NBC announced a new hour-long drama, recently, for their Fall 2009 Schedule. Among the pick-ups was the show “Mercy” an amalgam of various other female oriented doctor shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.” This time of course focusing on nurses.
What’s interesting about the show, which is otherwise unremarkable (Doctor/Hospital shows have been standard fare aimed at women since the days of Radio Soap Operas in the 1930’s) is the shifting attitudes towards love, marriage, sex, and commitment held by women.
Looking at the clip, you can see a number of female fantasies that are obviously not true, such as older, “harder” looking women are more attractive than younger, nicer women, or that being “smart” is a draw back for women regarding their attractiveness (it is not, only for men is this so). The older women clearly have multiple men of high status interested in them, the younger, more physically attractive woman who is “smarter” or at least has a very mentioned “Master’s Degree” from Penn, is made to look unattractive. A typical female fantasy aimed of course at women past their mid twenties at least. The usual TV cliches of the “wise old dying woman concerned most about the hero’s self-confidence” and “wise Black Doctor” are also present, to the show’s detriment. [Black Doctors according to the AMA number 3.5% of total physicians, making the character of the “wise Black Doctor” extremely uncommon and thus PC, asserting something is true when it is manifestly not.]
There is also the usual buffoonish characterization of men, found in female-oriented TV dramas. Either handsome, powerful studs (the new Doctor, the bartender), gay co-workers, or cartoonishly inept ordinary men shown up by the women. These are the roles that men play in much of women’s television shows and movies.
But what is most interesting is how attitudes about love and marriage and sexual attraction play out in the clip. It would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago, in 1994, for a TV show aimed at women to depict the central female lead who is married, happily, to a guy shown as nice and decent, to instinctively make out with an old flame the moment she can get him alone. Much less to contemplate an affair, with the encouragement of her co-worker friend. Or flirt shamelessly with a bartender after work, again with the encouragement of her friend.
This represents what amounts to a sea-change in female attitudes towards sex, love, and marriage. Marriage for the most part is seen as an “at will employment contract” and it’s notable that the lead female character experiences no sense of shame or betrayal in making out with her old flame or contemplating an affair. Because the old flame is “hot” and has a superior social position to her husband, who is presented as an amiable but unimportant guy.
Moreover, the female lead is not criticized by her female pal for pursuing the old flame or flirting with the Bartender. The behavior is “excusable” because the guys are “hot.” In marked contrast to the either cartoonish bumblers around her or the “fabulously gay” pal who works alongside her (most male nurses are either hard-working and married Filipino men or ex-Navy Corpsmen, tough and most assuredly not gay). Thus none of the male co-workers particularly those of exactly equal status are bearers of inconvenient sexual desire or figures of romance, either.
The pilot for this show very likely cost around $5 million. It’s likely that production costs will drop somewhere between $3 and $4 million per episode, making the total outlay for the production company between $41 and $51 for a 13 episode run, and $68 to $89 million for a full 22 episode run. NBC (assuming this is an outside, not GE-Universal production company) will be on the hook for likely $2 million per episode, licensing cost, so that’s $26 to $44 million dollars depending if only 13 episodes are ordered or “the back nine” are added on a for full season’s run.
Catering to a female oriented audience in a pilot like this is not left to chance. Study and focus groups galore, market research, the favorability index of actors and actresses, all are tested and analyzed in exhaustive detail. Because there is a lot of money on the line. The production company hopes to make up deficit financing by syndication and DVD sales, the network to sell ads at higher rates than the licensing costs (and not have to engage in “give-backs” where if targets are not met, advertisers get more ads running).
NBC and the production company are making huge bets involving millions of dollars that these themes are what women want to see. And what women want to see is largely, a female sexual utopia of hot men around every corner, men who’s status only improves with age and who’s desire for them only increases as they get older, and with whom they can indulge romantic and sexual interludes with no more consequences than terminating an at-will employee. Variations of these themes can be found in “Desperate Housewives,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Private Practice.” The market for them is quite lucrative, though bounded by the fact that no (straight) man will watch them.
Nothing takes place in a vacuum, however, and cultural shift in women (always the sexual gatekeepers) towards a more “gay” viewpoint on sex and marriage (i.e. “hotness” of the prospective sex partner outweighs any boring old marriage vows) creates it’s own problem for women.
In reality, men do not find older women more attractive than younger ones. Men prefer more not average intelligence in women (higher IQ correlates with greater future time orientation, less desire to fulfill an immediate sexual desire at the cost of a relationship/marriage). Women of course prefer average IQ over intelligence, as intelligence in men correlates with lower testosterone levels, a man of an IQ of 70 having the same testosterone as a man of 130 IQ.
The cosmetics industry may have a 1.9 billion set of reasons to tell women that as they age they can be just as attractive as younger women, but the reality is different. So too is the idea that men view women’s intelligence the way women view men’s (i.e. most desirable by being “average.”)
Sadly, the female fantasies are the flip-side of all those Hollywood movies and television shows featuring kick-ass hot women and nerdy nice guys who win over the hot babe by being “nice,” “sensitive,” and of course, “smart.” Qualities which women find either annoying or irrelevant or “gay” in men. The women in question of course being fascinated by kicking ass and taking names, not obnoxiously girly stuff like shopping, fashion, and hanging around their female friends (in other words, the ass-kicking waifs and babes are completely devoid or real female characteristics).
Neither the male-oriented “kick ass fantasy girl” shows (“Chuck,” or “Eleventh Hour” or “NUMB3RS” or “Terminator”) nor the female oriented sexual fantasy shows offer realistic approaches to men and women groping around for strategies that provides some measure of success and happiness in romantic life.
Women are flat out lied to regarding their sexual power: strongest in their youth, fading fast afterwards, and subject to inconvenient male desire from co-workers and others of equal status. Nearly all their male co-workers will be straight. Hunky doctors will not find them objects of intense passion, and once divorced it will be much harder for them to find a man willing to marry them (as unlike for men, a complex sexual past makes women less not more desirable). Female fantasy shows generally lie to women about how men’s attraction works, showing a model that is just like women’s, depending on validation by other men, instead of the truth which prizes beauty, intelligence, and a lack of any meaningful relationships and complex sexual past.
Men of course are lied to as well in their fantasies, with the model of simply hanging around being “smart” and compassionate wins the girl, who will in any case be devoid of annoying girly tendencies that drive very masculine nerdy guys nuts. Instead of the truth regarding “at will” contracts requiring constant sexiness regarding the next best alternative, and masculine dominance/status forming the basis for attraction and love.
What is telling is that none of the male or the female fantasy shows have any ability to tell men and women how to behave in order to be relatively happy in life, given the big shifts in women’s views towards love and marriage.
Love is now defined (by the only ones who matter, the gatekeepers of sexuality, women) as whoever is sexiest the most, and most recently. “Passion” which is short-term sexual desire, over-rules marriage and fidelity. The modern work-place, with spouses absent and particularly in female-dominated ones, offer splendid opportunities for women to be desired and taken by high status, dominant men (who are also handsome). No condemnation of embracing desire over marriage vows will be forthcoming from female friends and peers.
All this points to a very chaotic, short-term series of relationships and partnerings. Nothing particularly stable, and indeed a perfectly good marriage, though to a “boring nice guy” is considered disposable. Everything points to women having no need to hedge long-term, viewing their futures romantically speaking as bright. So bright that any opportunity can be pursued without any significant downside. This too, an orientation towards short-term maximization because long-term outcomes are “guaranteed” is a big shift.
What is still unexplored is how men react in turn to the short-term orientation of women’s romantic desires. Will men become Pickup Artists (PUA) out of necessity? Will men increasingly abandon any desire for a nuclear family, akin to employee strategies in an employment market dominated by short-term jobs? On balance I think both outcomes are increasingly probable.