I’ve been watching a lot of Ugly Betty reruns as of late. And I realized that the best moments in the entire series occur when Betty (America Ferrera) and Wilhemina (Vanessa Williams) are pitted against one another. Both are women of color navigating the very racist world of fashion editorial and despite how stridently she treats Betty, there is part of her that beams when Betty is able to leave the fashion world with confidence. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the series—and it has nothing to do with Betty’s ongoing relationship with her boss Daniel (which frequently plays into the problematic stereotype of a person of color helping a white person get ahead.)
This made me want to take a closer look at some of my favorite shows this season—all female-driven—and gauge them. Ugly Betty was by no means perfect when it cames to representations of gender or ethnicity, but it got a lot of things right that I think more ambitious shows are letting slip through the cracks.
Last night, I happened across Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency installment about The Bechdel Test and perhaps I’ve been under a rock, but I loved how simply it measured the representations of women in popular culture, but also minorities. For the uninitiated:
• The Bechdel Test was originally created to address the lack of female representation in popular culture; the rubric is simple. There has to be two women who communicate with one another about something that isn’t a man.
• Later on, a variation of this test was created to gauge the representation of people of color in popular culture: Are there two people of color and are they communicating about something besides a white person?
What was wonderful about Ugly Betty was that even if it was creatively uneven at times, it represented a world where characters like Betty and Wilhemina could talk about their careers. It’s a show that frequently passed both variations of this test.
I wanted to apply both tests to four of the most compelling series I’ve been following through the current TV season. It’s odd, but none of these series—which I think represents the TV’s top creative tier—are able to pass both tests. Keep in mind all four of these shows are helmed by, and prominently star, women.
The Mindy Project. At its core, this comedy is about Mindy Lahiri—an Indian-American doctor who tries to juggles the demands of her job with her pursuit of love. The writing and acting is solid. However, we do learn that this show—as funny as it is—falls short. Because she dates only white guys in the show (the lawyer, the midwife, that guy played by Ed Helms, and maybe even Danny Castellano) and because most of her conversations tend to be about her dating life—whether she’s speaking to a man or a woman—I don’t think this show really passes either test. This is all with the exception of her brother—who appears only a couple times so far. But it’s a good show! And as it starts to wrap up its first season—I have hopes that perhaps this comedy will start to get out of its comfort zone.
Scandal. Kerry Washington’s turn as Olivia Pope, a Capitol Hill crisis fixer, is electrifying. And showrunner Shonda Rimes does a pretty good job of trying to keep women and people of color from falling into boxes on this show. That said, there is always a nascent fear that due to the nature of the beast—Olivia Pope is fixing the problems of mostly white people, after all—this sometimes fails to pass the second test. I think Scandal's probably at its best in those too rare moments when Harrison and Olivia talk about Olivia for a moment—not about the President, or about their latest hot mess client. I think finding a way to mine that relationship is going to be what keeps the soap's longevity in tact—long after viewers have bored of her on-off relationship with President Grant.
Bunheads.This was one of the biggest surprises of 2012—a soap about female friendships that (1) didn’t oversexualize its leads; (2) presented a soap driven by women of all ages; and (3) allowed its female leads to mentor one another. Of all the examples herein, Bunheads is the only one that passes the The Bechdel Test with flying colors—talking about boys comes with the turf of being a show about girls who are coming of age. Unfortunately, this show fails spectacularly when it comes to representations of minorities. I think there are two instances where a black girl is literally trotted out to ask, “Hey guys, what’cha talking out?” and then has no further lines. Again, I see a lot of promise and room for growth—and I think that showing the kind of issues a young black girl might deal with in a primarily white community like Paradise, CA could give AS-P some excellent fodder to transform Bunheads into captivating TV.
Girls.From my vantage point, it’s hard to see Girls as a feminist serial. Its leads—who are in their mid-twenties—spend much of their time worrying about boys and their relationship to boys. This might be realistic, but I know a lot of young women who spent the same—if not more—worrying about how to be good daughters, how to get the job of their dreams, and how to be happy alone. We do see Hannah and Marnie struggle through jobs—in the time that their friendship is functional, they’re able to talk about non-relationship-related things, too, but in the second season, the show basically collapses into a motif of men fixing everything (Charlie chases after Marnie; Adam comes to the rescue for Hannah following a breakdown; an anonymous blond man is quick to console Shoshanna after she dumps Ray). There’s one scene—where Jessa and Hannah are in the bathtub together—and it possesses the potential to pack a punch. But instead Jessa laments her short-lived marriage to the wealthy finance guy. The needle could go either way on this soap and second opinions are welcomed—I’m not convinced that this is the kind of serial that feminists should champion. Its portrayal of female relationships depicts women as unhinged and broken. And the race question? We’ve debated that to death and a few-episode guest arc by Donald Glover isn’t enough to make us second-guess our reservations.
I mean, these are all exemplary shows. They represent compelling characterizations and story lines But also consider, these are all shows conceived by women—in some cases, women of color—and their ability to pass either variation of the Bechdel Test is…well, specious.
Rohin Guhais a writer who can be found here and here.