Wednesday, May 7, 2008

When it comes to gender, how real is MTV keepin' it?

No, this is not going to be one of those posts about how fake The Hills is. If it bothers you that the producers set up Lauren's dates or Heidi's "job", it's not the show for you.

But this is going to be a post about the gender politics of some recent moments on The Hills, and on The Paper, MTV's new must-see reality drama, the show that allows high school newspaper editors of yesteryear to relive/shrink in horror at their glory days.

When I wrote about The Hills for the online TV studies journal Flow a couple of seasons ago, I lamented the gender politics of a MTV's new-fashioned soap, pointing out the difference between The Hills' take on heterosexual romance and that of the daytime soaps (at least the soaps as they should be, but all too often are not these days). I wrote this after the gut-punch of Lauren's decision to forgo a summer-in-Paris internship for a summer in a Malibu beach house with her abusive boyfriend Jason. I wasn't so much upset with Lauren as I was with the program's representation of Lauren's choice as the height of romance, and of Jason as just so adorably in love that he couldn't bear to be away from her.

Since then, The Hills has taken a decidedly different turn, one also indebted to the daytime soaps. Lauren's real-world break up with Jason during the Malibu beach house summer forced a storyline reboot in which Lauren became single gal unlucky in love (and wary of awful dudes like Jason) and the primary drama shifted away from boys and toward the relationships between the girls--a dynamic always present but soon heightened by the breakdown of Lauren's friendship with Heidi.

Now, the daytime soaps grapple with relationships between women as well. But the kinds of problems that place daytime's women at odds with one another tend to be of a more melodramatic nature--baby swaps, man stealing, and lies, lies, lies. The tensions between the women of The Hills are more quotidian, but also painfully close to many girls' and women's actual experiences of friendship drama. OK, maybe a sex tape is not at the center of most women's friendship tension, but the issues underlying L and H's sex tape battle are all too common -- feelings of betrayal, of abandonment, of rejection.

The problem for The Hills these days is that Lauren and Heidi are seemingly splitsville forever--these two ain't gonna be friends again and Lauren, at least, seems to have little interest in engaging with Heidi at all, even to accuse and argue. So where's the new drama? It seems to be brewing between new roomies Lauren, Lo, and Audrina, as Lauren is placed in between her actual, for-real childhood pal Lo and her MTV-generated friendship with Audrina.

Granted, this totally works as relatable drama. But. It is placing Lo in the position of villainess, and this I just can't take. Lo is one of the few young women gracing the Laguna/Hills-averse that seems to have some smarts. She's witty, clever, just seems to have thoughts going on behind her sparkly blues. (I really don't mean to diss the others, especially not Lauren, who delivers some bon mots of her own from time to time.) In this latest friendship drama, Lo is being depicted as forcing Audrina out of Lauren's life while Audrina is the sad victim of Lo's actions. [Important aside: Isn't Justinbobby's transformation a-mazing?! Sobriety has made him actually really and truly attractive! He looks great, and is a sympathetic boyfriend/friend/whatever to Audrina!]

The soap villianess is a crucial character, but in the daytime soap world her villainy comes from somewhere--usually insecurity or desperation or revenge--and her challenges to patriarchal strictures of femininity are a pleasure to love (or love to hate). But Lo is so not this character. No, the brainiest girl on The Hills is cast as the bitch, for no real reason other than to stir up drama. Disappointing, again.

The Paper features another brainy girl in the role of villain. But Amanda Lorber is no existing genre's idea of the female foil. This series chronicles the experiences of the new regime of editors at a high school newspaper in Florida. Amanda is the new editor in chief, a girl unlike any we typically see on American TV. Others have described her better than I could, but suffice it to say that she is super-ambitious, super-enthusiastic, super-nerdy, yet supremely confident. Others have compared her to Election's Tracey Flick, a great teen girl character if ever there was one, but Amanda is much less cutthroat than Tracey, and also more vulnerable and more likable. Most of Amanda's underling editors are guys, also super-nerdy but so ensconced in their nerdy guy world that they don't really notice or care.

The main thrust of The Paper's story so far is the rest of the editorial staff's indignation at Amanda's appointment as in-chief. The other kids mock her, criticize her, pretty openly hate on her. At first I thought I couldn't watch the show because they were so mean to her, and she was such a comedic figure that I thought the show wanted me to side with them and laugh at her, too. But the Amanda-love I encountered online, as in feminist-leaning sites like Jezebel, encouraged me to take another look.

I'm pretty certain now that The Paper has a more complex story to tell, one in which the editorial staff (mostly straight-acting boys, but also one girl-who-hangs-with-the-boys and one seemingly gay guy) may turn into the real villains while we are invited to side with Amanda, however misguided she may seem. This became especially clear to me when it was revealed that Amanda has a past of sorts with Alex, perhaps her greatest male adversary, the paper's Managing Editor and Amanda's second in command. Alex admits to having had a crush on Amanda in 9th grade and the two clearly share a long friendship, one now somewhat fractured. In part this seems to do with their competition for the top spot at the paper, but I'm thinking it has more to do with his teen boy assholery, his need to prove his manhood by asserting his superiority to her, by aligning with his buds against her. And he is not looking good in the process. Week by week, Amanda in all her goofiness is coming off as the one to root for.

I'm still a bit uncertain as to where this will all lead, and I still worry that Amanda is too much the butt of the joke on this show to make her the sympathetic heroine I want her to be. I'm hoping, hoping, hoping that she doesn't get the Lo treatment--no room for smart girls on MTV after all. Meanwhile I'm rooting for the girl to prove her haters wrong.

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