The New Old New Women of TV: Still Ditzes and Bitches

imageNew York magazine sent readers of all stripes into a fits of hysteria by claiming that both Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton set women back a few decades by reinforcing reductive stereotypes — specifically, the ditz and the bitch. But similar pundits are also waxing philosophical on the link between Barack Obama’s election and the potential upswing for more diversity on TV. So if television is indeed the window into the American psyche (and let’s be honest, who can contest otherwise?), then what sort of change are the ditz/bitch forces of Palin and Lady Clinton supposed to embody?

Long before either figure broke through into the frenzied discourse of this year’s election, notable TV matriarchs were already making waves with their flighty bed-hopping, substance-abusing neuroses (not that such a thing is really reprehensible) in the forms of the entire cast of Desperate Housewives, the double headliners of Weeds and even Nip/Tuck’s ever-flaky Julia McNamara for starters (though in all fairness, Nip/Tuck has always had an awful track record with female protagonists). But since Palin and Clinton left their ineffable footprint on the American consciousness, there’s been something especially off-kilter about the handling of women on TV, where ditzes have to be handled extra preciously, while bitches coast forward at the expense of others. Despite its excellent characterization, Weeds even teased a ripple of this effect, making Mary Louise-Parker’s character noticeably spacier while Elizabeth Perkins became increasingly strident.

Another top-shelf show that steps dangerously close is True Blood, where there’s the loathsome Amy Burley to consider. A manipulative eco-brat whose hobbies include vampire slaying and an insatiable drug addiction, Amy demonstrated no humanity in her tenure on the toothsome melodrama — viewing everyone as a means to procuring more vampire blood. Similarly pathological were the interchangeable psychoses of Willa Holland’s and Michelle Trachtenberg’s characters on Gossip Girl. Both used waifs, helpless ditzes — show heroines Jenny and Serena — to further their own generic, inexplicable agendas. But ultimately, that’s OK, because it’s Gossip Girl, which doesn’t aspire to excellence. More troubling is Ugly Betty, which in its third season has only managed to take a number of steps back. Currently, there’s a ditz and a once well-rounded career woman now broadly written as a bitch. We’re meant to balk at their scheming underhandedness while cheering the noble if staid titular character, a non-mover in a company that she’s saved time and time again. Add to that retinue the slipshod exit of Rebecca Romijn’s character, who was the only one balancing a bitch-on-heels attitude with sweet philanthropy

In spite of all of this, it’s not like time’s rolled back to the days of June Cleaver championing success for women. There’s some mixed promise in Lipstick Jungle’s efforts to avoid death. And if Clinton stands tall as the nation’s next Secretary of State (with Palin vanishing into late-night PAX talk show obscurity), then that, in addition to Brooke Shields’ continued attempts to crack a smile in the name of feminism, should be able to get the wheel rolling again — this time forward, sparking curmudgeonly scribes to give ambitious heroines far more than just wafer-thin characterization and matching shoes.

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