I’ve been watching Weeds in dvd and just finished season 3. If you don’t know, it’s a comedy/soap opera/crime show about a young widow in a rich suburb who decides to support her kids by selling pot. For the most part I like it. The cast is good and the stories move along, and I like seeing what’s up with suburban life now that people my age have teenagers.
Female Creators Roundtable: Jenji Kohan and Weeds
by Tom Crippen
Cerusee and Noah posted, now me.
But I’m talking about the series here because of a discussion we had last year about the Bechdel Test, which is this: Think of a movie that shows two women talking to each other about anything that isn’t a man. The point of the test, as I see it, is this: there aren’t a whole lot of such movies. The test acquaints us with a movies ground rule we may not have noticed.
My reflex explanation for the the missing scenes of two-women-just-being-women is that movies get made by men, so it’s chiefly men’s view of things that gets shown. Weeds is a tv show whose writer/executive producer, meaning the person who gets to decide what kind of show it’s going to be, is a woman. And there are a lot of scenes between women talking about all sorts of things. It’s not remarkable at all. So I guess the ground rules have been jerked around a little.
If I had to do a ratio of male to female screentime, I’d guess it was 47/53. The difference is pretty narrow. But the key characters are women and they are more or less in charge of the people around them. The heroine, Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker), bosses her family and drug operation. Her best friend/enemy, Celia (Elizabeth Perkins), is a monstrous bitch and tyrant who gets ousted by husband and daughter. (Perkins does an amazing job. It’s the greatest bitch performance since Bette Davis in All About Eve; better, really, because it’s a lot more varied and detailed.) Nancy’s chief business connection is Heylia (Tonye Patano), who runs a drug operation from her kitchen.
The white guys do a lot of frisking about. There’s an aging frat boy, a Peter Pan, a nebbish, and Nancy’s whiney lameass son. The attitude toward the frat boy (Kevin Nealon) and the Peter Pan (Justin Kirk) is a bit like laddism in Britain, or at least my impression of it. The idea is that men always act like kids, and that is their charm but also why women get to win all the arguments. There’s a black male lead (Romany Malco) who becomes Nancy’s lover, and he’s intelligent, responsible, and competent, but he’s usually getting batted around by circumstances and on the defensive with Nancy or Heylia.
But Weeds doesn’t go so far as putting a woman in charge of the action. What’s being in charge: minimum, you don’t look like an idiot; even better if you get to make the key smart decisions, tell people what to do, use violence successfully. Nancy gets scenes like that, but they don’t set the tone for her, or at least so far. Nancy is in over her head trying to be a pot dealer; the implication is that she is learning, and is on her way to becoming a rather cold, tough character, but for now she’s usually on the ropes.
So, without white males on top, it looks like Weeds’ race-sex-ethnicity pecking order is a bit disheveled. No character has a lock, no group does. The whites dominate the show’s suburban side, the blacks dominate the show’s drug-business side. Heylia gives Nancy a lot of the ignorant-white-girl stuff, the kind of thing you get in a lot of black-white TV scenes, but here with a lot more such scenes. Also, the black characters talk to each other; their side of things gets told. (I don’t know if the version presented of “their side” is authentic or not; it’s mainly about white people.)
At the bottom of the status heap is a skinny Asian man (Maulik Pancholy) who’s there to be a boob and butt and then to get feminized. The black man has sex with Nancy; if the skinny Asian guy looks at her, it’s considered a joke — he’s a pencilneck with a crush. Then it turns out he’s gay. He’s allowed one dignified moment, his statement of his gayness, and then he becomes the latest slender Asian guy on a tv comedy show to be treated like a simpy imitation girl. (It’s quite a pattern: the slender assistant in 30 Rock, the slender assistant in Entourage, and now this guy.)
When I talk about the show being decentered, having a disheveled pecking order, I want to acknowledge that this side of things may strike me especially hard just because my group, white guys, is not in charge. Anyway, what hits me about the show is just how everyone is scrambling not to sink down the ranks. Nobody has secure footing. There are alliances, shifting rankings, etc. groups get represented by strings of different characters with varying statuses, and individual statuses also bob back and forth over time. (And one of the groups represented is white guys. All of a sudden the white guys in a show are not just individuals, they’re representatives of a group and you look at them to see how white guys come off. For me that’s a switch.)
It’s like watching people’s heads bobbing up and down in a tank. You see who gets pulled down, who gets to keep her mouth in the air. The new race line-up: whites and blacks on top together, the whites’ position more secure but the blacks getting some plums; other races are locked out. supporting players at best, otherwise walk-ons and butts. And women get to talk to each other about business and friendship and all the rest of it.