I’m late to the party because this was posted like a week ago, but Vulture spoke to Executive Producer Mike White about Enlightened, the HBO series he created. Despite devoted fandom and impassioned critical support it just doesn’t look like it’s going to see a third season. Here’s what White said about why he thinks that is:
“[This] sounds kind of cynical, but it’s the story of my career. If I have a male protagonist, it’s a studio movie, and if it’s a female protagonist, it’s an indie movie. That’s just how it is…It’s about America and who goes to see movies. Women are interested in men and women, and men aren’t interested in the woman’s story. They just aren’t. There are exceptions, but by and large…unless it’s Angelina Jolie shooting people or Zero Dark Thirty or something that feels like it’s in the male sphere. The devaluation of the traditional female roles or the traditional female approach, it starts to feel like this is what’s wrong with our country. Should I get off my high horse?”
No. Please do not. This is important. Over the past year and a half there’s been a lot of talk about women’s roles in the entertainment industry, and more specifically about the dearth of movies and television over which they have creative control. Some notable (and not-so-notable) strides have been made to rectify this imbalance, but the real ill (of which the lack of women-helmed work is merely a symptom) is this idea that White raises: that men and women’s stories are not given equal shrift in a larger sense. But no one seems to be talking about that. This could be because we haven’t collectively realized it, or it could be that people are uncomfortable bringing it up. Even a smart, forthright guy like Mike White is worried that raising the issue will seem too strident, and self-deprecates his own argument right out of the conversation.
It’s not simply that there isn’t enough entertainment made by women sheerly in terms of volume. This isn’t about trying to even out a canonical power balance or making it so dudes want to watch Bride Wars. Bride Wars sucks and no one should watch it. What is important is recognizing the tacit message being transmitted to both genders: there are important stories, and then there are women’s stories.
I went to a fairly liberal, progressive elementary school during the early 1990 and there, almost without exception, the books I was assigned to read were books about boys. Boys going to war, boys tilling the land, a boy and his dog, a boy and his wolf that he loves like a dog, a boy going to sea and having adventures, a boy being very poor, a boy behaving foolishly with fireworks and blinding himself forever. The lone exemption I can recall is “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 7th grade but unfortunately for gender parity, in the midst of her humanizing, relatable recollections, Anne says some weird stuff about her period and thus the male members of the class disgustedly withdrew their interest and the book became “girl stuff”.
I read the assigned books, and they were fine, but left to my own devices I didn’t have a whole lot of interest in stories of the lives of Boys From the Past. They seemed, as Marge Simpson says about music, “none of my business”. Seated comfortably on blankets at the bottom of my family’s linen closet with a giant bag of Doritos I blew through dozens of books about girls—Anne of Green Gables*, Little Women, Harriet the Spy, Eloise, all the “Ramona” and “Anastasia” books. Much as I loved these books and as covered in Caldecott Medals as many of them were, no academic authority figure ever suggested that these were important stories we should all be reading.
There are probably a bunch of reasons for this but the truth is that until relatively recently (the past 150 years) women’s personal stories had what might kindly be called “niche appeal”, but would more aptly be described as “really, really boring”. That’s because for a long time their lives were really, really boring; that’s what happens when you’re only allowed to do like, five things. Housekeeping, baby-having, loom-weaving, cleaning and preparing raw meat, going to a well, doing laundry in a giant cauldron, trying not to get raped, going to the well again, etc. Such was the daily agenda for most women for most of the time that there’s been a world. Taken against stirring tales of colonial expansion, jungle exploration, starting world wars, hosting orgies, inventing mayonnaise, being (maybe?) the Son of God and discovering the cure for polio, women’s stuff didn’t really pack the same punch. How can we blame men of history for not being enraptured by stories of women’s lives when they have so little to do with men’s own experiences and the many interests they’ve been allowed to cultivate? Still, it is endlessly frustrating and discouraging to be an interested, contributing member of society and yet almost never see your experience mirrored in anything that anyone tells you is important. People of color in America have been saying this for fucking ever.
But things have changed and they are continuing to change.** Women are allowed to do more stuff, go more places and have layered opinions about the world. They can get important jobs, drop out of school, never learn to cook, watch Law & Order for 7 hours, go on vacation alone, have children, not have children, or forget to eat dinner and fall down the stairs drunk. They’re allowed to be interesting and complex in ways that men have always been allowed to do, and soon the stories told about them won’t just be about boyfriends and periods and corny cliché’s about “wanting to have it all”. Liz Lemon is great, but she’s not the only alternative to Carrie Bradshaw, and besides, two avatars make for a pretty dull spectrum.
But these things take time. “Hey, you should watch this emotional, character-driven show about a woman, her relationships and the shifting of her self concept!” is not a sentence that’s going to get a reflection-resistant audience of any gender to tune in. Part of the problem isn’t simply a gender bias, it’s that American audiences are kind of dummies. As a nation, we don’t really want to be challenged by our entertainment. We want to look at stuff that tells us what we already think we know. Social progress moves slowly, even in a digital age, and the leveling of a cultural playing field probably won’t manifest itself the next two seasons of a premium cable TV show. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there and I remind myself of that sometimes when I get upset about stuff like Kim Kardashian, “Celebrity Swan”, The Westboro Baptist Church and Bump-Its.
“Enlightened”, even if it is cancelled, has already done important work and will take its place beside projects like “My So-Called Life”, “Murphy Brown”, Party Girl, “Freaks and Geeks”, Bridesmaids and, yes, “GIRLS”, as another big push in the slow, shifting of a heavy paradigm.
Later in the interview White says, “I’m afraid this will be the best thing I ever do. I think it will be. That it might be over is sad.” It is sad. Hard working future-thinkers like Mike White are ahead of the curve and it must be disheartening that the world seems unready to consider what they already know: that women’s stories are everyone’s stories.
*I know about this and it makes me nuts
**This is about the western world only and more specifically, the United States. I know that in most of the world things are still pretty miserable for women.