Roseanne Barr has an awe-inspiring rant in this week's New York magazine about the sexism of TV executives. And she says not much has changed: "All over the tube, you will find enterprising, overmedicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives." Is she right?
Even twenty years later and with a decent amount of working over in postmortems, her behind-the-scenes account of "staggering sexism and class bigotry" hasn't lost its sting. She was cheated out of the "creator" title for her own eponymous show, bullied and undermined by the showrunner, the contempt and crudeness in the writers' room, and so on. Here's her confrontation with one producer who wouldn't let Roseanne's character wear what Barr wanted:
I walked into this woman's office, held the scissors up to show her I meant business, and said, "Bitch, do you want me to cut you?" We stood there for a second or two, just so I could make sure she was receptive to my POV. I asked why she had told the wardrobe master to not listen to me, and she said, "Because we do not like the way you choose to portray this character." I said, "This is no fucking character! This is my show, and I created it-not Matt, and not Carsey-Werner, and not ABC. You watch me. I will win this battle if I have to kill every last white bitch in high heels around here."
Things changed when the show went to No. 1 — the world kissed her ass, though Barr says ABC still didn't treat her like an equally successful man:
ABC sent a chocolate "1" to congratulate me. Guess they figured that would keep the fat lady happy-or maybe they thought I hadn't heard (along with the world) that male stars with No. 1 shows were given Bentleys and Porsches. So me and George Clooney [who played Roseanne Conner's boss for the first season] took my chocolate prize outside, where I snapped a picture of him hitting it with a baseball bat. I sent that to ABC.
I, for one, am pleased to have made it through the end of Barr's piece with no reason to dislike George Clooney. Barr also says that when she took over, she promoted women, fired the assholes, and "gave Joss Whedon and Judd Apatow their first writing jobs," until the show slipped in the ratings and her reign ended. These days, she says, "Nothing real or truthful makes its way to TV unless you are smart and know how to sneak it in, and I would tell you how I did it, but then I would have to kill you."
The very continued existence and popularity of Two And A Half Men and sundry other sexist crap on television is fodder for Barr's argument. But she doesn't mention a facet that didn't exist twenty years ago: Original programming on cable, where women have tended to fare better both as characters and creators. Mad Men, Nurse Jackie, The United States Of Tara, Weeds, The L Word, The Big C, Big Love, the upcoming Julia Louis-Dreyfus-as-VP show on HBO and Lena Dunham's Girls (also HBO). And on network TV we have 30 Rock and Parks And Recreation, and, arguably, Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, even Law & Order: SVU. (Yes, this paints a broad brush for what constitutes a show that's "good for women," with which you are free to argue). And it's been a good pilot season for women writers, and some of the shows have already been picked up.
Maureen Dowd used her Sunday column to argue that TV is actually moving in a retrograde direction, though she contradicts herself in a single paragraph. She says, "The networks have picked up an extraordinary number of shows by and about strong, modern women — vehicles for Christina Applegate, Zooey Deschanel, Debra Messing, Katharine McPhee, Maria Bello, Chelsea Handler, Ginnifer Goodwin, Kristin Chenoweth and Whitney Cummings." (You can watch clips from the NBC ones here, But then she cites two examples that sound incredibly backlash-y: "ABC ordered a new Tim Allen sit-com, 'Last Man Standing,' about a man who feels threatened in a world ruled by women, and a show called "Work It" about two men who have to dress in drag to get jobs as pharmaceutical reps."
She concludes that "amid economic anxieties, those men want to indulge in some retro fantasies about hot, subservient babes," and gets an unnamed producer to opine:
"It's the Hendricks syndrome," said one top male TV producer here. "All the big, corporate men saw Christina Hendricks play the bombshell secretary on ‘Mad Men' and fell in love. It's a hot fudge sundae for men: a time when women were not allowed to get uppity or make demands. If the woman got pregnant, she had to drive to a back-alley abortionist in New Jersey. If you got tired of women, they had to go away. Women today don't go away."
They must have watched the show very differently than we did. Hendricks' character gets passed over for a job she's brilliant at for a less-qualified man; she faces mockery for her age and disrespect from male subordinates, and the marriage-focused life she thought she wanted for herself isn't at all what she dreamed. But maybe it's hard to keep those thoughts straight because boobs.
As for Barr, she regrets not suing the producers and the network for a hostile work environment, noting in the process that "Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing. And that's why you won't be seeing another Roseanne anytime soon." It's this critique that resonates the most — it's easy to name a bunch of shows that feature interesting and complex roles for women, or are written or executive-produced by women. It's far more difficult to name non-procedural shows about "labor," by which Barr means "working class," or maybe "lower middle-class," (some more imprecise terms for you) and even less so working-class women. "Amid economic anxieties" indeed.