While the elites are focused on their own fluff stories like “The World’s Most Secretive Billionaires,” the rest of us might watch a little t.v. I do. I wish I could have a full time critical mind. I don’t. I engage in “mindless” activities that often include sitting in front of an electrified box that shows me a story, and I take it in. Try to guess what will happen next due to overused plot formulas. Note inconsistencies. Being slightly OCD has always meant a possible future job as a continuity director. Alternately, I sip on a nice red wine in the backyard and imagine the birds that will flock to my yard, once I find the most lovely of seed mixes. We’ve had quite a bountiful populace over the last few months, though despite our sugary gifts, the illusive hummingbirds never made it to our sandy side of the island.
When I am “disengaged” in my frivolous American way, I like to be comforted and see some hint of my life reflected, in an optimistic light, through these boob tube stories. Who doesn’t? So why am I, like so many others, drawn to the popular detective/cop show genre? “Law and Order” is an easy scene because it’s always on. I took in the Baltimore show, “The Wire,” for its entire run. “The Shield” dominates the screen if I can find it. And oh, “Dexter,” with its lovely criminal twists wins every time.
So not so long ago, a male friend laughed when he heard I had turned Ana on to “The Closer” and now thinks of us when those Kyra Sedgwick “confessional” commercials cross his screen. I wonder if he’ll ever watch it. Today, I graduated to wondering how many men go beyond “JAG” and watch “The Closer.” I’m optimistic in thinking that, likely, quite a few do. Why? Because the times, they are a changin’. I mean, I mean it. I’m sure we’ll get our backlash, and may even be in it as evidenced by the recent woman hating crap seen through generic Hillary-bashing, but still, I think there are a lot of men who really want something more egalitarian, or to put it in a less p.c. way, relationships that allow them to appreciate aspects of womanhood that have traditionally been denigrated in the not-so-distant past. And to be risque about it, I think some of these men are grateful that they can even embrace and enact a few of these feminine behaviors, thanks to one of the most important movements in America, the multi-cultural women’s movement, and assume some of those nurturing responsibilities, whether in relation to raising their children or simply as a means to supporting and encouraging their lovers through real tangible and emotional help.
Two nights ago, I decided to give that stupid-looking show, “Saving Grace,” a whirl. I knew the premise had something to do with a female cop and a lurking angel who was trying to help her with her fiery temper, or a variation on Grace’s lack of tameness. It just seemed dumb. But TNT has been promoting the hell out of that show and simultaneously my favorite show, “The Closer,” which I love, primarily because Sedgwick’s character, Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson, is a good old southern girl raised in the conventional ways of Southern Belle-dom. Her family’s notions of respectability smack a little of my own, though the racist threads within the spoken culture are tidily excised for TV. Sedgwick’s character, however, doesn’t comply with the push: she hasn’t had a child and likely won’t, is unmarried at the ripe old age of late thirty-something, doesn’t adhere to familial obligation (my mother would have me nursing her pre-elder years if she could), and above all, she’s used her mind to get to one of the highest positions the L.A.P.D. force can offer. She’s in command of a group of mostly men and has the respect (and oft times reluctant compliance) of her commanding officer. She doesn’t “do things by the book” or, as the south would have her behave, with grace and demureness.
In fact, she mocks these conventions by giving them lip service, “Thank ya’ll VERY MUCH!”, but when something needs to get done, Sedgwick delivers a command and commands her will be done with the earnestness of a … of a mother who runs the home with a firm and happy hand. I was going to say like a “general,” but that seems too much like she’s adopted a man’s style of power. She hasn’t. If anything, the writers, director, and producers of this show want you to recognize that Sedgwick’s character has her “weak” or flawed human side. She gets sick (early onset menopause has wreaked all kinds of havoc), makes big P.R. errors, makes mistakes in her personal life (esp with her fiance), and oh, deals with all sorts of other “female” issues and challenges. But. None of the men, except one typical guy who is part-time out to get her job (he alternately can’t resist supporting her as one of the team for he does follow the male competitive model), see these flaws as the sum total of her character. They allow her to make mistakes and be human without rubbing her nose in it. In fact, they often take up the slack. They help her when she most needs it (and will allow it). They respect and admire her talent and see her as a — for lack of a better word — good person. She’s not someone to defeat. She’s to be supported, and she provides support. It’s an interesting model, this cooperative model, that doesn’t often find women in the leading role on a major network. Instead, we usually find the competitive ethos that makes women prove “they are as good as men,” or usually more aggressive, if they want to be successful on that channel for any period of time.
Which leads me full circle back to “Saving Grace.” Granted, I’ve only seen one episode, so bear with me. Like “The Closer,” Grace enjoys the room allowed her to be irrational at times and also to feel in charge of herself and her decisions as a woman and as a cop. She acts impulsively and struggles with “doing what’s right.” She gets mostly-unconditional support (O Ideal World!), though her honey gets frustrated as does Sedgwick’s fiance, but ultimately, patience wins out, and her beau can be seen backing off when she needs room and doing things to help her out of whatever literal or emotional hole Grace struggles within. These characters’ primary men are unusual in that they are paired with women who seem to have more power than them and command a greater presence (and have more people under their command), and yet, they are not threatened. They do their own jobs and have momentarily separate lives (one is an FBI agent; Grace’s is also a detective) and enjoy watching their lovers do theirs, helping, as noted, when they can offer assistance without the help seeming to be a comment on these women’s capabilities. Call me simple, but I am hopeful as I watch these men, who are masculine and feminine, strong and flawed, just as their partners are — and they recognize these conditions and respond humanly.
This morning I got to wondering about why these two shows get the most commercial push on TNT. I don’t have the true answer nor do I really want to spend time researching Ted Turner’s mystique. But Ted Turner it is who makes the final decisions for TNT’s programming. And he is known to have been with at least one very notably strong woman for some period of time. Remember Jane Fonda? That vocal anti-Vietnam spokesperson who was arrested and took a lot of flak for posing with an NVA crew to make a statement? Did she make mistakes? Likely (& is still dubbed a “traitor” by many), but I’m not debating that point at the moment. I will note that Fonda could be commended for taking a public stand when it wasn’t the “safe” thing to do and to note that she might be characterized as a woman who isn’t afraid to take risks and has been active beyond her acting career for a good while. Moreover, Turner didn’t marry pretty arm candy; he married a woman who has been celebrated for promoting feminist causes, speaks out often, and was profiled in ABC’s A Celebration: 100 Years of Great Women. Turner might be divorced now, but his selection of, at least this partner, leads me to wonder how this southern man was fine for many years being married to such a woman. And then I have to ask, if pop culture reflects the conversations we’re having with society, what’s Ted Turner trying to tell us? Detective Grace Hanadarko and Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson, and their creators, might have a clue or two. Stay tuned.
Civil Rights Education Entertainment Evolution Feminism Gender Politics Generation Y Inspirational Love Media Men Pop Culture Sexy Television Competitive Cooperative Relationships Detective Shows Egalitarian Feminist Men Pop Culture Saving Grace Sexy Television The Closer TNT Turner Network Television Women
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.