Is It Fair To Blame ‘Enlightened”s Failure On Men Not Wanting To Watch Women On TV?

Mike White (Nacho Libre, Orange County, Dawson’s Creek) thinks men don’t want to watch women on TV and his current show, Enlightened (co-created by star Laura Dern), is suffering for it. As a queer woman, I love blaming my problems on men. Sometimes I just sit at home and knock over glasses of water then raise my clenched fist in the air and say through clenched teeth, “DAMN YOU, MEN!” They are the root of so many problems. I just don’t know if that’s true here.

“If I have a male protagonist, it’s a studio movie, and if it’s a female protagonist, it’s an indie movie. That’s just how it is. It’s not about the studios. It’s about America and who goes to see movies. Women are interested in men and women, and men aren’t interested in the woman’s story. They just aren’t. There are exceptions, but by and large…I mean I do think that it’s feminizing for a guy to go see a movie with a female lead unless it’s Angelina Jolie shooting people or Zero Dark Thirty or something that feels like it’s in the male sphere. The devaluation of the traditional female roles or the traditional female approach, it starts to feel like this is what’s wrong with our country.”

Lol. Well, yes. People hating women in general is one of the many things that is wrong with our country, but is that why people aren’t watching your show? Questionable. At this point in time, men not caring about women’s stories is a problem for him because his show is in the danger zone. It seems he thinks he should be praised for writing about the women no one cares about and thus rewarded for such a brave and daring career choice. Which is fine I guess. Do I think his efforts should be greeted with a firm pat on the back? Sure. Should it be held at the highest esteem because he stepped down from his podium of white malesness to write about women? No, not really. I appreciate it. I do. Thanks dude. But that’s all I have for you right now.

It’s especially interesting that this is coming from Mike White who is, from all indications, kind of dope. He’s a nerdy bisexual vegan who also happens to be an animal and LGBT rights activist with a gay dad. I don’t think he’s the problem. I think he’s frustrated and in that frustration and misunderstanding of why his show isn’t killing it despite critics’ love for it, he blamed some people that hardly get blamed for…well, anything. None of this makes it okay. I am only too aware of the excuses people make for non-queer people that aren’t down for a cause let alone THE cause but I’m still unwilling to not hold awesome people to task because they might actually listen and do an even beter job of making the world a better place.

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[Sidenote: It's also worth mentioning that movies and television tend to vary with respect to their treatment of women, so the employment of "If I have a male protagonist, it's a studio movie, and if it's a female protagonist, it's an indie movie" as evidence to bolster his claim that womanhood is getting his television show cancelled isn't necessarily the best one. It's not a secret that women are vastly underrepresented behind-the scenes of movies and that movies about women aren't being made and that Hollywood remains, by and large, a boy's club, churning out movies deliberately oriented at male viewers under the misleading conviction that movies about women don't sell. But television isn't the same kind of wasteland with respect to female representation onscreen, although behind-the-scenes the situation is obviously quite bleak, though slightly less bleak than film. (18% of women behind-the-scenes in film are women vs. 26% in television.) Unfortunately, that serious issue isn't what we're talking about here.]

When shows are canceled or underperforming, it’s easy to blame the intrepid American public so often called “viewers,” who in cases where they are called viewers, are usually being done so because they’re usually non-viewers. I mean if 30 Rock had been canceled prematurely, I for sure would have had a big eff you for “viewers” and blamed it on their stupidity. This blaming of viewers is especially prone to happen when said show is about a woman or group of women. Yet there are countless examples of shows about women, even strong women, that have done well and and in some cases, become full fledged franchises. There could be plenty of problems with Enlightened. It could be its alleged non-genre, it could be that it doesnt fit the voice of the channel, it could be that the show sucks (even critical darlings can fail to connect with viewers), it could be because there’s been very little promotion — truth be told, it could be ANY multitude of reasons that I can’t speak to at all because I’ve never even seen the show. This is all to say that to take on the burden of women in media because your show is struggling seems disengenious and self-serving.

He seems, quite frankly, slightly oblivious to the privilege-laced language he’s using while trying to take a stand and speak the truth to the man. Did he forget when he said, “I do think that it’s feminizing for a guy to go see a movie with a female lead”? If that’s what you think, you’re part of the problem. To say there is something inherently unmanly about watching shows with female leads doing anything other than shooting shit up in the same breath you use to reprimand men for not watching your female-fronted show seems odd. Clearly plenty of men don’t have this problem — Girls, Enlightened’s Sunday night lead-in, was doing pretty well the last time I checked (and research shows a full 56 percent of Girls’ “linear” audience (those who watch the show on their TV or using a DVR) is male). Also doing well? 2 Broke Girls, Whitney, and Once Upon a Time, shows about women outside of male spheres that I don’t particularly care for, but men still watch. Not to mention the present success of female-led shows like Homeland, Nashville, Scandal, Smash, The Mindy Project, Veep, The Big C, New Girl, The Good Wife, Damages, Raising Hope, Ringer, Nurse Jackie… and so on.

I’m sure from Twitter, all internet articles, and everything your male friends have to say about anything ever, you would guess that they don’t truly appreciate these shows. Certainly not the way they love their Mad Mens or their Breaking Bads yet they’re talking about them because they’re watching them. And at the end of the day, no matter how many times they’ve expressed conflicted feelings regarding Lena Dunham’s boobs, they still tune in every week to watch those boobs. They haven’t missed an episode of those boobs, and the ratings reflect that.

I think the problem is people have a hard time accepting that a man can appreciate “manly” television and still have seen every episode of Desperate Housewives. I don’t think a majority of dudes are sitting at home like oh no, I don’t wanna watch these television shows about extremely attractive women or I won’t watch this show because omg there’s a woman on it and she’s not cooking or breastfeeding but the machines that crank these shows out and advertise them insist they feel this way because it’s easier. They can more reliably convince the powers that be they can make money off of a show if you know who it’s for and how to reach them which duh, if you only market the show to women of course way more women are going to watch it and then you pat yourself on the back because you successfully got women to watch the women’s show. But every now and then a show gets lucky and finds an audience outside of their network mandated demographic. A real audience. An audience that’s diverse and likes a show because it makes them feel the feels or laugh harder than they had all week. And that’s how you end up with 2 Broke Girls being the post halftime spot and Elementary as the Superbowl lead out.

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Americans disdain for women isn’t as simple as no women on teevee evarrrrrrr and the part it has to play is backend misogyny if anything. The problem isn’t that people won’t watch women on TV, it’s that networks think people only want certain kinds of women on TV when they want women at all. The average television viewer has no idea what the process is and how unlikely it is for a television show to make it to air. All they can do is work with that they’ve got. If he wants to talk about men being the problem, why not talk about the men that decide that his movie with a female lead is an indie and not a studio film since it’s those people that are constantly trying to convince US that what WE really want to see is a straight white dude being the hero.

Over and over Americans have shown not only that they want diverse stories but that they will embrace them and still, here we are. Shows with the whitest, straightest, manliest casts in the world fail all the time because every now and then no one buys the bullshit. However, when those fail it’s because an idea was underdeveloped or it was in the wrong time slot or it wasn’t the right time. There are always excuses ready that have nothing to do with that fact that maybe people are tired of seeing Home Improvement Part 87 on TV. But when there’s any deviation from that, it’s obvious why it failed. It was too smart, too gay, too black, too many women. If a strong female lead does well, it’s because she’s in a men’s sphere, if it doesn’t do well it’s because she comes off as a bitch or people want women in a more traditional role. There’s always a convenient excuse that caters to whatever your viewpoint of women on television is. These studios and networks put money where they expect to make money not realizing that by not giving shows the support they deserve is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of having faith in the writing, the directors, and the performances and giving these shows the support they need and deserve, they hang them out to dry and when they fail they say it was unavoidable.

“There is a little part of me that feels like I have a little bit of creative capital, and I’d rather use it to put a different face forward as the center of the world.” The process of white men trusting white men to know what other white men want to see and then blaming white men for their own failure is laughable. Essentially White is saying he’s making this show for everyone to appreciate but if you’re a dude and you watch it, you’re a pussy but also you should be ashamed of yourself if you don’t because that means you don’t like shows with women on them. Someone should point out to him that his own faulty logic is the same shit that keeps shows like his from getting to air and women like the lead on his show from getting to make shows of their own. And also maybe that it’s not that men aren’t watching his show. No one is. Just as a P.S.

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Brittani Nichols is a Los Angeles based comedy person. When she's not tweeting about white people or watching television, she's probably eating pizza. Actually, she's probably doing all three of those things concurrently and when she's not doing THAT, she's sleeping. Brittani also went to Yale and feels weird about mentioning it but wants you to know.

Brittani has written 308 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. Thumb up 5

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    I feel like HBO & Showtime (but more often HBO) can often develop and produce shows within a Los Angeles bubble, set in Los Angeles with a distinctly Los Angeles feel, that often don’t translate to a wider audience, usually because they’re focused on certain types of people that are really only sympathetic or appealing if you know somebody like that in your own life. For example, Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback, which I LOVED, but um, nobody else really did, apparently.

    Sometimes it works: Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Californication, House of Lies… sometimes it doesn’t (Extras, Unscripted, Web Therapy, Episodes, Fat Actress, Huff, The Comeback, Luck)… and critics, often existing within that same bubble, often really love these shows and don’t understand why nobody else does.

    I’ve tried watching Enlightened so many times, especially because it is on right after Girls so watching it takes 500 times less effort then turning off the teevee or finding something else to watch or using my brain for a second, and it’s really hard to connect emotionally to anybody in Enlightened and the lead character is really profoundly irritating! There are lots of people like her in LA, who I also find irritating. It’s not really about whether or not she’s a sympathetic narrator because I mean, Hannah in Girls isn’t a sympathetic narrator but she’s also not irritating (to me, at least) and so it works. Or maybe we forgive young people for being irritating in a way that we can’t stomach so much when they’re grown-up. If you know somebody like Amy Jellicoe, which most people who live in Los Angeles do, then I think you inherently are more compelled by her than people who don’t.

    I do love Mike White, and I love Laura Dern, and I want to like this show! But I cannot.

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    I like Enlightened. It has some really interesting things to say about recovery and self-destruction and loneliness. People aren’t watching Enlightened partly because it’s kind of emotionally raw and partly because the narrative structure is so atypical for television (even by HBO standards.) It’s a quiet show about a woman trying to change herself (and the world) and failing all the time. Sometimes it flips the script to do an entire episode about a secondary character and, like, showing their perspective via grocery shopping.

    It’s a weird, pretty show and not everyone’s going to like it, but it is such a great showcase for Mike White and Laura Dern. Amy’s a polarizing character and Laura Dern is so good. It’s sad that no one’s watching; maybe Enlightened will be the kind of show that finds an audience years later like a smaller scale Freaks and Geeks.

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    Agree all around. It reminds me of restaurant service – “women don’t tip well- so don’t bother giving them good service.” Uh, actually, women don’t tip for bad service – prophesy fulfilled.

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    I don’t tend to watch a lot of shows with female leads, and it makes me sad. I’d like to watch more shows with female leads! But I don’t enjoy relationship drama, don’t like sitcoms, and generally find ‘dark’ drama to be, well, too dark. I like science fiction, action, adventure, and mysteries. And while some mystery shows have female leads (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is amazing, btw), the other two almost never do (and when they do I devour them like cake).

    And so I’m stuck, not because I don’t want to watch women, but because I don’t want to watch the genres women usually feature in.

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    I do not like enlightened, I tried watching it twice and I just don’t enjoy it. The character Amy really annoys me, I don’t have a reason she just does. I really like Whitney and two broke girls. Mike White keeps trying to make excuses for why the show is not doing well but if people like a show they will watch it. People no longer have to pick one thing to watch, which is great I think. But people can watch enlightened pretty easy with HBO go or on demand.

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    I think White didn’t mean to say he believes it’s feminizing for men to watch movies, etc. with female leads, but rather that some men feel that way (my soon-to-be husband Oinker, for example). He expresses that a little better in
    this interview: “I just think there are certain men who feel like engaging in a story told from a female point of view is somehow a feminizing experience. And that itself is something that they’re almost supposed to not want to engage.”

    That’s not to say that I think he’s right, or that the show’s problems are mainly related to Amy’s gender. I’m just a brainwashed member of the Enlightened cult, trying to defend my dear leader; I’m in no position to talk about Its/His shortcomings. Amen.

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    Ah Once Upon a Time, all the hetronormality and racism and sexism you love to watch on Prime Time tv. ( Trust me guys I’m in deep with that show and am restraining self from a rant) I think the problem is not the people watching it but the writing. If it’s too smart, no one really wants to watch it. It’s easy to see, most movie theaters will not carry indie movies that will gross low box office profits but movies such as Ted gross huge box office amounts with a very very thin plot line. The point of tv and movies is not to bring an intelligent or thoughtful show, but to bring in the most money by way of advertisements, ratings, and viewers.

    Personally I didn’t know Enlightenment existed. My dvr consists of Ripper Street, The Following, Once Upon a Time, Dexter ( anyone sensing a pattern yet?), Portlandia, Borgias, Do No Harm, Dr. Who, and Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares along with Behind Bars. All of these are normally very thought provoking (besides the Ramsey ones) and help me view the world differently. I’ve noticed that since the rise of Stephanie Meyer’s books, entertainment medias are going down and catering to the lowest level of tv viewers. However, this is the largest number of watchers and not the attitude of the true fans because they bring in the money. Give people crap and they eat it up. While I think the guy behind Enlightenment has a right to be upset, I think we should get upset as well because we are the ones who keep telling the media, yes we want the crap you are giving us, please and thank you.

    But also to, the fault lies not with only the viewers but the writers and the actors. The writers are suppose to make us fall in love with the characters and the actors seduce us into spending hours talking about their performances to friends and family. Perhaps that is where (for this show it sounds like) he should be directing his blame. Not at the men who chose to not watch it

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    Hey guys, let’s let mike white’s work speak for itself. the show is raw and beautiful and innovative in terms of alternative narrative structure use in television. It’s not like anything else i’ve ever seen on tv, and yes, it may feel like it has a slow start, but the show is just establishing it’s tone. I think if y’all give it a watch you might not feel so aggravated by mike white’s lack of ability to put his feelings into a few words. The boy has big feelings.

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    I think that Mike White has a point. I just marathoned both seasons and I really like the show and can see what he means.
    Actually I’m not sure why this tv series isn’t a hit with lesbians. It’s a show about a woman who spends most of her time processing her feelings! Feelings about the earth, activism, self worth, and once in a while men. To me that is very feminine. Every episode passes the Bechdel test. Other than the latter part of the second season not a whole lot goes on but the processing. Most of the other shows mentioned in the article has a specific plot driven story that has a lot of things and tasks going on. I think the plot here is more of a backdrop to Amy and her feelings and a way for her to express them. While there might be a sizeable (probably not huge) demographic of women who are interested in that thing, I’d bet my left hand (I’m left handed!) there’s way less men interested.

    Side note- there couldn’t be a worse time slot for them than to follow girls. Bad bad thinking. That’s like asking a 4 yr old to sit and watch a documentary on the life cycle of an amoeba right after Barney except that Barney tries to teach you something.

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