Male-written fantasies still have a long way to go, if the goal is to approach an accurate representation of real human women. If that isn’t the goal then we’re already in the future, baby!
Ruth Langmore is a character on Ozark, a Netflix crime drama which was released this year. The show centres on Martin Byrde, a money launderer who is, by some run of the mill gangster coercion, hoisted from his Chicago home and set down in Missouri, with family in tow. Ruth is one of five Langmores in town, all of whom are notorious trouble makers and well known to the local cops and businesses.
Where her uncles are dense, Ruth is sharp. If they are slow, she is quick. Though the “produced by” and “created by” sections on wikipedia show an entirely male cohort, there is at least some awareness of an audience who increasingly demand three-dimensional female characters. Ruth is Netflix’s answer to this cry. So who is she, then, this presumably male-written and cast character?
Ruth Langmore doesn’t read books, she reads her phone. Her father Cade is a notorious criminal who instills terror in his still-free brothers who seem to be tasked with either safeguarding her, or staying out of her way. She is a thief and a liar. These characteristics are presented under the general umbrella of street-smarts. Too, Ruth is loyal to her younger cousins and wants provide opportunities for them at any cost. Her relationship with her father seems to ring a few bells. She, like her uncles, is terrified of him. She dresses up and dons makeup to visit him in jail, where he repeatedly urges her to murder Martin Byrde and steal his money. Cade is the kind of character who is written all over other’s reactions to hearing his name; his brothers fear him, his daughter flinches at his every word, even though he is behind inch-thick glass. But, alas, he also seems to have been caricatured years before his birth. In Its Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Mac’s father Luther is basically the same character, right down to the neck tattoos and adoring, but endangered child. The only difference might be that Cade Langmore seems to have a shred of pride for his daughter, whereas Luther McDonald openly, hilariously, dislikes his son. But we can just chalk that up to caricature.
Ruth, through her wonderful southern accent, is articulate. I think her dialogue is some of the best written for any character in this show. She has a great wit to balance the scales of dialogue in her family, just like Martin Byrde does in his own family. One side of the scale is rank paranoid babbling, and the other is cool, witty sooth-saying. For all her razor sharp witticisms and steely glaring, Ruth’s third dimension still seems to suffer at the hands of male writers who are still obsessed with the competence porn coursing through the veins of Hollywood and Netflix. While nothing new (Sherlock Holmes is an early example), we seem to be inundated with both Vanilla flavour competence porn (e.g. Limitless, Drive, literally any superhero/comic book movie), and a new variant thereof which might be read as a reaction to the plain old vanilla stuff. This moment in TV and movies seems to paradoxically endorse an old trope; powerful man, look at his muscles and wit! And a new trope; nervous man, he has no muscles, nor (in some cases, like any Transformers film) any appreciable intelligence, yet the nervous male lead still gets the object of his desires:
Master of None, second season: Gets the Girl Love, first season: Gets the Girl (honourable mention for a 50:50 or so ratio of male- and female- lead character screen time) Silicon Valley: Gets the Transformers movies: Gets the Girl and presumably the $$$ and the power but to what end?
These types of nervous male leads are pretty plainly pandering to what many Hollywood focus group surveys must have revealed—the majority of the demographic are not über confident, muscle-bound hunks. This type of surveying might have produced the list above (which we could probably continue to populate with new releases well into the 2040s), but it doesn’t really help the audience, it serves the production houses who have a big () stake in this, obviously. At their worst and most poorly written, these characters say, “you, as the nervous male lead of your own life, deserve The Girl, the dollar signs, the power. You are treated unjustly by your life’s minor characters if these things do not come to you.” In spite of this cirque du marketing wank, we have characters like Ruth. A half-baked reply to all of the above.
But we are still, as an audience, hyper aware of the lines written for major female roles. We, the awoken youth flick our antennae up in the instant that we see a young female character open her mouth. Some of us think to ourselves, ‘oh this oughta be good,’ (derision, expecting the worst) others may succinctly think, ‘boobies.’ (…) Fewer still will think, ‘this character will represent women as I know them: real people.’ And this last reaction must surely be a minority of responses to our telepathic survey of a generation of TV audiences. Because, if you are not getting my drift, these real representations of people don’t exist in TV. Not for men, and not for women. Put even more plainly, the Man is either a hyper-confident do-it-all, or a nervous loser (like you! Winks and nudges); the Woman is either an empty sex-object, or a hyper-cool, confident vessel for male writers to pour their sex-object fantasies into. There are three female characters who actually seem to have their own lives but who exist with varying levels of dependence upon Martin Byrde, master of competence in this world.
Though it makes some gestures toward relevance, we still get from Ozark the same old movie magic. Gratuitous production value is the name of the game today: just look at all of this Netflix money flying around. We are presented with a visual world which seems to treat drone flybys as an elongated form of punctuation. The colour grade of the show is a pretty radical deep blue. Cue the first year art class discussing what blue means: Mystery, death, secrets, sadness, and et cetera until 12 because then I have Psychology 101. Taking an optimistic and charitable reading, this blue imposition is in stout defiance of the Hollywood blue/orange colour combination, à la Transformers—but we should withhold our charity until all the evidence is in. Lastly, (This might be the only real spoiler in this piece) is the way this show sounds. Unfortunately I was lulled into a false confidence after watching the first episode which winds up with a cool, deadpan play-through of a whole Radiohead song. It only got worse from there:
Watching this first season on my not-so-impressive-I-do-alright headphones reveals a soundscape overpopulated with all manner of crunchy, heavy-handed, sound effects, collectively named foley. It really does sound like the Incredible Hulk, in between his screenwriting night classes, has been offered a job as lead foley artist for a Netflix production, and he has to take it because of the drought of big-guy roles right now. Some examples: A work site with three or four labourers walking to and fro elicits a motor-driven, hammering chorus whose sound decidedly outweighs the bodies on screen. Later on, the most ridiculous party scene I’ve seen this side of 2010, which includes naked and near-naked teens dancing on the back decks of tied-together mega-yachts, all to the sound of some unseen but omnipresent speaker system. The line between diegetic and non-diegetic is completely shattered by this scene: All these unnamed white teens dancing to the obvious sonority of Coyote Kisses’ “Waiting For You”, (with nary a wink or nudge to alert the audience that you can tell how obtuse this looks on screen) elicits a pretty forceful dry-heave from this audience member.
Finally, and I have left the best for last, is The Kiss. At 41 minutes and 13 seconds into my copy of episode 6, we are witness to a strange and uncomfortable minute of Hulk genius. Some back story for those who have made it this far into what has turned into a long examination of a show I only half liked: After several stressful, crime-ridden weeks of moving houses, finding dead bodies, job interviews, punch ups, the two leads finally end their intimacy hiatus with a loving smooch and an uneasy bonk. But the genius in Hulks design is really only revealed on a set of headphones or through a loud set of decent speakers. Truly, these smooch sound effects will be in foley textbooks for generations to come:
I can only imagine what devilry the Hulk must have conjured up in order to make such gut-churning stuff, but that’s why he gets hired again and again; he’s brilliant. We can easily count two times the amount of smooch sound effects per physical lip smack in the short moment above.
These ideas of competency, the character tropes, the barrage of movie-magic sensations, all work together as a volley of a sad optimism. We, the audience get to have ever more realistic female characters but at the cost of general believability. We are in the era of Post Realism now. Forget the Hyper Real Breaking Bad and The Wire, this is something new. It’s optimistic because of the way that these male producers are listening to their audiences expectations; sad because of the embodiment of their response, and I think The Kiss is the perfect example of this embodiment. A dark-lit interior, with a blue cast; the most over the top smooch sound effects I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear, which lead to disappointing sex and more gender stereotypes than you can shake a stick at.