The year of the ladies
When thinking back on the biggest pop culture moments of the year, there are lots of things that fight for attention. Even in my own posts for sinkhole’s culture blog, I’ve covered more than 40 different topics (largely, things that make me laugh). The choices are plenty. I put this question to a larger audience via a Facebook poll, and while The Last Jedi and Stranger Things topped the list, the rest of the responses were assorted: The Florida Project, Wonder Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale, Lana Del Rey, and Lorde.
While varied, the responses all had one very important thing in common: across film, television, and music, strong female voices have had a heck of a year.
It was Oscar Wilde, in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, who first asserted that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Wilde’s point here is that what we pay attention to in life is often what artists have drawn our attention to. Perhaps, the pop culture portrayal of powerful women taking charge has something to do with the emergence of the most headline-catching cultural moment this year – the breaking of the Weinstein scandal and the #metoo social media campaign, which empowered women to come forward and speak out against those who’ve sexually assaulted them. Perhaps we have been taking our cues from the strength we’ve seen portrayed this year in film (Wonder Woman, Lady Bird), music (Ke$ha, St. Vincent), and, most apparently, in television.
HBO’s Big Little Lies, in addition to being my favorite television show this year, is 2017’s best example of the badass female in pop culture. The show didn’t have a weak link: it was well acted, beautifully directed, and sharply written, exploring the complications of domestic abuse, female friendship, and privilege. The seven-episode miniseries, which aired from February to April, could be criticized as too soap-operatic at times, but slowly and delicately, it revealed a depth that its first appearance didn’t suggest. No spoilers, but it’s no surprise that the final scene of the show portrays all four women leads, who were very much rivals at one point, banded together in solidarity and support. It is the most important portrayal of women speaking up against domestic abuse this year, and we are better for having it added to our pop culture canon.
On a more dystopian note, the women in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale face abuse and servitude in a post-war United States that seems like a headline away from reality. In this theocratic version of America (renamed “Gilead”), fertile women serve as handmaids (read: concubines) in efforts to repopulate a desolate society. The show, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, is anchored by a powerful central performance from Elizabeth Moss, whose piercing facial expressions portray her constant battle between poise and suffering. This is most notable in the show’s scenes of the “ceremony,” where, once a month, Offred is held down by the wife and raped by the husband. Her blank face and vacant eyes speak volumes to the control and strength she is forced to summon in those moments. The theme of inner strength and quiet resistance is apparent everywhere: in her inner monologue of keep your shit together, in the carving in Offred’s closet wall, Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum (“Don’t let the bastards grind you down”). It’s no surprise that all of this resistance builds to an eventual defiance from the handmaids – not in a grandiose scene of overtaking rulers, but in a quiet, symbolic gesture, one that is no doubt laying the groundwork for Season 2. The timeliness of the show seems both a cautionary tale and a symbol of hope for our own resistance efforts.
In a less dramatic but no less important portrayal of women, Comedy Central’s forth season of Broad City doesn’t ignore the fact that Abbi and Ilana now live in Trump’s America, just like the rest of us. It’s shown in background shots of planned parenthood rallies, through #resist posters on Ilana’s wall, and more directly, in an episode in which Ilana can’t achieve an orgasm in a post-election world (that is, until she starts visualizing powerful female figures). Abbi and Ilana are the embodiment of strong modern women navigating the everyday pressures of money and work and politics and sex, on top of living in New York City, with the constant barrage of catcalling, stalking, and unwanted touching. It is not an overstated point but an everyday occurrence for them – such as turning the corner to see a flasher showing them his genitals. While Abbi and Ilana have learned to navigate around this, they also aren’t afraid of confronting or speaking out against it. It shows a keen insight into two women who are trying just like the rest of us to be heard in a world that dictates that they be complicit. Their everyday resistance, while not as grand as the notions in Big Little Lies or The Handmaid’s Tale, might be the most important ones, a hopeful reminder to continue the fight against even the smallest injustices.
header image: "we can do it!" j. howard miller / wikimedia commons