Meg Wolitzer said in a recent interview with The Guardian that she had to work hard, in a sense, to make the heroine of her (wonderful) novel The Interestings, Jules, as terrible a person as she wanted her to be. “The character is not standing for women everywhere,” she said. “I had to write that on my forehead and look in the mirror. I had to let myself be free to be really irritated.”
Therein lies the eternal problem for female writers and female characters, one we’re inching toward solving but one that still plagues us: It’s the chicklit vs. serious lit issue, the Sex and the City vs. The Sopranos issue. And we’re dealing with it more than ever in our Golden Age of Television even as we get over the “Is it chicklit?” debate in books. Emily Nussbaum wrote a beautiful defense of Sex and the City‘s legacy in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, responding to the new book Difficult Men, which traces the illustrious rise of Great TV in the last decade, featuring, front and center, the White Man With Serious Problems That Are So Serious He Can Make Everyone Finally Take Television’s Power Seriously. I love The Sopranos and Mad Men, too, but if I see another ad for yet another new show about a white, middle-aged man who does bad things but presumably symbolizes important literary truths, I may just curl up in a ball and watch nothing but Fresh Prince of Bel Air reruns and Melissa and Joey for the rest of my life.
Nussbaum points out that Sex and the City cracked open the sitcom genre before, well, all those shows we now recognize as at least a little revolutionary, like The Office. SATC mixed comedy and drama in heretofore unseen ways. (Mary Tyler Moore invented this, but SATC‘s infidelity, cancer, and death took it to new depths.) And most importantly, it allowed its main characters to display deep flaws. As Nussbaum writes:
Before Sex and the City, the vast majority of iconic “single girl” characters on television, from That Girl to Mary Tyler Moore and Molly Dodd, had been you-go-girl types—which is to say, actual role models. (Ally McBeal was a notable and problematic exception.) They were pioneers who offered many single women the representation they craved, and they were also, crucially, adorable to men: vulnerable and plucky and warm. However varied the layers they displayed over time, they flattered a specific pathology: the cultural requirement that women greet other women with the refrain “Oh, me, too! Me, too!”
Her next point strikes me as the real issue:
Women identified with them—“I’m a Carrie!”—but then became furious when they showed flaws. And, with the exception of Charlotte (Kristin Davis), men didn’t find them likable: there were endless cruel jokes about Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and Carrie as sluts, man-haters, or gold-diggers.
While Tony Soprano or Walter White or Don Draper show plenty of bad-boy tendencies (otherwise known as little things like adultery and murder), they’ve never been subjected to the kind of derision these women have. I believe we’re finally taking television quite seriously — maybe even too seriously, at times — as an artistic medium. I’m happy about that, as a person who studies the form, and I believe that Tony, Walter, Don, and their ilk deserve a lot of the credit for it (along with, of course, those characters’ brilliant creators, also, of course, all white men). But I think we’re also still struggling with an issue the literary world has long wrangled over: taking white, straight men’s stories more seriously than anyone else’s. All the girly, or gay, or nonwhite characters are seen as mere “niche” programming, fodder for the niche cable channels or at least obviously segregated marketing. Girls is a prime example; I can’t tell you how many men have whispered to me, “Is it okay that I like Girls?”
This all adds up to why I love Orange Is the New Black so much, why I’m responding to it on every possible level. It’s funny, it’s deadly serious, it allows (obviously) a range of flaws in its mostly female cast, and it’s made by mostly female writers with a brilliant female showrunner, Jenji Kohan. And perhaps those drab orange uniforms will help everyone see that it’s no mere sparkly trifle to be dismissed.