Monday, December 8, 2008

Television's Kick Ass Women and Smart Men

There's a new trend on Television: Kick Ass Women partnered with "smart" men, solving crimes and fighting evil. Seen so far mostly on hour-long dramas (a few sitcoms such as "Big Bang Theory" have semi-touched on this pairing), the device is both a response to a genuine fondness for the pairing among male audiences, and the type of social engineering that Hollywood is famous for. This dramatic device does however offer some insight into how both men and women relate to each other, in changing ways, and how Hollywood sees this change.

It is important to remember that Western civilization has always had a strong preference among it's men for "strong" or independent women with their own minds, able to make their own choices. As far back as the Greeks, plays like "Lysistrata" had a preference for women who were able to make up their own minds, and make their choices stick. In Medieval romances and tales from El Cid to "Song of Roland" to various tales of King Arthur or Robin Hood, there is always a strong and independent woman at the center of the tale, to be won (or not) by the hero's courage, devotion, and manly attributes of self-sacrifice and duty.

Much of Western literature is centered around what amounts to a "how-to" manual for young men seeking to woo and win a strong, independent woman. Western society faced the task, throughout it's history, of managing a lot of young men who could present a threat to the established order, but were also needed for defense and obviously, local wealth creation. Compared to other societies, Western Christendom offered a different solution to this problem — monogamous marriage, based at least in part on romantic love. Muslim societies to this day, retain both arranged marriages and polygamy, making them intrinsically unstable and prone to export their surplus young men via conquest or Jihad. By contrast even in Medieval times, various troubador ballads would lament, in bald terms, the loss of their beloved's favor. Which implies that their beloved could indeed choose not to love them. Something simply unthinkable in Muslim societies, and by contrast the constant obsession of Western ones.

Western societies have a clear line from Medieval troubadors to Mississippi Bluesmen, with song after song after song, nearly all of them, dealing with romantic love in form or another. The thrill of a new romance, a woman's favor, the celebration of the love, and the crushing feelings of loss in one aspect or another, form the basis for most popular music in Western culture from the 1200's onward. All this creative energy suggests that Westerners, unlike other societies, place far more importance on romantic love. Romantic love where the woman is both worthy of struggle, and has the ability to choose.

Pretty much most of Western literature, therefore, has been entertaining but "how-to" manuals on how to win the type of strong Western women that dominate Western literature: Maid Marian, Lois Lane, Mary Jane Watson. It's no surprise either that the "strongest" female characters often appear in male-oriented fiction. If there is a woman to be won, she must obviously be worthy of winning. Hence the strength of the female characters, who are often important partners in the adventures of the male heroes.

Western literature both reflects, therefore, the obsession of Western men in winning a woman worthy of being won, and the strong social suggestion that winning such a woman is a more worthy endeavor than overthrowing the King and replacing him, and constructing a harem. While Western nations obviously have throughout history had a great deal of social disturbances, in general, compared to their Islamic and Asian contemporaries, they had more social peace and stability. The stability of the West in turn depends on the ability of the average man to form a family, one based mostly on love and the free romantic choice of the woman. That social structure allowed massive mobilization of resources at places as various and terrible as Lepanto, Tours, Ypres, and the skies over Germany.

Of course, Western men find strong women very attractive. Buried in the "Taming of the Shrew" is the assumption that Petruchio finds Katherine attractive and worth "taming" instead of simply pursuing another more pliable woman. Western men find strong women, of independent judgment and character, deeply attractive for obvious emotional reasons. Strong women are less likely to be swayed by other men, who might temporarily have an advantage in power and strength and standing over her husband. Strong women offer their own counsel which is vital for a man navigating the complex and changing society of the West. Finally, the desire to pass on to one's children the positive, independent aspects of character of one's wife as well as one's own is strong among men in the West.

Almost every comic book in the "Golden Age" of the late 1930's to mid 1940's had strong women, as the central women to be won throughly manly adventure. This continued in the "Silver Age" of the 1960's, from the "Incredible Hulk's" Betty Ross to the "Invisible Woman" of "the Fantastic Four." Not to mention Spider-Man's Mary Jane Watson.

It's important to note that the emotional and mental characteristics of the characters were as important if not more important than their physical beauty. While none of the characters was ugly or plain, they all possessed independence and their own judgment, rather than merely being "pretty." The "Invisible Woman," Susan Storm, even had powers of her own. Importantly of course, when "won" by the hero she stayed "won."

So strong female characters are nothing new. Men have always liked them, and women readers of authors as diverse as Jane Austen to Candace Bushnell have also liked women of strong character and independent judgment. Hollywood has mostly shown strong women. Soap operas and night-time soaps like "Days of Our Lives" to "Dynasty" to "Desperate Housewives" have all featured women who were not exactly shy or wallflowers. Hollywood's classic age, with actors such as Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, and Humphrey Bogart paired with strong women such as Katherine Hepburn, or Lauren Bacall, speak to how enduring that attraction has been, and remains to this day. These films are remembered still, in part because of the strength of the women.

But what has changed is how men and women relate to each other, both in real life and Hollywood's fantasies on Television.

In real life as I've noted in my posts Hollywood's Romantic Comedies for Men, and Modern Romance, and Dating Capital and Chuck: Men, Romance, and Female Empowerment, there are serious demographic changes taking place.

First, men and women are getting married later and later in life, compared to the last seventy years, with these trends picking up in the late 1960's. Next, demographics crunch men because the female cohort that is younger is numerically smaller, a given of the declining birth rates. Because of the preference among both men and women for a man about six to ten years older than the woman, the men face more contemporaries competing for the smaller pool of women, instead of the other way around in increasing birth rates, with profound effects on the relationships between men and women. Men face a decreasing social power (more of them pursuing fewer women) and women increasing social power in romantic matters.

Mediating institutions such as churches and neighbors and close families no longer exist in today's highly mobile and urban societies. Moreover, women face so much choice that they tend to retreat to the most simple of criteria: power and social dominance. This decisively tilts power and even the ability to find romance for most men and towards the few "players" who can appear to be the most socially and physically dominant men in the bar. Since bars and other venues like them are the way in which women find and choose their romantic partners, highly mobile, urban professional environments.

Finally, contraception, cheap and easy and effective, in the form of the condom and the pill, along with anonymous urban living and female wealth and power equal to that if not more than men (in urban information-age occupations), means women can afford to choose on everything BUT character, a complete reversal from times past. There is no downside risk perceived at any rate for choosing Mr. Wrong.

Which leads to the irony of our times. Never have so many men so wanted strong women, of independent character and assertiveness, and never have strong women wanted most men less. The dirty little secret of female empowerment is that it merely shifts female choice ever-upward, to men who are of higher social and physical power than themselves. Any casual perusal of female-oriented entertainment will confirm this. "Sex and the City's" "Mr. Big" or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" characters "Angel" and "Spike" are measured by the power and strength and social dominance over other men they possess, not inner qualities of mercy, kindness, self-sacrifice, or adherence to Western/Christian morality. Because a strong woman does not need those qualities in a man, if he fails to please he can be simply replaced. With no risk or penalty.

This dynamic is why most strong, independent women in urban centers end up sharing a few socially dominant men, in a de-facto polygamy. Even women who complain about dates don't complain that they cannot get them, merely the quality of men they must consider in their thirties, as they age out of peak desirability. That in itself is a measure of the dating disparity. Since if men were simply sitting out the dating game, in pursuit of unobtainable women of great beauty, there would be many women of average looks sitting alone at home, which is not the picture we see in complaints about dating.

All of this has created a market, and a considerable one, looking at the receipts for "the Wedding Crashers" ($209 million domestic gross), or "Superbad" ($121 million domestic gross), or "Knocked Up" ($148 million domestic gross), among mostly men (though with some women) for romance involving strong female characters and somewhat funny, ordinary guys. [Source: ]

This has created a backlash. Hollywood Elsewhere by Jeffrey Wells has talked about the "eclipse of the hunk" and the "Apatow Schlub," in which he bemoans ordinary looking guys paired with attractive women. He's not alone. The female star of "Knocked Up," Katherine Heigl, has objected (after collecting her paycheck and being made famous by the role) to the movie itself, particularly the premise that her attractive and powerful character would have sex with the loser played by Seth Rogen. Who just was not attractive enough. It's clear that the gay and female aesthetic in Hollywood is deeply challenged by the popularity and money-making effect of the average Joe paired with an independent and beautiful woman.

The threatis obvious: far fewer roles for the female and gay-appealing pretty boys, promotion of a more straight guy appealing romantic agenda (i.e. choose Joe Average when he demonstrates proper heroism and stick with him), and general themes and plots that are alien to gay and female dominated Hollywood — gone is flitting to the most powerful and appealing man of the moment, and present would themes of sacrifice, duty, courage, endurance, and a traditional culture resurgent.

Hollywood hates this development. But all that money is nearly irresistible. So Hollywood, particularly in Television, where the ability to move quickly and cheaply (well, by Hollywood standards, anyway) allows exploration and experimentation more so than film, has chosen to hesitantly exploit that massive audience of lots and lots of men without any significant romance, hungry for stories about men like them winning the girl, with the cherry on top of some extra women watching as well, drawn by the strong female characters. Of course, there is lots of PC messaging, and a real reluctance to fully exploit this theme, even given the dramatics inherent, but that it is taking place at all is significant.

[Serenity, the "Firefly" movie, cost $39 million to make, with a 2 hour running time, according to Box Office Mojo, while the series itself likely cost about $3 million per episode, or 45 minutes of actual screen time. That makes TV cost about $60,000 per minute raw production costs, versus $325,000 per minute, even with the same basic material.]

Now, Television has started to explore that Apatow pairing, but with Kick-ass women and Smart men fighting "evil" as the more threatening aspect of living ordinary lives. Shows as disparate as "Chuck," and "Fringe" and "Eleventh Hour," and "the Mentalist," have a "smart" guy paired with an aggressive, no-nonsense woman who visibly kicks ass.

What's notable is how tentative the pairing is. In each show, the setting is "professional." In "Chuck" and "Eleventh Hour," the aggressive, no nonsense female agent is assigned to protect the smart guy, who is consistently portrayed as not very good in purely physical confrontations (and therefore a romantic turn-off to women). In "the Mentalist," the canny social observer played by Simon Baker avoids physical confrontations and is often bailed out by the tough, female agent (and boss of the unit) played by Robin Tunney. "Fringe" treads the same ground. "Chuck" is constantly rescued by his female protector, as is the hero of "Eleventh Hour."

In each show, while romance is hinted at, it is just a hint. No real romance exists, merely the possibility, however fuzzy and uncertain. The social reality is that being "smart" is a loser for men romantically, since it generally correlates with lower levels of testosterone. Various studies shown here and here how rising IQ strongly correlates with far fewer sex partners. "Smartness" has a trade-off, and that trade-off seems to be lower levels of testosterone and the characteristics associated with high levels of testosterone, such as physical and social dominance. In other words, the very things women find attractive about men.

What's interesting is that the audience for these shows is mostly male, although there is a strong female component to the viewership, attracted no doubt by the presence of strong female characters. Female audiences, and actresses, have complained for years about the lack of strong and interesting female characters in movies and television. For the most part, since the end of the golden era of the 1940's "women's pictures" there have been few interesting and strong roles for women in movies. Television, however, has had a plethora of strong and independent women. "The Pretender's" "Miss Parker," and "X-Files" Agent Scully, and their successors: "Life's" "Detective Reese" and "Chuck's" "Sarah" and the female leads in "Eleventh Hour," "the Mentalist," and "Fringe" all are not just, but more tough than the male leads, carry guns (the men don't), and face "interesting" personal-professional dilemmas (often work-life balance).

Men of course like the "tough but vulnerable" female characters, and all of the female characters above have personal issues that suggest inner vulnerability and the need for male comfort: "Life's" "Detective Reese" is an alcoholic, "Chuck's" "Sarah" is closed off emotionally and a work-a-holic, and so on. The male audience enjoys seeing lead male characters offer comfort and support, and this particular dramatic aspect is noticeably lacking in the movies, as opposed to episodic Television.

What is telling about Hollywood, however, is how tentative they are even in episodic Television, where fast and cheap (again, by Hollywood standards) is the norm and where themes and structures can be easily explored, as a sort of creative laboratory, in using the romance between the "Kick Ass Woman" and the "Smart Guy" to build audience. Only on "Life" is there an explicit romantic pairing, and while the Sarah Shahi character ("Detective Reese") is most certainly "Kick Ass" and tough, her romantic partner, played by the always excellent Donal Logue, is more amiable doofus than explicitly "Smart."

You would expect that the huge box office, for not much production money, of the Apatow-themed comedies, with together, savvy, and beautiful professional women paired with good natured average guys, would be quickly exploited on Television. Instead, a "credible" reason for the "Kick Ass Woman" and the "Smart Guy" to work together is constructed: the "Smart Guy" needs protection from rival secret agents ("Chuck") or threats ("Fringe" and "Eleventh Hour") or he is a consultant ("the Mentalist"). Mutual attraction is never the reason for why the two characters interact. Even more puzzling, the pairing is depicted as "friends" (which is of course incompatible with romance) and remain a respectful romantic and sexual distance from each other. Expressions of desire for the other by one of the characters come, and are quickly snuffed out.

Part of this, of course, is the PC ideology of how men and women work together. In the professional workplace, it is necessary for any overt expression of desire (particularly among men for women) to be suppressed. This is required for actual work to be done and for everyone to get along rather than escalating mating competitions.

Beyond this actual, real-world requirement to make the workplace about work, not finding a romantic partner, is how PC believes men and women should relate. PC holds that the "best" way for a man to win a woman is to be respectful, kind, and supportive. This is basically the path to becoming the "gay best friend" beloved of women's comedies. Something that creates a lot of anger, parenthetically, when men find out how false that belief really is in actual reality. PC of course holds this because the fairy-tale of how men and women interact benefits PC's promulgators. Women and the few socially dominant men obviously benefit from the average guy believing that being supportive and respectful is a way to win a woman's heart. Instead of being socially and physically dominant over other men, which is the actual path to success with women for men. Women benefit because average men don't waste their time approaching them, only socially dominant men, and the latter face far less competition.

PC, by painting a false, unworkable picture of the world, and how it works, benefits those who ignore it's dictates and act on how the world really works.

It's natural therefore that Hollywood, which is more PC bound than any other (being run by basically, a few dominant men, gays, and women) would encourage a PC-driven view of relationships between the "Smart Men" and "Kick Ass Women." That the way to win the "Kick Ass Woman's" heart is to be her "friend." Or basically, the "gay pal."

But Hollywood has another problem — it's gay-female-Big Man power axis finds pairing attractive, accomplished women with a guy who is NOT the classic "Big Man" deeply offensive. This is what got both Katherine Heigl and Jeffrey Wells upset. Female audiences don't like it either — "Smart Men" are not very attractive to women for obvious reasons. Hollywood just can't believe itself in an explicit romantic pairing of "Smart Men" and "Kick Ass Women." Despite explicit, and quite graphic romantic-sexual pairings of lesbians, or powerful older men and their younger female subordinates, or gay men, or even polygamists and their many wives.

It's pretty telling that Hollywood can portray ANY romantic-sexual pairing BUT that of a "Smart" guy and a "Strong" woman. Too many Hollywood constituencies would be upset by that pairing, never mind that it could make money, lots of it. Gays would be upset by promotion of a monogamous romantic choice. Women by "settling" for a less than socially dominant man. "Big Men" by an erosion of their social power and control.

Hollywood likes the money that promoting that type of romantic pairing could bring, but can't bring itself to quite pull it off. There are too many taboos and people made angry internally for Hollywood to collect the "money on the table." In terms of increased male viewership, men being far under-served in Hollywood, with the exception of the Summer Action Blockbuster ("Dark Knight," "Indiana Jones," etc.) which are also known as the few films that actually make money in Hollywood. Apatow's movies don't cost too much. They make nearly as much money as the expensive Hollywood Action movies. They don't require big stars who cost lots of money either. You'd think that TV would be filled with that type of pairing, or something like it, but it's not. The closest Hollywood can get in it's "laboratory" for dramatic exploration is a professional partnership with mere suggestions of romance quickly shot down, from time to time.

Which leaves potentially a huge opening for Hollywood's competitors. Peter Jackson ("Lord of the Rings") showed how New Zealand could be used to make big-budget and very successful films. Other strategic competitors of Hollywood would be Australia, and Ireland, and Canada. Filled with low cost labor, favorable tax treatment, and skilled actors and others who can work quickly and cheaply. Eventually the rise of such centers, and the ability to distribute TV series and films on the internet through sites such as (deriving money from advertising) will present the threat to Hollywood that Japan presented to Detroit.

Already, Hollywood's moguls are asking for bailouts. Maybe they know something. Someone, someday, is going to exploit the demographic changes (a lot of lonely and single men) and make a lot of money by being there first.
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