Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Women Playwrights Foiled Again, Still . . . What About "The Scene"?

There’s been a great deal of internet chat lately on the American Society for Theatre Research listserve, ASTR-L, about a brief piece called “Women’s Voices Missing from the Theatre: Does Anyone Care?” published online by the Women’s Media Center (see Writer Melissa Silverstein, reporting for the Center, suggests that because so many famous women actors are appearing on Broadway right now, and because some of the top grossing musicals tell women’s stories (she lists The Color Purple, Grey Gardens, and Wicked), “you might think women in theatre are doing great these days.” But she goes on to note that appearances to the contrary, women are “struggling for parity with their male colleagues.” Despite the fact that women comprise over half of the Broadway theatre-going audience, plays by women are frequently ignored by producers, and women playwrights continue to toil in the largely invisible world of workshop productions, waiting to be noticed and taken seriously.

Silverstein refers to a landmark report sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts in January 2002, co-written by Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett. Jonas has long been a staff associate for NYSCA (although she’s currently on leave), and Bennett was, until recently, the Associate Artistic Director of the Women’s Project and Productions, whose artistic director was still, then, founder Julia Miles. (The report can be accessed at; it’s housed here with the Fund for Women Artists, an important advocacy group for women in theatre and other arts.) Sadly, little seems to have changed in the five years since that important study was distributed and discussed. Plays by women are still considered risky propositions for the most heavily capitalized Broadway productions, and regional theatres too often follow suit, playing the money card when they opt out of plays by women. There remain relatively few Pulitzer Prize winners in Drama who are women: Marsha Norma, Beth Henley, Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, and Suzan-Lori Parks pretty much round out the contemporary ranks.

What we can do about this sad and very static state of affairs? How can we prevent the next generation of arts writers from being required to make the same observations about the disempowerment of women playwrights as their predecessors? Silverstein’s comments really only echo those made by critics and scholars for the last at least 30 years. Why is there no movement toward equity in Broadway theatre?

The evidence seems to point to economics. Silverstein says that “In interviews with artistic directors for the NYSCA report, Susan Jonas noted that a common theme was, ‘Plays by women have limited interest and we’ll lose money on them.’” But this is the same lame excuse producers have offered for years. Many straight plays fail to recover their investments on Broadway; producing any homegrown American play (rather than a pre-approved British transfer) is, however shamefully, an economic gamble for the committed capitalists running theatres in Times Square. But that doesn’t explain why so many more plays by American men are given the chance to fail on Broadway.

Silverstein mentions that the new Theresa Rebeck play, The Scene, seems poised for a Broadway transfer, although her play Bad Dates was mentioned for the same move several years ago and never made it. Unfortunately, The Scene is a complicated example for this conversation, because although the play might have received some (though not universally) good reviews, its representations of women are so appallingly limited, I think it’d be a very good thing if fewer instead of more people saw the play. But before I discuss The Scene, which is currently playing at Second Stage on 43rd St., it’s worth pointing out that another Second Stage-produced straight play, The Little Dog Laughed, by Douglas Carter Beane, easily moved from 43rd Street to the Cort Theatre on Broadway after Ben Brantley gave it a glowing review in the Times.

Having seen both productions, I honestly can’t see why Rebeck’s play shouldn’t transfer, since it’s cut from the same cynical, ironic, sadly hopeless perspective on human endeavor as Beane’s. In Little Dog Laughed, the four characters—two closeted gay men, one young artsy woman, and one older, conniving and striving woman—have at each other while trying to navigate the shark-infested waters of Hollywood stardom. One of the men (played by Neal Huff) is a closeted famous actor. When he engages the services of a rent-boy (Johnny Galecki) for an evening, the two improbably find themselves drawn to each other and begin a relationship that threatens the male star’s public stature.

Their assignations and glimmering hopes for a relationship are micro-managed by the star’s slimy, powerful agent (played by the indomitable Julie White) who, although she’s supposed to be a lesbian herself, becomes the mouthpiece for virulent homophobia that courses barely disguised under the play’s paper-thin surface. She can’t condone their relationship, because the star’s reputation would falter and the gravy train he provides for her would end. So she engineers a plan that puts the rent-boy on the road—with millions of dollars in his pocket—toward a new life, just to get him out of the picture, and arranges for the star to conveniently marry and raise a child with the rent-boy’s old girlfriend (a thankless role played by Zoe Lister-Jones).

When I saw the play at Second Stage last year, I was appalled by how callously these proceedings transpired, all marked by the supposedly witty, empty banter that contemporary comic playwrights seem to think human conversation sounds like. The men can barely string together sentences; they’re represented as handsome naifs with a powerful physical attraction but not enough balls to follow their desire to any sort of jeopardizing commitment. The rent-boy, because he’s less powerful and monied, is allowed more emotion than the star, who’s already soul-dead from his shallow image-making. That the rent-boy is happy to take the money and run, though, compromises any emotional potential he might have as a character, while his girlfriend and the star are happy to be hooked in a relationship with no substance but great public interest.

Pulling all these strings is the uber-agent, the rail-thin, ball-busting verbal gymnast who can crush an ego with an adjective and has no apparent life besides trying to ply her star’s trade. She has no emotion but irony and receives very little human contact in the course of the play (air kisses don’t count). For this role, Julie White got rave reviews.

I couldn’t figure out what people saw in Little Dog Laughed. Reading the promos, I anticipated a sharp critique of Hollywood hypocrisy, and a satiric inquiry into the costs of fame, all delivered with sparkling dialogue and witty repartee. No such luck. The talk is mean-spirited and superficial, the plot is driven only by fear of sexual exposure, without a thought for what might be lost in the process of hiding a person’s truth. Scott Ellis’s direction boasted a fair amount of man-on-man action, all tastefully cloaked in bed sheets and arranged so that body parts we discreetly hidden as their simulations played out. The men in the play are boorish bores; the women either cutthroat or common. But maybe that’s the point; nothing in this play challenges anyone’s conceptions of the world as it is and certainly not men and women as they are. The play’s queer politics are anathema, and its gender politics retrograde. Maybe that’s why it moved to Broadway.

Little Dog Laughed, perhaps thankfully, didn’t last that long at the Cort Theatre, and maybe that’s why Second Stage isn’t rushing to move The Scene, along with the added burden of its playwright’s gender. But The Scene has much in common with the earlier comedy. This, too, is a two man/two woman play; this one, too, is beautifully produced, with sets that fly in fully dressed or roll in from the wings decorated with the comfortable accoutrements of upper-middle class life. The Scene's production design is elegant and efficient; much money was no doubt spent to make the condo terrace and the two New York apartment settings in which the action unfolds. The actors are top-drawer, including Tony Shaloub (of the hit cable series Monk but also late of many very fine independent films like Big Night) as Charlie, the middle-aged fading television star (again); Christopher Evan Welch as his best friend, Lewis; Patricia Heaton (of Everybody Loves Raymond fame) as Charlie’s wife, Stella; and Anna Camp as Clea, the newly arrived from Ohio New Yorker who plays dumb but proves a wily adversary on these people’s common march toward their own blind ambitions.

Here again, despite its female origins, the gender politics are appalling. Clea first appears to be a quintessential bimbo, the cute young blond thing whom Charlie and especially Lewis ogle on the terrace outside their friend’s party. Charlie at first finds Clea’s Valley Girl inflections and her dim wit despicable, and mocks her rather cruelly. But when Lewis invites Clea to his apartment for a date, Clea’s interest in Charlie’s prior and potentially future fame seduces him into a full-blown, sexually charged affair, which they conduct literally under Stella’s nose. Of course, it helps that Stella supports Charlie by working a powerful media producer’s job while he’s unemployed. This gives him leave, in the second act, to justify his affair with Clea, when she finds them having sex in their apartment, complaining that Stella is just “too competent.” Throughout the play, Stella is accused of being a “frigid Nazi,” overly invested in keeping her desk at right angles and otherwise conducting her life reasonably. Her frigidity is underlined by her refusal to bend to Charlie’s physical administrations early in the play, and by the fact that her infertility requires her to adopt a baby from China. She epitomizes the castrating woman, long a staple of the white American male playwright’s canon. But is this all we can expect from a woman playwright?

Likewise, Clea is the stereotypical whore (without the heart of gold), a brainless, conniving trick of surfaces looking for a ride to power by lying on her back with her legs spread (a position she assumes, literally, countless times in this production, directed by Rebecca Taichman, who also directed lesbian performer Peggy Shaw’s Menopausal Gentleman). Clea dresses in pretentious, clinging black, has a tiny waist, bounteous blond locks, and not a shred of empathy for anyone she meets. That someone who at first appears as sane as Lewis would lust after her, and that someone who at first appears as sophisticated as Charlie would fall for her reveals the sick heart at the play’s center. Only Stella sees through Clea immediately, refusing to give her a job with her company and setting off the spiral of events that finally unravels her marriage, ends Charlie’s friendship with Lewis, and nails the coffin of Charlie’s career. But because the women view each other as mortal enemies, no sense of understanding is possible between them. In fact, Clea laughs with brutal delight when Stella walks in on her and Charlie having sex, a cruel, morally bereft moment that only underlines the lack of gendered kinship in this female-authored play.

Perhaps Rebeck means The Scene as a satire of corrupt Hollywood mores; she’s written plays on this topic several times, with a vengeance apparently derived from her own years as a television writer (for NYPD Blue, among other shows). But either Taichman’s direction lost the parodic focus, or it wasn’t never there at all. The play ends where it began, with a light disquisition on the “surrealism” of the terrace setting and, by extension, the unreality of the much rearranged situation of relationships, privilege, and power in which the characters finally end. But as comic social commentary, The Scene lacks weight or substance and ends as a hateful, misogynist evening at a wealthy theatre that’s lavishing money and time on work whose existence begs its own question.

This is not the kind of work by women playwrights for which I want to advocate. But it’s the kind of work I’m afraid will transfer to Broadway, following on the heels of The Little Dog Laughed, its gay male-written counterpart. I’m as keen for comedy as the next spectator, but not for work whose cynicism provides pat answers for a social malaise it can’t even diagnose, let alone engage in any potentially productive way. If this is the material that’s going to “make it,” failure sounds like a more progressive option. In fact, maybe women’s absence from Broadway theatres isn’t such a bad thing after all, if the bulk of what’s offered there panders to some low common denominator of what white middle class straight men find fun, or how they like to imagine the moral bankruptcy of women and queer men. If that’s so, who needs it?

I loved a local, Austin production I saw of Rebeck’s play, Omnium Gatherum, and I’ve long followed her work, as she’s one of the few women, besides the late Wendy Wasserstein, writing what I more often find rather incisive comedy. The problem is not the "popular"; that is, I don't think Broadway as a venue is necessarily, always politically conservative. But although accusations of “selling out” seem retrograde and, in fact, much too simplistic and not very useful, I do wonder that her increasing success is leading Rebeck to narrow, instead of expand, her portrayals of women.

Just as a footnote, here are some women playwrights whose work I admire that I’d much rather see on Broadway, or even given a sumptuous production of the sort that The Scene received here: Naomi Wallace, Kia Corthron, Dael Orlandersmith, Irene Fornes, Alice Tuan, Naomi Iizuka, Diana Son, Lisa Loomer, Paula Vogel, Lisa D’Amour, and Heather McDonald, among more whom I’ll name, and hopefully write about, in the future.

The Feminist Spectator

Friday, February 09, 2007

The L Word Plays on

[Note: For those of you who’ve never seen The L Word, or for those of you who are inveterate fans, the essay I wrote during the show’s earlier seasons might be useful. Here’s the cite: “Fans of Lesbians on TV: The L Word’s Generations,” Flow,, posted April 29, 2005.]

Season four of The L Word is settling into its rather campy groove, dispensing with the histrionics of last season with dispatch and throwing our lesbian heroines into the latest melodramatic and comic plot twists. The putrid theme song by the female rock group Betty sets the tone, with its one word adjectives and trying-to-be-sexy verbs that pretend to describe the whole of lesbian “lives and loves.” But somehow, that entirely superficial, tuneless list song sums up what the show is all about.

In this season, Bette (Jennifer Beals), who was summarily fired from the museum where her terrific Provocations exhibit caused such a stir in the show’s inaugural year, has miraculously become a dean at California University, a fictitious (in more ways than one) institution of higher education where Bette’s immediate superior is Vice Chancellor Phyllis, played by guest star Cybill Shepherd. Even though this story line is among the show’s most unbelievable, the position returns Bette to the work place, where she demonstrates strength of character and balances out the other L women’s propensity to lounge about gossiping. Bette’s authority in the workplace influences her status with her friends, giving her pride of place as the L girls’ look-to friend/role model.

The other women seem younger than Bette. They work at jobs that allow them simply to exaggerate their social selves, Shane as a hairdresser at a punky skate boarders’ boutique, Alice on her tell-all, chart-drawing radio show, Tina as a studio executive who never appears to do anything, and the now penniless Helena as a caterer. Helena’s new skill represents another of season four’s miracles. Just a few episodes ago, Helena—the scion whose access to her inheritance was abruptly terminated by her art philanthropist mother—seemed unable to even juggle the phones at Shane’s salon. Now, she’s managing to produce caviar blinis at a moment’s notice for chic guests at the Vice Chancellor’s fundraiser.

Bette’s work, when she has it, has always lent The L Word its gravitas, its one intellectual and often political strain. This season promises not to disappoint, since Bette has already demonstrated her authority in the classroom, as well as her facility with odious, conservative fundraisers. When Bette tours one of those potential donors through the studio of the university’s artist-in-residence, Jodi (played by Marlee Maitlin), refuses to bow to Bette’s pressure to censor one of her students’ most provocative pieces during the visit. Maitlin’s character neatly points out Bette’s new hypocrisy; she who once spoke eloquently of the need for her museum to display art that crosses lines of social propriety is now putting her pretty words to use in the service of the dollar. Jodi lets Bette know in no uncertain terms that that just won’t do. This brief contretemps has lent the show a whiff of its former at least casually progressive politics, which have been sorely missing in recent seasons.

Last Sunday’s episode (Episode 5, “Lez Girls,” February 4th, 2007) offered the most unadulterated, adult sexual tension I’ve seen on the show in a long time. At the Vice Chancellor’s fundraiser—the one Helena caters and Bette should be working—sculptor Jodi and her ASL interpreter cajole Bette into stepping out with them into the yard to smoke a joint. Maitlin and Beals catch a vibe of genuine pleasure in each other’s company; their flirtation is sexy and fun, even with the intervening presence of the queer interpreter, who adds an element of both prurience and frisson to the seduction. Jodi is in the middle of blowing pot smoke into Bette’s ready and willing mouth (in a moment shot in romantic silhouette), when Alice and Phyllis burst into the yard fighting, requiring Jodi and Bette to postpone the moment (and to make us wait for its consummation, no doubt, in the next episode).

Cybill Shepherd has been amusing but disappointing as Phyllis, the newly Sapphic administrator. Her silly performance of a character whose authority is virtually nil unfortunately counterbalances Bette’s newly rediscovered seriousness. Where Bette/Beals is almost convincing delivering her art history lectures and explaining modern art to donors, Shepherd’s administrator never seems to do any work, and carries herself like a floozy instead of a professional. She’s constantly popping up to waylay Bette in the university’s halls, and spends way too much office time confessing her long-repressed attraction to women. Her affair with the ever willing Alice is way over the top, a romp of unbridled lust and experimentation that even Alice begins to find too much.

Shepherd’s portrait is too sincere to be campy, and although she’s clearly trying hard to fit into the scene (as a character and as an actor), she’s coming close to embarrassing herself. Too bad she can’t use what used to be her sultry sexuality, the much more indolent, subtle flirtatiousness that she demonstrated so skillfully with Bruce Willis back on Moonlighting, to give Phyllis’s new presence in the girl gang more nuance and texture. Instead, Shepherd seems hampered by her age and her weight, looking like a rather puffed up version of her younger self, a woman—perhaps just like Phyllis, her character—alienated from her body and forced to play the role from her neck up, even though she’s acting at desire that should emanate from much lower. Although Shepherd seems game for the sexual experimentation she’s portraying in the show, something about her eager puppy dog countenance trivializes what it means for a middle-aged professional woman with a husband and two college-age kids to choose to come out.

Other characters seem to be settling into a deeper sense of themselves this season. Alice has always been the show’s comic relief, in part because she’s written as lighter and less serious than the others, and partly because Leisha Haley is the most skilled at the wry comic turns the best The L Word writers offer. At the same time, Alice commands a larger range of emotions, again because Haley (along with Beals), is one of the show’s more accomplished performers. Granted, much of the time, the actors aren’t given a lot to work with. The script is often shallow, the dialogue inane. But the rotating stable of writers occasionally turns out some more accomplished, sophisticated dialogue, and when it does, Beals and Haley make it work.

Alice’s insane obsession with Dana in season three, after Dana left her to return to the “soup-chef,” was Alice’s nadir as a character; her hope for reconciliation was completely unbelievable and tedious. But once Dana was diagnosed with breast cancer (a gratuitous, manipulative plot twist that killed off Erin Daniels, another of the show’s better actors), Alice settled back into the reasonable character she’d been, rising to the occasion of caring for her friend through her death. Season four rewards Alice’s long-suffering loyalty by letting her be sexual again, first with Papi, the hot new Latina counterpart to the anti-monogamous Shane (who Papi derisively calls “Vanilla”). Papi’s centered herself on Alice’s chart by claiming attachments to over 1,500 women. When Alice investigates, trying to locate this miraculous lover, she finally finds Papi parked outside a Latino bar in a stretch limousine, into which Alice happily climbs to do her hands-on research. When Papi drops Alice off at her house the next morning, Alice introduces her to Helena, who becomes Papi’s next conquest. Papi becomes, by sexual approximation, part of the girl gang’s group.

Tina seems to be having second thoughts about her retreat back into heterosexuality, as it’s clear her sensitive new man might be less enlightened about gender and sexual equality than he’d seemed. The lingering sexual tension between Bette and Tina is ramping up a notch or two, even as they continue their recriminations and bickering. After all, Bette’s baby-snatching (the implausible ending to season three) was quickly forgiven and forgotten, and their new co-parenting arrangement easily decided. Happily, their lives as parents haven’t taken focus, a rather refreshing development, considering that these are, after all, wealthy lesbians who worked hard to have their child. Angus and Kit, in fact, are seen with their baby, Angelika, more often, since Angus continues to work as Bette and Tina’s “manny.”

Jenny’s true colors are flying this season, as producer Ilene Chaiken is apparently giving in to fans’ longtime dislike of her character. Her book was published to mediocre reviews, but Jenny’s become less of a maudlin, self-involved artist and more of a snotty, ego-centric writer, wreaking pathetic, Fatal Attraction-esque revenge on a reviewer for Curve Magazine who panned her book. Jenny also offends Alice by insisting that a story she wrote for The New Yorker (as if) is fiction rather than thinly veiled truth about her friends. The sniveling self-mutilator with strange fantasies and enigmatic flashbacks has found her evil stride as an arrogant, self-important cultural avatar, and the show’s writers seem to delight in just letting Jenny be bad.

Meanwhile, her ex, Max, is settling into his would-be manhood. After being cruelly rejected by his boss’s daughter when he reveals that he’s in the middle of a gender transition (she spits at Max, “I don’t date freaks”), Max prepares to lose his job, only to find that the politically and emotionally limited women’s studies major and would-be feminist he was dating has not, in fact, exposed his secret to her father. Max has moved up and down the meter of likable, sympathetic character-dom, but he seems to be evening out into a rather quiet, even tame masculinity. (Although still, it’s a white masculinity that secures ever more surely his privilege and his entrée into a powerful male world.)

Episode Five’s opening moment reveals Max gazing in the mirror at his very female body, removing his shorts and his dildo to stare frankly at his breasts and his penis-less bush. The moment is emotionally cryptic; it’s not clear what Max is thinking, whether he’s disgusted with his femaleness or coming to terms with its presence. While the moment seemed rather brave and almost moving, it was staged as a reflection out of time and out of context, shot against a floating black backdrop. Whatever Max felt about his looking was never clarified or revisited.

If Daniela Sea were a more expressive actor, the moment might have revealed more, and built a sense of depth into a character who’s seemed, until recently, something of a sap to viewers who complained that the show was too unrepresentative of the “real” lesbian community (whatever that is). First, Max was Maura, Jenny’s butch working-class lesbian lover, upholding all the potential for “difference” (except racial and ethnic) in her one slight, awkward body. Maura didn’t fit in with Jenny’s friends because she wasn’t rich and superficial; instead, she was rough and tumble and “real” in the way that only a cable TV show can imagine working-class people to be, which means they have limited vocabularies and wear continually bemused expressions. Once Maura started taking testosterone and transforming into Max, though, the character quickly passed through a violent and hostile phase to find his calling as a computer wiz, rising quickly into the ranks of the middle class and finding potential succor as a straight white male. This recent unluckiness in love prompted the first opportunity for self-reflection Max has had since the character joined the show.

The funniest scene in all four seasons of The L Word has to be the basketball game Papi and her friends play against Alice and hers. The two groups (one predominantly white, with the exception of Bette and Kit, the other a mixed group of women of color) meet up on a public court in a scene staged like the rumble from West Side Story. Our heroines are clearly out-butched by the other women, but they do their best to rise to the occasion, flaunting their matching athletic wear and desperately clutching their Starbucks cups. Jenny is quickly undone when the ball knocks her cup from her hand, but the previously reluctant Bette feels her innate competitiveness take over. The game is called mid-way through when Shane’s brother breaks his arm skate-boarding, but as the women breathlessly leave the court, the ever high-achieving Bette suggests that they should practice for the next game.

The scene was one of the few in the show’s four-year history in which the writers seemed willing to poke cheerful, self-reflexive good fun at the characters, parodying in one sharply drawn scene the upper-middle-class fashionista fragility that makes them more comfortable in tony coffee shops than on public basketball courts. The satire is affectionate but pointed, the scene hilarious in its knowingness.

After four seasons with the L women, one of the things that strikes me most is the ongoing sense of community that deepens as their fictional lives proceed. For better or for worse, these women are family to each other, and their commitment to kinship continues to rewrite the codes of how our relationships might be defined. Narrative expediency keeps them moving among each other, in and out of sexual relationships, adding and discarding new love interests to and from the group, but the basic core of Bette, Tina, Jenny, Shane, Alice, and Kit remains strong and evolving. With the addition in the last two seasons of Helena and Max, the L gals continue to solidify and strengthen the force field in which they orbit together.

Although there seem to be fewer scenes this season at the Planet, the coffee shop/bar/performance space that Kit runs and where everyone hangs out, the women congregate in other places in other ways, always coming to each others’ rescue without question or complaint. When Shane’s little brother Shay runs away, they all drop their lives to go look for him. When Tina decides she needs to bring together her straight and lesbian worlds, they all suck it up and head to her party, at which the heterosexuals turn out to be a backward, retrograde bunch, soundly out-classed by Bette and company. Although you sometimes have to wonder how they’re able to free themselves up so quickly, the women are simply, clearly, there for each other.

The show’s approach to race currently seems sharper than it’s been since the first season, when Bette’s illicit affair with the African American carpenter set up a productive tension between her life with Tina and her white friends, and the entrée into a different racially identified community that the carpenter provided. In season four, with Papi and her multiracial friends coming round for basketball games and drinks in bars, and with Alice taking a shine to Papi’s mysterious, taciturn African American friend Tasha (played by Rose Rollins) and her motorcycle, the potential for exploring race as a more explicit dynamic among lesbians has, happily, returned. On the other hand, Janina Gavankar, as Papi, seems to be continuing the strange cross-race casting tradition that the woman playing Carmen began last season; if I’m reading her name correctly, Gavankar is of Southeast Asian ethnicity, rather than Latina. Why the producers can’t actually cast a Latina in a race-appropriate role is beyond me.

Who knows where Chaiken and her writers and directors will take us from here? The talent seems a cut above this season; the writing is for the most taut and wry, the characters seem to be growing into more complex, fully developed people, and the direction seems more creative, fast-paced, and less flat-footed than last season. For now, I’m having more fun watching The L Word than I’ve had in a long time. I’m finding it less embarrassing, more amusing, and even sometimes thought-provoking, which is all I need from a lesbian soap opera. For that, I’m delighted that it’s still on the air.

Watching happily,
The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Chatting About Gay People on "The View"

I’ve been spending some time in Pittsburgh (my hometown) with my mother recently, while she recuperates from major surgery. She’s been unable to read very much, so I’ve watched a lot of daytime television with her, seeing shows that I’ve only read about otherwise. For instance, The View, with Rosie O’Donnell, Barbara Walters, Joy Behar, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, crossed my radar screen mostly when Rosie replaced the African American woman whose name escapes me, and its ratings and visibility began to grow from the controversy. The show was also impossible to ignore in the last month or so, when Rosie’s remarks about Donald Trump’s pardoning the latest Miss America’s peccadilloes caused a major contretemps in which other shows replayed O’Donnell’s and Trump’s ad hominem attacks ad nauseum through several news cycles. Trump called Rosie fat and crass; O’Donnell returned the favor by combing over her hair in a perfect imitation and impugning his morality.

But I’d never actually watched the show until this week, when my mother’s amused commitment to seeing it each day let me tune in (see To my surprise, I’m impressed by what I’ve seen. Although I don’t watch television talk shows of any variety, this one strikes me as a refreshing alternative to the shouting matches staged by male pundits, from progressives like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart to rightwing talking heads like Rush Limbaugh and other cable shows with similar express-yourself-loudly-and-provocatively designs.

On The View, the women talk in a seemingly spontaneous, extemporaneous format, raising issues in the news about which to exchange their opinions and ideas. O’Donnell and Behar, as the resident comics, pepper the conversation with witty one-liners, but their well-timed, sharp and smart remarks are rarely extraneous, but always pointed observations about the foibles of politics and its personalities. In the past week, during the show’s first hour of free exchange (followed each day by two different interviews with personalities including, while I’ve watched, an Academy Award Best Supporting Actor nominee and a lead from a television series), I’ve heard the four women discuss the potential presidential candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; the picture of Rudy Guiliani and his wife Judith, which ran on the cover of the New York Post the day before Guiliani announced his presidential candidacy (see the cross-country, deluded, lust-induced and allegedly murderous adventures of fallen astronaut Lisa Nowak; and various other current events.

I appreciated that they roamed from gossip to real politics, and that their expertise wasn't centralized in, say, domestic issues (as in issues of the home or so-called private life, which is historically assigned as women's realm). They were very clear about being "ordinary women" (although anyone on a tv show this visible can hardly, really be called "ordinary") with a simple right to voice their own opinions into a public forum. As such, they offered a great example to the women in the audience, as well as those watching at home, for how to participate in civic, as well as more mundane, conversations.

One of the things that’s most impressed me, though, is the frequency with which the co-hosts address gay issues in the news, or even simply think through the implications of the news from a gay and lesbian perspective. O’Donnell’s presence has something to do with this marked amount of airtime devoted to queer issues, but, as she said the other day when addressing the Snicker’s ad that aired during last Sunday’s Super Bowl, she doesn’t want to be the “go to person” for gay issues. Her co-hosts agreed, and ably took up responses to the controversial commercial themselves, addressing homophobia on television and how ridiculous the ad was to feed on men’s fears of same-sexuality.

One of today’s topics was the recently rehabilitated Rev. Ted Haggard, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who resigned from his post after a gay prostitute with whom he’d had regular sexual liaisons exposed what the escort called Haggard’s “hypocrisy.” Haggard claims that after three weeks in rehab, he was convinced of his heterosexuality and that “Jesus is starting to put me back together” (quoted in The New York Times, 2/07/07, A11). All four co-hosts seemed dubious about Haggard’s disavowal of his gay sexual encounters and his magical return to full-fledged heterosex. Their suspicions led to a fairly sophisticated conversation about whether or not one can turn sexual preferences on and off.

O’Donnell set the tone by proposing that sexuality is a spectrum, that everyone experiences a mixture of sexual attractions over the course of a lifetime, that no one is as fully queer or straight as we often proclaim. To illustrate her point, she described the two-year relationship she had with a man when she was 28-years-old, and admitted that although she was happy in the relationship and fond of the man, she knew that something was missing and eventually pursued the lesbianism for which she’s become one of America’s most visible spokespeople. Joy Behar carried on the baton, insisting that discussions about sexual possibilities are parents’ responsibilities, that when it’s clear their kids are attracted otherwise, they should ask their kids straight out (if you will) whether or not they’re gay or lesbian, without worrying, as Rosie remarked wryly, that the very question might “turn” them queer.

While ordinarily, I’m wary of O’Donnell’s status as Ms. Lesbian USA, I was actually impressed and pleased by the nuanced discussions about gay identity she launched in this completely mainstream popular forum. For the Snickers ad debate, she referred frequently to GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, see and their stand on stereotypical queer representations, shouting out to an important progressive LGBTQ non-profit that’s done good work protesting excessively insulting portrayals of queer people in the media and films. On Haggard, O’Donnell said it’s impossible to “pray the gay away.” Later in that show, when she described a party favor the show’s guests were invited to take home, she mistakenly said everyone would “gay” instead of “get” a gift certificate, which prompted Behar to remark that “every day is gay day here” on The View.

Where I expected a certain level of tension among the women about Rosie’s predominating lesbian presence, and over her insistence on being out (not to mention loud and proud), I found instead a kind of openness and camaraderie that was infectious and fairly politically liberal, given the show’s context and its audience. The studio spectators are panned quickly at the top of the hour, as in many talk shows, to secure the fact that they’re there, that their applause isn’t canned—although it’s impossible to know if they’re looking at signs telling them when to laugh or applaud—and that they’re “ordinary people” happy to be invited into the audience to watch the hosts talk. At a glance, the audience looks mostly white, middle-class, and middle-America, with a fair share of unfashionable haircuts and less than stylish, informal clothes.

In fact, to secure the presumptive class status of their audience in the studio and at home, The View (this week, at least) began the last few shows with the co-hosts modeling clothing from various low-end fashion outlets, like TJ Maxx. A resident clothing expert apparently chooses their outfits, then each of the four co-hosts walk in front of their common desk to model everything from their footwear to their accessories. Rosie invariably camps her modified runway moment, which calls ironic, playful attention to her hardly model-like shape.

This morning, as Barbara Walters modeled her TJ Maxx outfit, Rosie quipped about Walters’ more petite build, saying, “I was that size in seventh grade.” But the repartee among the women seems affectionate, even as their views are flung fast and firm into the stew of their conversation. The mod glass desk they sit behind is a marked improvement on the clichéd living room sets standard for many daytime, woman-hosted talk shows. The more professional look emulates, in some small way, the set for shows with more conventional (and more male) political pundits.

While the conversation on The View today was certainly LGBTQ studies 101, watching with my mother (who just turned 70, a short 20 years my senior), I felt a welter of emotions. I couldn’t help but feel how remarkable it was that four women of various ages and levels of fame or notoriety were having a conversation on day time network television in which they considered gay and lesbian sexuality positively (although “gay” was the word used exclusively during the conversation, never “lesbian” and never “queer”). When I came out to my parents in 1981, after coming out to myself and my friends in 1978, this kind of popular discourse about sexuality was rare or non-existent on tv.

In fact, I remember watching with my parents an episode of Medical Center—an early doctor show with Chad Everett that ran from 1969-1976—about an illicit lesbian relationship between a younger (victimized) and older (predatory) woman. I recall being painfully aware of their disgust and discomfort, of how easily they followed the cues Medical Center sprinkled liberally through the episode about how immoral and corrupt the women’s relationship was and how much the older woman deserved to be punished for her desire.

I remember trying to keep my cheeks from flushing with the identification and curiosity I felt, with the painful admixture of amazement that my own desire was being represented on television at all and the inevitable self-doubt (if not self-loathing) about how horrible this sisterhood into which I was bravely stepping seemed to be considered by society at large. When my parents knew about my sexuality, those inadvertent moments of watching television together when some gay topic or another came up were even worse, because none of us, including myself, could confront the elephant in the room (watching Making Love in 1982 or An Early Frost in 1985 both come to mind as prompting those awkward moments).

Twenty-five or so years later, there my mom and I sat in the same family room in the same family house, companionably watching Rosie and Joy cut up about sexuality, and listening to four women on daytime tv admonish the likes of Ted Haggard for his blatant falsehoods and evasions and chastise Snickers for thinking that their homophobic ad might sell candy (the ad has since been pulled, thanks to protests from queer organizations like GLAAD). I found myself moved by how far we’ve come (publicly and privately, in society and in my family), if it’s now possible that gay and lesbian issues can be raised as easily as the unfortunate exploits of obviously psychotic astronaut Lisa Nowak, whose story followed Haggard’s as fodder for The View's co-hosts.

Perhaps The View is politics lite; of course it’s politics lite. But I wasn’t sorry that my mom heard Rosie and Joy and Barbara and Elisabeth discussing gay issues so positively, and I was glad, in fact, that other women of her age and predilections across middle-America were hearing the same. If change happens by accretion, the views expressed on The View, openly and articulately shared with what seems to be its fairly conventional audience, are a very good thing indeed.

Surprised and impressed,
The Feminist Spectator