On the premiere of Wasteland, ABC's new prime-time soap by the creator of the WB Network's Dawson's Creek and the film Scream, 26-year-old Dawnie theorizes that her generation is experiencing a "second coming of age" in which twenty- and thirty-somethings face uncertainties of growing up that used to be the exclusive province of adolescents.
"Look at me," she says. "I've spent my entire life in school, my parents still support me, human relationships baffle me, and I am acutely self-aware- to the point where I am clueless and slightly suicidal." (She is also, in an interesting twist on television's conventional mores, a virgin.) Whether or not Dawnie's hypothesis is applicable to real people- and with any luck for ABC, this will be a subject of fervent water-cooler debate around the country- it certainly applies to the young women of prime time, who are trapped in the most protracted adolescence in television history.
It is perhaps no accident that at a time when youth sells (advertising slots for shows about teenagers, like Dawson's Creek, can command more money than those for the consistently top-10 rated Touched by an Angel), American pop culture has become preoccupied with our collective inability to grow up. People are staying single longer, and the beauty industry is con stantly coaxing us to make ourselves look younger if we want to stay in romantic business.
But the proliferation of teen shows is one thing; the packaging of female adulthood as an extended adolescence is something else altogether. Indeed, what's most interest ing about this infantilization of twenty- and thirty-something women- a trend started by David Kelley's Ally McBeal and perpetuated by the women of Wasteland, Providence, and to varying degrees a number of new fall programs- is that it coincides with a flood of shows about teenage girl characters who are more assertive, more independent, and more interesting than their adult counterparts. I'd say Ally McBeal ought to grow up- except the real problem seems to be that she already has and is still less mature than the average television teenager.
Q: What makes your problems bigger than everyone else's?
A: They're mine.
- Ally McBeal
Most of the people here have been saved by you or helped by you at one time or another.
-A classmate speaking to Buffy Summers,
The preoccupations of young women are not new to television; women have always been the key audience for advertisers. A teenage girl in 1963 could flip on the TV to look for facsimiles of herself on The Patty Duke Show and Gidget. Young adult women, of course, have a long history of television "role models": think of June Cleaver, Donna Reed, and Laura Petrie- or, more recently, Mary Tyler Moore. And the history of television is rife with ambiguous portrayals of women: Are they empowered or trapped in traditional roles (think of I Dream of Jeannie and Charlie's Angels)? Can brains and femininity be reconciled in a single character, or must they always be dichotomized into either Cagney and Lacey or Baywatch? Or if they can be reconciled, must the result be Xena: Warrior Princess? But for all this history of mixed messages, there has never been a time when the girls were more like women and the women more like girls than right now.
True, the conventional wisdom these days is that the line between adolescence and adulthood is blurring: the young are getting older, the old younger. Though if that's the case, shouldn't our television counterparts be meeting in the middle? Why, instead, do television teenagers have more mature relationships with men than the thirty-somethings do? Why are Buffy the vampire slayer, Felicity, and the girls of Party of Five and Dawson's Creek so much more emotionally intelligent than the grown-ups on other shows? Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan and others have observed that the confidence and self-esteem of young girls diminish when they reach adolescence, at which point girls start downplaying their intellects and compromising their personalities in order to adapt to society's expectations- and to be attractive to boys. If current television is any indication, the cultural manifestation of this trend now occurs twice (Wasteland's Dawnie may be onto something bigger than she knows): if girls go ditzy when they reach adolescence, they seem to be going ditzier still as they pass into young adulthood.
This phenomenon, I think, can be explained at least in part by our cultural preoccupation with women's biological clocks, a preoccupation that has clearly constrained the imaginations of today's television writers. Can't they conceive of any other kinds of lives for women? If we succumb to the creative failure represented by the latest crop of television shows, the danger is that we, as viewers, will find ourselves accepting these same constraints in our own lives.
I want to save the world. I just want to get married first.
It has become fashionable to loathe Ally McBeal. Her contribution to the putative death of feminism, her diminutive cuteness, her short skirts, and her perky pouts all combine to make her an insult to any actual Harvard law graduate- or any graduate of any school in any field, for that matter. While the show is still at times clever and even resonant in its focus on the lonely search for a soul mate, Ally is a hard character to sympathize with. It may be kind of funny when she says, "I'm tempted to become a street person cut off from society, but then I wouldn't get to wear my outfits," but it's also pathetic. By the end of last season, when she schemed to win back her boyfriend by hiring a gigolo to make him jealous and then propositioned the gigolo, she'd lost all credibility as an adult character. Mary Tyler Moore wouldn't be caught dead messing up her life like this.
While originally hailed as whimsical and imaginative, and even as it continues to garner accolades (most recently, in September, an Emmy for Best Comedy Series), Ally McBeal is well on its way to being the biggest failure of the imagination in prime time. But because of its early critical and ongoing ratings success, Ally has basically created a new category of women on television: pretty young things who, in the guise of success ful career women, are actually completely defined by an inability to find a husband and have children. Ally is stalked by a holographic dancing baby meant to remind her (and us) that her biological clock is ticking. While there are women in her age group on television who do care about their careers in some workplace-centered shows- most notably Carol Hathaway on ER- most of the dramas and comedy-dramas that focus on personal lives feature immature women who share more with Ally McBeal than with the people we know in real life. Lindsay Dole on Kelley's The Practice throws tantrums in court; her unhappy housemate, played by Lara Flynn Boyle, appears more anorexic than Calista Flockhart's Ally and seems even more ill-equipped to handle her personal life. It's as though you're supposed to look at Boyle and think, If only she had a nice husband to take care of her, maybe she would eat.
Perhaps the worst example of TV's confused conception of the single woman is Dr. Sydney Hansen of NBC's Providence, which debuted last season. After coming home to find her boyfriend in the shower with another man, she left her lucrative job as an L.A. plastic surgeon and moved home to practice medicine at a free clinic in Providence. Sleeping once again in the room she grew up in, she regularly wakes, sweating, from dreams in which her dead mother is chastising her about her inability to find a man. Syd consistently makes dating decisions more worthy of a teenager than a smart, adult woman, which is what she is theoretically supposed to be. And her skirts are as short as Ally McBeal's; most real doctors and lawyers, it's safe to say, don't dress like that.
Unfortunately, the new fall season offers more of the same. In addition to Dawnie on Wasteland, there are the women of NBC's Cold Feet, one of whom strikes a blow to sexism by marching into her husband's business meeting to demand, for once and for all, a nanny. (And never mind that the husband appears to have no interest in either wife or child.) Another of the main characters in Cold Feet runs off to sulk at her mother's house when she argues with her husband. These characters are like early adolescents who relate to one another by screaming, pouting, and stamping their feet.
Funny thing is, turn the channel to the WB Network, which has made the strongest effort to stake out the youth market, and you find that the characters who actually are adolescent girls do not stamp their feet. They are calm and collected, surprisingly analytical. Television's message: only when they're not worrying about their biological clocks can women have fully developed characters. Is it really the case that only women who are still in high school have the luxury of thinking about things other than themselves without constantly being interrupted by thoughts of their own reproductive limits?
I need to find out if I'm capable of being a whole person without you.
-15-year-old Joey Potter to her boyfriend Dawson
Don't get me wrong: teenage girls on television are not ideal role models. They all have clear skin and shiny hair and don't seem afflicted by any of the maladies of girlhood described by experts. It's not hard to see how some critics would assert that these characters are the primary contributors to body image problems of ordinary girls. (The actress who plays Buffy, Sarah Michelle Gellar, is a spokesmodel for Maybelline cosmetics, whose ads run throughout the show.) And some characters are perhaps more sexually active earlier than we would like the role models for our children to be. But I would rather have my girls watch Dawson's Creek or Buffy than Ally McBeal.
Say what you will about the fanciful premise of Buffy, in which Buffy Summers fights the evil denizens of hell in order to save her town. But Buffy is neither man obsessed nor self-absorbed, and she refuses to see her problems, like Ally McBeal does, as bigger than everyone else's. In fact, she balances her personal life quite elegantly with her responsibility to protect her community from evil vampires (okay, so that sounds ridiculous on its face; nevertheless, the lesson it conveys is a worthy one). The problems are of a different scale. She misses out on her own prom in order to make school safe for her friends; she gives up something but earns loyalty and respect in return. Also, her best friend Willow is intelligent, sensitive, principled, and the least stereotypical Jewish woman on television.
Similarly, peel away the music-video veneer from Dawson's Creek or Party of Five and you'll find some young women who clearly have their feet planted firmly on the ground, even in the context of formulaic television plots. Joey Potter, for example, in spite of having a dead mother and a jailed father, has enough self-awareness to realize that there is an asymmetry between her boyfriend Dawson's passion for filmmaking and her own passion for Dawson. After some initial sadness, she pulls herself together enough to think about what she really wants out of life- and to realize the folly of a self-definition that requires always having a man. Ally McBeal never shows this kind of independence. The tragedy is that, assuming television convention holds, if Joey graduates from college without having landed a husband, she'll be reduced to jabbering preadolescence. (The self-reliant title character of the WB Network's Felicity suggests that college women still have their own identities and therefore that it is sometime after college that life begins to be about having babies.)
Sometimes the divide between adolescent maturity and post-adolescent immaturity is starkly evident even within a single show. Party of Five, for instance, depicts both teenage girls and twenty-something women. The differences are striking. (Originally about a family of orphans trying to raise themselves, the show has turned into a fairly formulaic soap about adolescents and young adults coexisting in an adult-free San Francisco universe.) Sarah- whose character, now 19, is spinning off this season to a new show called Time of Your Life- was one of the first TV characters I saw with the self-awareness to realize that her coquettish attempts to win her boyfriend's heart (in a batch of episodes a few years ago) were not only a waste of her time but also a challenge to her self- esteem, and that she shouldn't have to compromise her intelligence to win love. In an episode at the end of last season, Sarah, now older, attempted to teach this lesson to 16-year-old Claudia while at the same time struggling to maintain her own interests as her life was increasingly overtaken by her boyfriend's responsibilities.
In contrast, twenty-something Kirsten, the girlfriend of the show's oldest sibling, is a unidimensional character painted almost entirely in terms of her inability to have children. The chain of events that followed her learning this fact was over the top: she plagiarized her Ph.D. thesis, had a nervous breakdown, married a man she didn't love, and spent several seasons obsessing about how she would hold onto a man if she couldn't bear children. Meanwhile, the only other twenty-something women on this show have been a stripper who doesn't love her child, an alcoholic who depends on a 19-year-old man to take care of her, and a hard-edged and independent- but, alas, unlovable and unappealing- social worker.
What is it in the logic of television that demands that self-possessed girls full of possibility must evolve into women who are defined entirely by their marriage status and act like spoiled children? To the extent that television reflects or defines many of our central preoccupations as a society, this is a question to take seriously. Mightn't television capture some more complex way of thinking about the role of women in society? Or must television continue to make women into one-issue vessels when they reach childbearing age? The women I know lead richly textured lives, and the ones who do feel the loneliness of being single do not deal with it by throwing tantrums in court or moving home to live with their parents; surely it's the same for the women you know, too. But that's not the impression your daughters would get- or your sons, for that matter- from watching TV.
Sadly, shows featuring teen girls are becoming more and more formulaic, their lead characters more and more flat and conventional. Television producers are like sheep; thus a few dramas about teenagers from the last two seasons have generated a trend that will feature as many as 10 such shows this season, not counting the returning sitcoms Moesha and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or the Moesha spinoff The Parkers. As the new season starts, it will be worth watching to see which of these teen girls can sustain their level of maturity as they age and which will become ditzy stereotypes. We can only hope the girls don't lose character definition as these shows become the norm. One thing is certain: if Buffy Summers grows up to be Ally McBeal, there will be hell to pay. Literally.