A friend who likes to share war stories from the writers’ room had this news to impart this week: According to a network mandate, female characters must now be depicted as seizing the initiative wherever possible; passivity is passe. While most writers support this point of view in theory, he pointed out, its implementation in storytelling terms has triggered tensions.
This is perhaps inevitable in a #MeToo and #TimesUp environment. A top cable executive tells me that more writers rooms these days are divided into all men or all women in an effort to encourage equanimity. “There is a tension that did not exist in the past,” he comments, a problem exacerbated by a heightened male paranoia. Its cause: The stepped-up efforts to achieve diversity have fueled a degree of male paranoia among those who feel that women are now sometimes favored for jobs — jobs that once automatically went to men. At some companies, such as Amazon, where harassment has been an issue, HR executives have been especially diligent in recruiting women to fulfill diversity objectives.
Given this background, to be sure, it’s hard not to notice the increasing clout of girl power both on Broadway and in film. Tina Fey last week unfurled the talons of her Mean Girls musical to empowering reviews. In her show, the clique of mean princesses accost their prey at an Illinois high school, some 14 years after doing so in the film, their capers carrying greater bite than in the earnestly aspirational Frozen or even Anastasia. Equally daunting are the schemes in the new raunchcom, Blockers — a mom and two dads bent on deflating their daughters’ furtive plans to lose their virginity.
Clearly the gentle, self-effacing Jane Wyatt moms of the 1950s are creatures of the past (we all knew Daddy didn’t know best); actresses like Katherine Hepburn or Shirley MacLaine who complained in memoir after memoir of their difficulty in finding strong roles would surely be happier in this moment.
But here’s one upshot: Reflecting on this environment, some players are surveying their past work with a heightened self-criticism. This was signaled by the intense reaction to Molly Ringwald’s new essay in the New Yorker, in which she strongly critiques attitudes embodied in John Hughes’ ‘80s films like Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink. Hughes’ movies elevated Ringwald, Judd Nelson and others to the level of folk heroes, but now, in retrospect, she feels their attitudes were subtly misogynistic and even racist. It may have been amusing to watch Nelson peek at girls’ panties from under school desks, but did those actions effectively condone sexual harassment? Hughes’ movies had a major impact on teens of that period, but, by today’s standards, did they convey a negative impact? Further, did they ignore the obvious emotional and moral ambiguities confronting the male characters?
Critics of Ringwald argue that it is futile to re-assess “guy” movies like Porky’s or Animal House from the framework of current attitudes. Filmgoers were once moved by Woody Allen’s traumas in Annie Hall, and admired the small-town naivete of American Graffiti and laughed at the nihilistic nonsense at Ridgemont High without being freighted down by today’s revisionist analysis. Sure, men may have been delusional in the pre-empowerment era, and women mistakenly passive, but the work still represented its moment with all its faults and frailties.
And all of us knew that Wonder Woman one day would come along to repair our sensibilities.