By Rich Heldenfels
It seems at times as if women are getting some respect in pop culture, more than in the world beyond. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” hinges on the women (Rey, Leia, Rose, Holdo). Series such as “Better Things” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” show what miracles women can do not just as stars but as writers and directors.
The dilemma still facing women was highlighted in the most recent episode of “Madam Secretary,” where even powerful women in the U.S. and abroad found decisions made by men did not necessarily help make women more powerful; they could even take power away from women. An ongoing film series, “The Future is Female,” in New York features “women in strong, defiant roles set in both the near and distant futures” – with all of the films directed by men.
The second, 10-episode season of Netflix’s “The Crown” and the first, eight-episode run of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” showed how women often come up against entrenched social structures and stereotypes – and that real power may still lie in the hands of men.
I’ll come back to that. First, let me talk about what seems to be the theme song of the holiday season: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
Written in 1944 by Frank Loesser as a playful duet he and his wife could perform at parties, the seemingly playful encounter between a woman trying to leave a man’s home and the man insisting that she stay is a constant on holiday playlists. Technically a winter song, not a holiday song, it nonetheless offers programmers eight decades of versions to include.
Only some holiday songs are underlaid with dubious messages. There’s a whole subgenre of greedy-woman songs, the most famous of which is “Santa Baby.” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” though is much worse. It has been argued increasingly in recent years that the song is a date-rape anthem, as the man offers reasons for beyond the cold outside for the woman to stay. There are other arguments for the song being mere flirtation, or even for it as having a feminist subtext, with one writer saying that “the tension in the song comes from her own desire to stay and society’s expectations that she’ll go.”
But I find those arguments fall when faced with the woman’s “Say, what’s in this drink?” – shades of Bill Cosby – and even more when we look at the man framing her choice in terms of HIS feelings – leaving would hurt his pride; how can she do this to him? It’s not, then, about fun or even sex, but about who holds the power in the relationship, and the man insisting that he is the injured party if she, rightly, heads into the night. Therefore the song is grimly significant this year; imagine the singing man as Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Russell Simmons, the current U.S. president, et al. Imagine that the song's woman, if she stays, will end up #metoo.
The idea of women having to receive power from men runs all through “The Crown,” which continues the story of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) into the '60s, and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” where the breakup of her marriage leads Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) to become a stand-up comic in early-'60s New York City.
Where Elizabeth is the nominal centerpiece of “The Crown,” the second season devotes rather too much time to the irritation her husband Philip (Matt Smith) feels at being subordinate to his wife. In a pivotal scene, Philip complains that he is outranked by his son Charles; Elizabeth, astonished, points out that Charles is the next in line to the throne – making clear that Philip is not. (Cue the man in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” whining “How could you do this thing to me?”) But where Philip should have recognized that dynamic, Elizabeth seems abashed by the situation and awards Philip a new title as a face-saving gesture.
After all, men are supposed to be the powerful ones, to the point that Philip is determined to toughen up his son Charles; Elizabeth is in an awkward power position both as a monarch (since she reigns but does not rule, and delicately navigates her nation’s governmental policies) and as a woman (whose daily business dealings are almost entirely with men). In contrast to Elizabeth we have her younger sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), whose urge to be unconventional is outweighed by her need for a man and for money. There is no room for feminists in this world.
Elizabeth’s greatest power is, like other mothers, familial – she can hold sway over her husband, though that has its limits; her sister, her bitter uncle – keeping her household together as much as possible. Her greatest diplomatic triumph, for that matter, comes when she joins a foreign leader for a dance; naturally, in a dance, the man leads.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which is indeed a marvelous show, finds another woman, another wife, pushing her way out of the conventions of her upper-class, Jewish family and social circle in a variety of ways. Stand-up comedy is at first the province of her husband Joel; Midge helps with his jokes and bribes the operator of the Gaslight nightspot with food to get good spots for Joel. But when he announces that he is leaving her, Midge seizes the comedy-club stage in a hilarious fury, demonstrating that she is the great comic in the family. Her talent is immediately recognized by Gaslight worker Susie (Alex Borstein), and the two set out to make Midge the next great stand-up.
While Midge is fictional, she inhabits a very real world – Lenny Bruce is a recurring character, and there are allusions to great comedians of the time (Redd Foxx, Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl) accompanied by the look and attitudes of the period. Again, this is largely a man’s world; Susie dresses and acts like the men around her, but most go as supplicant to other powerful men to move Midge’s career along. Indeed, in the series finale, Susie and Midge are both seemingly powerless after Midge has made a huge tactical error in the name of humor and honesty – and defiance of stereotypes – and Susie must turn to a man to rescue them.
Midge’s comedy, for that matter, constantly batters against what women should do – rejecting the passive-aggressive maneuvers of her parents’ marriage in favor of frontal, this-is-what-I-want assaults. More than once, series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino (“Gilmore Girls”) highlights the risks in such boldness in the repressive ‘50s, especially as Midge runs afoul of men, such as judges and Joel himself. Even her seeming triumph at the end of “Maisel’s” first season does not assure us of her success – only of her greatness.
And women can still be both great – and subjected to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
Crowns, comedians and Christmas: Notes on women and power in pop culture
By Rich Heldenfels