Full disclosure: I don’t have a television.
This phrase is usually connected to hipsterism but when I went to college I made the conscious decision not to bring a television with me and I’ve never felt the need to introduce one into my living space. This isn’t to stay I’m television abstinent, I just pick and choose based on reviews or word of mouth what I should seek out to watch. Television has a way of sucking people in by offering a lot of filler content. I benefit from not having the option to sit and just accept what’s on because I’m always forced to look for something in particular. There are some elements of television I am very familiar with and a lot that I’ve totally missed out on and don’t really feel any worse for wear.
PBS has put out a documentary series on prime time archetypes and the first volume was on “The Independent Woman.” The full episode is currently up for free streaming and it’s worth a watch even though it wasn’t the most subversive commentary you could hope to see. The AV club and Bitch both had mixed feelings as well. Roseanne Barr did stand out as a fantastic and very sincere interview. A lot was left out and there was a heavy focus on newer television that ignored a lot of characters who were innovations on the notion of the “independent woman.”
For one, the feature focused on women around the ages of 30-40 leaving out the narratives of both young and old characters who were innovations on the notion of independent women. Those hoping to see “The Golden Girls” and “My So Called Life” mentioned will be disappointed. In many ways, it’s a broad category that is defined in this documentary around depictions of motherhood primarily. “Independence” has been marked by moving away from the image of perfection and into an examination of the flaws but it also stayed immediately around the notion of relationships, marriage, and motherhood. Queerness was not mentioned and at least twice there was the sentimental comment about how raising children is “the most admirable job of all.”
Here’s the rub: I don’t disagree with that statement but it’s fucking annoying when it’s a man with a high power and successful television job saying it to me. It’s condescending and in the context of “independent women” you get the vibe that men who raise children are not even being remotely considered here. The conversation is about how women balance mothering their children and a career or lack of career or mourning for a career without presenting an ounce of conversation of women as primary breadwinners to partners of any gender raising kids at home. This is problematic because of the end commentary: everyone can see themselves depicted on television today! I’m still in shock that someone could say that with a straight face.
Abortion: not a topic uttered in this show. That’s because you don’t see it on television. You could probably produce a miniseries titled the “deus ex machina miscarriage” and the “not really pregnant” plot twist. Ignoring Roe V. Wade was conspicuous especially because some of the shows they featured did include the subject of abortion in their plot lines.
If you removed Roseanne Barr from the documentary you would cut out most of the most critical commentary. She introduced class and workplace production issues into the equation. The documentary definitely focused on the depiction of character rather than who creates these characters. The focus on newer television seemed to come from an active effort to solicit commentary from women who write and produce television featuring independent women. There is something really important in that especially with men talking about how grand and noble motherhood is. It’s always awkward when someone says something like they’re doing a favor.
There was strikingly little commentary about race in primetime women. Women’s liberation is mentioned but movements centered around people of color were left out. I recognize that it’s hard to sum up something as broad as independent women but it’s frustrating to see the same kind of narrative repeated as the norm. What we see on television today is no more or less real than what was on in the 1950s. The documentary seems to forget this fact. Television is fiction with a heavy focus on consumerism.
Future episodes will be about the “Man Of The House”, the “Misfit”, and the “Crusader.” Given that many actors and actresses playing compelling roles offered commentary on “Independent Woman” without a spotlight on their work in particular, especially Elisabeth Moss, aka “Peggy Olsen” who offered lots of interview footage without any examination of her character on Mad Men. Looking at the lineups for future episodes on the “Man Of The House“, “The Misfit“, and “The Crusader” it was interesting to see that Moss will be back for more interview footage on the episode “Man Of The House.”
There’s an ironic humor to be found in the fact that Elisabeth Moss is featured for commentary about independent women and the “man of the house” but doesn’t have her phenomenal work on Mad Men examined at all despite her climb into independence as a woman breaking into a man’s workplace. Talk about typecasting. Also of note: Gillian Anderson, aka “Dana Sculley” will be appearing on the episode about “The Crusader” but did not appear on the “Independent Woman.” I know that interview footage for a documentary is largely about who you can book but it’s strange to see who they had in the room and what kind of screen time they had in the end.
What I felt the most curious about at the end of the documentary on the “Independent Woman” was what got cut on the editing floor. I really hope that Roseanne Barr’s interview gets released in full because she said so many interesting things and I would love to see and hear her elaborate on them more.