular order.

1. Game of Thrones, HBO. When I first got the press kit from HBO, with its medieval facial hair and vast family trees, I thought, “No way in hell would I enjoy this.” I was wrong. From the mesmerizing credits sequence on, I was fully geeked out and blissfully happy. My favorite thing about the show is the depth of female characters. No pretty and pointless “Lord of the Rings” elves here. I’d match Daenerys Targaryen up to Lisbeth Salander anyday.

2) Louie, FX. Louis C.K. is one of the funniest comedians alive, and “Louie” is funny, too, but it’s also the saddest show on television, and the melancholy is beautiful to watch.

3) The “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode of Community, NBC. “Community” often runs the risk of being clever at the expense of funny, but this episode – about alternate timelines created by the roll of a dice — was genuinely clever, surprisingly sweet, and possibly one of my all-time favorite half-hours of TV. It understood its characters perfectly, and rewarded them for being themselves.

4) Homeland, Showtime. Speaking of characters: My mind is still spinning over Carrie Matheson, Saul Berenson, and Nick Brody, America’s most lovable TV terrorist. Yes, you had to suspend some disbelief to think a domestic terror plot would play out this way. And yes, I shared many people’s fears that this would show would fall into one of many “24” traps; I think I might have literally prayed that there wouldn’t be a mole in the CIA. But the writing was surprising, the directing was suspenseful, and the acting was impeccable.

5) All-American Muslim, TLC. No, it’s not the most interesting show on TV. It might be the most boring show on TV. But TLC’s under-attack docu-reality show deserves credit for being respectful and informative, and for sparking a healthy backlash against both paranoid haters and cowardly businesspeople.

6) Parks and Recreation, NBC. After Charlie Sheen’s implosion, I binged on “Two and a Half Men” episodes and grew profoundly depressed about the human condition. “Parks and Recreation” was the antidote, proof that you can be really funny and really nice at the same time.

7) The Republican presidential debates — all of them. Or at least, all of the ones I’ve managed to watch. Just as we’ve hit reality TV overload, here comes a docu-study of middle-aged politicians in suits: an insane cast of characters, steeled for conflict, experiencing the occasional brain freeze (“Oops”). They should just rename them “Real World: Des Moines.”

8.) Les Jeunes de Paris sketch, Saturday Night Live, NBC. There was nothing kookier and more enchanting on “SNL” this season than this choreographed dance to French pop music, the brainchild of most-valuable-featured-player Taran Killam. There were a few this year, but the best one featured Miley Cyrus, who is actually quite lovable when she’s dancing like a dork.

9) The Daily Show, Comedy Central. Still makes me laugh out loud on a nightly basis. And as political commentary, it always stings.

10) The Brady Bunch, my DVD player. No, it’s not televised right now, and the reruns haven’t aired for years. But once I rediscovered “The Brady Bunch” — while researching a column about the death of Sherwood Schwartz — the DVDs became a staple in my household. If “Parks and Rec” is the antidote to “Two and a Half Men,” then “The Brady Bunch” is the antidote to every obnoxious tween show on TV. It’s real kids, in real situations, and they fight, but with no sass. Also, the clothes are remarkable. “That’s quite a nightgown,” I told my seven-year-old the other night, as we watched Florence Henderson sashay across the screen while encased in pink gauze. “She has a lot of ‘quite’ nightgowns,” my daughter replied. So true. So true.

Courage, cowardice, and TLC’S ‘All-American Muslim’

IT HAS BEEN  deeply amusing to see companies twist themselves into knots to explain why they pulled ads from TLC’s “All-American Muslim’’ — specifically, why caving to a miniscule group of religious extremists does not, by definition, make them companies that cave to a miniscule group of religious extremists.

“We have a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion,’’ went a post on the Lowe’s Facebook page. Meanwhile, the CEO of Kayak.com wrote a blog post insisting that “we’re not bigots.’’ Rather, they’re just uncourageous: “We do try to avoid advertising on shows that may produce controversy, whether we support the content or not.’’

I’m still wondering where Kayak.com stands on the rest of the TLC lineup, which includes such shows as “The Virgin Diaries,’’ “Sister Wives,’’ and “Hoarding: Buried Alive.’’ I just watched a promo for an episode of “Strange Addiction,’’ in which a woman dips her fingers into her dead husband’s urn and eats the ashes.

By contrast, “All-American Muslim’’ is so milquetoast that it’s practically sleep-inducing. There’s a strong case to be made that “All-American Muslim’’ is TLC’s most benign show in years, and also its most useful.
Read the full column from the Boston Globe here. (Links are free!)

Why Generation X loves the Muppet Movie

GOOD NEWS on the culture front: Yes, the latest “Twilight’’ film topped the box office last weekend, but a lot of Generation Xers dragged their kids to “The Muppet Movie’’ instead.

This is partly a matter of deftly marketed nostalgia: Now that a generation raised on consumer culture is immersed in parenting, everyone is trying to cash in. This holiday season, Toys “R’’ Us is re-airing vintage 1980s ads. Nickelodeon is thinking of airing “Brady Bunch’’ reruns at night, with pop-up thought bubbles that tell us what Carol was really thinking. At the movies, I’ve sat through computer-updated versions of “The Smurfs’’ and “Alvin and the Chipmunks,’’ all of which seemed calculated, unnecessary, and largely unfunny.

“The Muppet Movie’’ feels different: not a reboot for modern sensibilities and wallets, but an effort to recapture something lost. At the multiplex last weekend, it was the parents who were laughing the loudest, bouncing up and down blissfully at the sight of that old “Muppet Show’’ set. The world of the Muppets is as crudely low-tech as ever; Kermit the Frog’s head presumably still has a hand inside it. But even to jaded GenXers, his personality feels real.

Read the rest of the column from the Boston Globe here.

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