Sunday, June 7, 2009
"Weeds," "Breaking Bad," and gender on TV
This weekend, I was watching some preview episodes from the fifth season of "Weeds," which begins at 10 p.m. today on Showtime.
The series focuses on suburban mom Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) who turns to pot dealing after the death of her husband. Over the course of the past several seasons, Nancy's greed and ambition has driven her deeper and deeper into the drug biz. At the end of last season, she just narrowly escaped getting murdered by her Mexican drug lord boyfriend. The new season finds her still in hot water with the Mexican mafia, while also juggling her two sons and array of wacky associates. The episodes are typical "Weeds," -- solid and entertaining, but occasionally too far over the top and a little too condescending to the supporting characters.
However, throughout the episodes, my mind kept drifting to another series about drug dealing, AMC's drama "Breaking Bad," which just concluded its amazing second season. Like Nancy, "Bad" protagonist Walter White is a suburbanite who tells himself that the drug trade is the only way to support his family (he has terminal cancer). Walter manufactures crystal meth, a drug far less justifiable than pot. He's also gotten increasingly sucked into the drug world in the show's short life.
But there are some distinct differences between the two characters. Most of those have to do with the fact that "Weeds" is a comedy and "Breaking Bad" is a drama (Nancy makes more jokes, for one thing). But I think the core differences between them have to do with the fact that Walt is a man and Nancy is a woman.
The show gives them entirely different sets of strengths that are obviously gender-related. Walt, the man, is a brilliant former chemist who manages to survive in the drug trade, despite his inexperience, due mainly to his intelligence and resourcefulness. His skill at manufacturing drugs has saved his life more than once, as has his ability to think fast in a crisis.
Nancy, the woman, is a former housewife who manages to survive in the drug trade, despite her inexperience, due mainly to her charm and sexuality -- what used to be called "feminine wiles." The whole reason the Mexican mafia hasn't killed her is that she's pregnant by the drug lord, who believes she might be able to deliver him a son. Clearly, this isn't a tactic Walt can use.
I'm not going to make some knee-jerk claim of sexism, accusing "Weeds" of making Nancy dumb (or, at least, non-intellectual) because she's a woman. First off, "Weeds" and "Breaking Bad" were created completely independently of each other at different times. I don't think the two shows were meant to be a commentary on each other at all. Secondly, "Weeds" was created by a woman, Jenji Kohan. Plus, Nancy has a lot of positive attributes that Walt doesn't have. We've never seen her let an innocent person die, for example. In fact, she got in trouble with the Mexican mafia because she couldn't stomach their human trafficking business. Nancy is also much more family-minded. Yes, she's engaged in a trade that endangers her two young sons, but she's always aware of that, and is constantly making arrangements for them in case of her death (the start of this season has her packing off her young son to go live with her sister, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh).
But the contrast between the two characters provides an interesting picture of our different ideas of men and women, particularly men and women in business (whatever that business might be). Nancy isn't the only TV business woman who plays up her sexuality. The female investigators on the "CSI" series, for example, are almost always in low-cut tops and high heels -- clothing that few real investigators would consider practical. And, on these same shows, the men are often wonky intellectuals (or, in the case of David Caruso's character on "CSI: Miami," seem capable of solving a crime by simply whipping off their sunglasses and staring directly into the camera).
Why does this dichotomy exist? Why can't we have a brilliant female cop or drug dealer (or doctor or lawyer or fill-in-the-blank) who wears slacks and turtle necks and can start an RV engine with spare change? Some such characters do exist, including Brenda Leigh Johnson on "The Closer," but they're still too rare. We live in a world where real women can succeed in business without wearing mini-dresses and batting their eyes. TV needs to catch up.