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23 March 2013

Do men only want to watch fellow men on screen?

Single, middle-aged women are now a disappearing alien race on television. Why?

By Bim Adewunmi

Back in February, Mike White floated his theory on male and female protagonists on television and movie screens to Vulture: “If I have a male protagonist, it’s a studio movie, and if it’s a female protagonist, it’s an indie movie,” he said. “It’s not about the studios. 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. That’s just how it is.” His words brought up a half-forgotten memory; a 2005 study at Queen Mary, University of London into the reading habits of the sexes made a finding similar to White’s: while women seem happy to read the works of both male and female authors, men stick to books written by men. Mike White is more qualified than most to make that kind of statement. After all, he’s a Hollywood veteran – working as a writer, actor, director and producer across television and cinema. His latest show, comedy-drama Enlightened, was only recently cancelled by HBO after just two (critically acclaimed but audience-shy) seasons. Is he right? Do men only want to watch fellow men on screen?

I’ve not seen a full episode of Enlightened, which stars Laura Dern as a formerly high-flying executive who re-assesses her life after a nervous breakdown and rehab, and becomes a “do-gooder”. But I have seen several clips and read what feels like a million think pieces on what Dern’s somewhat unlikeable character Amy Jellicoe means for women, both in the context of modern Western femaleness, and in the current television landscape. Whatever she may have been, she seems excellently written and acted – Dern won a Golden Globe for her performance – and the show (which she co-created with White) was nominated in the Best Series category as well. On that point alone, it’s a shame that it’s been cancelled. Because despite what sometimes feels like a crowded space, filled with interesting, dynamic and human female characters, there is still room for more. How do we get audiences watching these women? Pressingly, how do we get men to watch these shows?

The most talked and written about TV show of the last year or so has been Girls. It, too, is a product of the HBO stable. Like Enlightened, it is co-executive produced by its (white, female) star, in this case Lena Dunham, who has also won Golden Globes in the same categories as Enlightened. The two shows have more in common: a flawed, not-so-easy-to-like lead character, who almost gleefully falls down and rolls around in her flaws to the bemusement of others; with time, a change of coast and continued, uninterrupted and concentrated narcissism, Hannah could quite easily turn into Amy, I think. But then the shows begin to differ. The biggest difference is the one of age – there are so few examples of Amy’s demographic i.e. single women over 40, that to casually snuff one out, especially one with the chops and growing clout of Enlightened, seems almost cruel. A short piece by Sasha Stone entitled “Women Not Naked” sums up another glaring difference: the absence of naked breasts and pubis. Stone succinctly calls out the problem in paragraph one: “Sex that shit up or pay the price.” Is that “all” that was needed? Is that what will get the male audience interested in female-led television? A transgressive sex scene or two, something to jolt audiences out of their stupor when faced with a quiet, subtle and brilliant comedy-drama about an awkward 40-something woman in California? How thoroughly depressing.

Middle-aged women make up a strong, growing demographic when it comes to TV-watching. What will they watch? What do they want to watch? Borgen is great, sure, and Birgitte Nyborg, with her un-Botoxed, perfectly normal face, a fine, solid lead character. So’s The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl, and Broadchurch’s (admittedly 39-year-old, so hardly middle-aged) Olivia Colman. There will always be room for maiden aunts and dowager countesses thanks to our continued love affair with costume drama. But wherefore art thou, new Jane Tennison? How come we haven’t seen a good contemporary drama starring someone like Meera Syal or Samantha Bond or Cathy Tyson? Just think of the possibilities with a cast featuring Joanna Lumley, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Zawe Ashton as three generations of a north London family…

Back in 2009, Jezebel writer Anna North wrote a piece called “On TV, Single, Middle-Aged Women Are Aliens”. In 2013, they have become even more special: despite being all around, on television, they are part of a disappearing alien race.

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