Women on the verge

Say goodbye to the dumb blonde -- the New York Times reports that today's TV women have bigger obstacles to conquer.

By Page Rockwell
Published January 3, 2007 9:31PM (EST)

Last May, Maureen Dowd lamented the feminization of prime-time television, offering the wild hypothesis that as the U.S. government has become "more hypermasculine and martial," TV programming has become "more feminine and seductive." In today's New York Times, Alessandra Stanley picks up the thread, noting that "ABC is even more in touch with its feminine side [than the other networks]: 'Grey's Anatomy' and 'Ugly Betty' are packed with romance and tightly tailored to female audiences."

So, whither the macho programming? Fear not, Stanley says: "Tonight [ABC] is introducing two comedies that are oriented toward men." Funnily enough, she notes that "'The Knights of Prosperity' and 'In Case of Emergency' have similar conceits: each revolves around a group of pitiable male losers and one very pretty woman who puts up with them." (The piece's title puts it even more bluntly: "Male Misery Loves Female Company.") Stanley admits that the device is hardly new; prime-time TV is well stocked with hot women attached to schlumpy guys. Historically, Stanley writes, the attractiveness differential has often been explained by female foibles -- often an attractive woman character is a dumb blonde, say -- since "beautiful women require a leveling weakness to be tolerable. Stupid women are more accessible and also less likely to judge men too harshly." She observes, "That quid pro quo is so ingrained that it is the entire premise of 'Beauty and the Geek,' a CW reality show that pairs pretty, dimwitted women with brainy, socially inept men, and begins its third season tonight."

Ancient stereotypes aside, what's interesting here is that Stanley sees brainless bimbosity being phased out in favor of "less misogynist handicaps, from immigration status to bad luck." These days, it seems that improbably alluring women are falling in with less-than-fantastic guys because of citizenship worries or, as with "In Case of Emergency" character Kelly, because she has fallen on hard times and works in a massage parlor. I suppose freighting a female character with dismal (or at least challenging) circumstances rather than an IQ deficit qualifies as a step forward; it certainly speaks to current issues. But there's also something dark about a sitcom character whose romantic handicap is a grim lack of options. In her review, Stanley recounts a scene in which an "Emergency" character is charmed by Kelly "as she prepares to give him an adult-rated massage. He persuades her to try to start a new life and let him be her friend. Luckily for him, Kelly has nowhere better to go." Yikes.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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