These days, watching television can make me suicidal.
It used to provide escape from the pressures of life, television did; I could tune into Everybody Loves Raymond or Law and Order and lose myself in dysfunctional family hijinks or formulaic gritty crime stories. I did not grow up in a blue collar Italian family or have a detective pummel me with questions to which I gave begrudging responses, and that's why the shows were so immersive.
Somewhere along the line things changed. Female characters took center stage, agents in their own destiny, anti-heroes to rival Tony Soprano. They try their hand at, and succeed in, standup comedy and chess. They write books while partying nightly with a gaggle of besties, all the while looking fabulous in amazing clothes.
And it's depressing as hell. The constant, unrelenting fabulousness of it all.
It started with Sex and the City. When the show was announced, I thought to myself, Oh, good, a show about four women struggling to make it in New York. I myself was one such woman. Then I saw the first episode and recognized nothing of my own experience in it. Where was the studio apartment with the closet for a kitchen and the toothless lady in the lobby, greeting everyone coming home from work? Where was the mad scramble to get quarters for the basement laundry, only to find the machines taken and a man who had clearly done prison time threatening violence when you moved his stuff out of the dryer? These women did not have to experience any of this. Carrie, the poorest of them all, had a one bedroom apartment with a shabby chic couch and a little alcove to write and you knew it was in a good neighborhood. The others... well, put it this way: Miranda had a maid.
It made me angry, this glossing over of the grit and struggle to suddenly arrive at fabulousness. I wanted some semblance of their process, or at least see a day when one character felt such deep self-loathing she had to stay in bed (and watch Law and Order, perhaps) and certainly couldn't turn out witty bons mots on her Mac. I wanted her not to have a fucking Mac, but a Lenovo. I wanted hangovers so bad they stopped drinking for a while and considered the possibility that all those Cosmopolitans might be turning them into alcoholics. I wanted deep loneliness, the kind that comes from not always having three friends to brunch with but walking the busy streets alone and seeing all those happy brunchers seated at outdoor tables downing Mimosas.
I watched the show. How could I not? And, in truth, its complete detachment from any semblance of reality made it the escape that I yearned for. It was an animated Disney movie. It was the fabulous friend who blows into town and drags you to places you'd never go alone, and you love her because she's so different but also so fun. I'm pretty sure I've seen every episode at least twice.
But it set the tone for a bar of fabulousness that, frankly, I can't keep up with and that is the very antithesis of what I look for in television -- escape. Take Mrs. Maisel, she of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: does she ever wear the same outfit twice? Do we ever see her writing jokes in a tattered composition book from the 99 Cents Only store? What about childcare? The kids just disappear when it's time for Midge to live her life, and she never experiences anything remotely resembling guilt or stress. With never a hair out of place and often a cute hat, she looks fabulous and slays night after night. Fuck her. I really started to hate her after a while.
Then there was The Queen's Gambit, a show that I found perhaps the most depressing of them all. The way Beth merged spectrum-y brilliance with topnotch style seemed to top even Mrs. Maisel's skill in that arena. Mrs. Maisel is rich, she performs -- you expect a certain sartorial showmanship. But a chess champion? This is unfair. Beth even managed to make alcoholism look beautiful perhaps because she never suffered from the saggy skin and grey pallor the rest of us do the day after a bender and even managed to win at chess while still drunk. It was too much. I both hated her and was obsessed with her. It was a confluence of emotions that I'm still sorting out.
Arabella, the main character of I May Destroy You started out fine. She confronted writer's block (albeit in a groovy office you wonder how she got the money for) and pined for an Italian man (both states of being I can relate to on a deeply personal level) and she did it in a fuzzy jacket that was one step away from L.L. Bean fleece. She wore this outfit day after day, something I appreciated, especially given what she was going through. Also, this is England and they're not as obsessed with wearing different clothes every day like we are in America. But then around episode eight of season one, she sported a bright red faux-fur jacket, followed by a shiny, faux-shearling coat, and she lost me. I started wracking my brain, wondering if I, too, could pull off the red faux-fur. Where could I get one? Would I look as good in it? She had become too fabulous and it was upsetting.
I understand that television is a visual medium and it's much more fun to see women who look great and wear stylish clothes than ones who scrunch their hair up in a messy ponytail and live in an army jacket, if that army jacket had zero game, or worse -- a down parka. Oh, wait -- that's Mare of Easttown and it's a great show and Mare an iconic character. More importantly, Mare's clothes do not require a separate title card. Mare, and all her messiness are center stage, and I doubt there's anyone wishing she'd dress better.
This gets me thinking. As awesome as it is to have a show built around a chess champion who just happens to be a woman and a female standup comic in a time when that was simply not done, the fact that Hollywood has dressed these women up in amazing threads scene after scene, each one better than the next (I mean, that white coat in the last scene of The Queen's Gambit was nothing short of porn) sends the message that women, no matter how skilled and talented, have to be both: if we excel in these typically male endeavors, we must look as feminine and as perfectly pulled together as possible. We must still possess the feminine mystery that tells us what to wear to what occasion. Do we ever see these bitches picking out clothes? Do they ever have what I have on a daily basis, which is a clothing crisis? Not onscreen, they don't. It sets an even higher bar than before, before being when women on TV were, for the most part, wives. Those women wore mostly aprons, or the dressed-down outfits Debra wears on Everybody Loves Raymond. Does anyone notice her clothes? Mary Tyler Moore, iconic and groundbreaking as she was, had days when her reedy voice would go up a few octaves and she wore yet another turtleneck and slacks, and you knew, you just knew, she wasn't doing great. She certainly wasn't fabulous. She was struggling with being a single woman in a mostly man's world. She was probably also lonely.
So ladies, the message is clear: go ahead and be the star of your own show but you'd better look damned good doing it. And the struggle? The struggle is simply too real.