I was watching a documentary on the roles of Women as portrayed on Television the other day, and it yielded a couple of unexpected insights – one into modern society, and the other into the edition wars that have plagued D&D over the last few years, and the divide between “new school” and “old school” gaming.
TV has changed from presenting the stereotypes of the 1950s to portraying a more realistic view of the characters that inhabit it, especially in terms of roles,relationships and personalities within the family. This enables the characters to connect with an audience who frequently found that their lives could never live up to the ideal presented in those shows – it has given their characters relevance, and made it easy for the audience to identify with the characters. The Actors and Actresses find the characters more interesting and satisfying to play, as well.
With this change has come an increase in the ready utilization of sex and violence on the small screen, not to mention drugs and language and all sorts of other bad behavior. It has been quite common to blame the fall in social standards and rise of violence and swearing within society on these changes – I’m sure everyone will have heard someone making that claim – but I have long believed that this is putting the cart before the horse, and attempting to shoot the messenger. In a nutshell, the world was not more violent and abusive because of TV, TV was more violent and abusive because that’s the way the world is these days. At worst, I thought, there was a minor echo chamber / feedback contribution.
It’s easy to see why Television has acted in this way, for its part. Pushing to the edges of what is acceptable is always good for shock value, and shock value is always good for getting attention – and that usually translates into ratings.
But maybe something has been lost – the inspiration to aspire to be better. Instead of presenting our social ideals on the small screen, we have lowered the bar. This has taken place in small increments, and each time we have done so, TV has adopted the new standard, which has lowered social expectations even further. In effect, the medium now says that it’s all right to be flawed and not to strive to overcome those flaws. The goal is now not to improve ourselves but to learn socially-tolerable ways of managing them. Instead of updating the positive image and role-model that was present in that early era, we have let positivity go in favor of shock value, realism, and relevance.
This blog is about gaming, so let me make this discussion relevant: the same social change has also figured into RPGs, and – in my opinion – is one of the great hidden truths behind the Edition Wars.
But before I discuss that, I should offer some evidence for my primary argument.
The traditional woman – 1950s & 60s
In the televised world of the 1950s, everything was pretty perfect, at least so far as on-screen families were concerned. The Father always had all the answers, the mother stayed at home and raised a perfect family… This was the world of shows like “Father Knows Best” (1954-1960), “Leave It To Beaver” (1957-1963), “Lost In Space” (1965-1968), “Flipper” (1964-1967), “Bewitched” (1964-1972), and “Green Acres” (1965-1971).
Similar values were extolled and exemplified by the leading roles of other shows of the era such as “Dr Kildare” (1961-1966), “Perry Mason” (1957-1966), “Marcus Welby, MD” (1969-1976), “Hawaii 5-0” (1968-1980).
Even shows that skirted the boundaries of traditional morality (while avoiding drawing attention to the fact) exhibited the dominance-submission pattern, such as “I Dream Of Genie” (1965-1970), or reflected the traditional and ‘acceptable’ family structure, even without the presence of the maternal figure – consider “My Three Sons” (1960-1972).
The first show to deliberately deviate from this ‘perfection’ was “I Love Lucy” (1951-1957) in that Lucy wanted to work in Desi’s shows, but it only flirted with a realistic depiction of women; Lucy was portrayed as untalented and ‘ditzy’ by the show.
The Professional Woman – 1970s & 80s
The TV program that is usually credited with being the first to depict a professional woman, independent of the “traditional” role of wife and mother was the eponymous lead character of “Mary Tyler Moore” (1970-1977). [Personal Admission: much of my attitude towards women as professionals was shaped by this show, even though I was only 7 years old when it began airing in the US. It didn’t air on Australian Regional TV for some time after the US Premiere.] So shocking was the concept that Mary Richards, the leading role, was a recent divorcée that network executives tried to persuade the producers to make her a recovering alcoholic instead. While this would have been equally groundbreaking, it would have undermined the independence that the role was to exemplify, and so the proposal was vigorously refused.
Operating in parallel with this series was “All In The Family” (1971-1979), which featured an over-the-top caricature of the traditional father-figure, Archie Bunker. This show ridiculed the out-of-date opinions of Bunker, and by extension, any such attitudes held by members of the audience.
Between them, these two programs reshaped the roles to which women in society could aspire without incurring a general social stigma. Over the next few years, it became acceptable for women to be professionals, both in real life and on television.
This movement reached its zenith in “Murphy Brown” (1988-1998), featuring Candice Bergen as the title character, who gave as good – if not better – than she got.
Nevertheless, these were exceptions to the general trend, which was to ignore the question as much as possible. There were no shows that I remember that featured a female lead who was the equivalent of a Marcus Welby, an Ironside, or other leading professional. Outside of these exceptions, women were still seen as co-stars at best, supporting roles at worst.
The Single Mother
I’ve wracked my brain, but the only shows I can think of that made a point about the acceptability of being a single mother prior to the turn of the century were “The Brady Bunch” (1969-1974) – Carol Brady was described as doing a completely acceptable job of raising her children before she remarried and entered a typical family relationship; and “The Partridge Family” (1970-1974) – but there was still a father figure on hand in the form of the manager, Ruben (however questionable his competence might have been).
Other shows may have had single mothers in supporting roles, as was the case with “Good Times” (1974-1979), but these were the most prominent such roles that I recall. In fact, the only show that had a single parent any sort of featured role was Dallas, in the person of the Matriarch of the Ewing Clan.
Somehow, this simply became accepted, slipping into the consciousness through sheer weight of numbers amongst the public. So stealthy was this indoctrination that her family status was barely even noteworthy when the character of Catherine Willows appeared in the first episode of CSI.
The Perfect Family Revisited
Mention must also be made of another program that once again depicted the perfect family of the 1950s – with, in the person of the mother role, a few hints of Lucy Arnez – and that is “Happy Days” (1974-1984).
I found it particularly interesting that the spin-off show, “Laverne & Shirley” (1976-1983), mirrored the transition from 1950s stay-at-home women to 1960s/70s working women.
But throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in general, the “perfect family” was breaking down as a television concept, being eroded one piece at a time.
The depiction of lower-middle-class working women then progressed into “Cheers” (1982-1983) and the character of Dianne.
It would also be remiss to ignore the world’s best known dysfunctional family, The Simpsons (1989-present) – who seem to come back together, no matter what befalls them. It’s astonishing to think that there are probably children about to enter primary school whose grandparents had not even married when the show began. [Don’t believe me? 18 years old in 1989, marriage, child born in 1990, who turns 18 in 2008, have children in 2009, who are therefore going to be 5 years old in the course of 2014. And that ignores the number of children born to 17- and even 16- year old mothers – children could be as much as 9 years old in 2014.]
The Executive Woman
First, I want to point out that just as there have been few TV shows (and fewer successful ones) that feature females in dominant, executive roles. In fact, I was able to think of only a handful of good examples.
- “L.A. Law” (1986-1994) Arguably the groundbreaker in this respect (as it was in dealing with many other`social issues), aside from a number of highly-proficient female attorneys it featured the character of Grace Van Owen, a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office, who later became a member of the law firm.
- My second example is also of a highly-respected prosecutor and deputy district attorney within a crime drama, Marion Grasso
in the first season of “Murder One” (1995-1997).
- “The West Wing” (1999-2006) – CJ Craig may have started as Press Secretary but she rose to the position of Chief Of Staff. And did it without losing her humanity.
- “Eureka” (2006-2012) – Allison Blake started as a scientist and Liaison to the Department Of Defense, but she became head of Global Dynamics.
- “Commander In Chief” (2005-2006) – least successful of the series being discussed in this section, this underrated series featured Geena Davis as the first female President of the USA, the struggles of the system to cope with the gender role reversal that accompanied it, and the character’s struggle to reconcile the needs of her family with those of her position.
- “Babylon-5” (1993-1998) – Delenn and Ivanova may have been notionally subordinate to the station commander (Sinclair and Sheridan) at various times as their roles within the series changed, but both were more than capable of exerting themselves and their authority.
- The Stargate Franchise: “Stargate SG-1” (1997-2007) and “Stargate Atlantis” (2004-2009) plus movies (2008) – Samantha Carter started as a “science geek” with military training and experience and effectively became the second-in-command of the primary Stargate team, and only rose in authority from that position. Elizabeth Weir was a diplomat and expert in international politics, who initially leads the Stargate:Atlantis mission after a brief stint as commander of the entire Stargate program.
- “Star Trek: Voyager” (1995-2001) is arguably the most successful depiction of a female in power, featuring not only significant department heads in traditional male roles (B’Elanna Torres) and other strong female roles (Seven Of Nine) but throughout the series the Captain of the starship, Kathryn Janeway, to whom all the other roles were subordinate. This was accomplished in a manner that felt completely natural, never forced.
In every other case that I could think of, the executive woman was clearly subordinate, was at best a supporting character, or was an executive only in a traditional female role, such as the part of Margaret Hoolihan in “MASH” (1972-1983).
Half of these are science-fiction series, and the other half are crime dramas or political dramas. I’m not quite sure about the significance of that.
The Flawed / Abrasive Woman
Leading female roles with character flaws was one of the first inroads of “realism” into characterization. The male-with-character-flaws had been made prominent by the character of Andy Sipowicz in “NYPD Blue” (1993-2005); with the success of that show, it was inevitable that an equally-flawed female role would be presented. The groundbreaking actress was comedienne Roseanne Barr and the show was “Roseanne” (1988-1997). Roseanne was tough as nails, a leading female role whose attractiveness to the audience was not based on her appearance; instead, she – and the show – were more realistic portrayals of women and the blue-collar society of the time. In comparison, every other female role on television at the time was sanitized or idealized in some fashion – even the female detectives in the aforementioned gritty crime-drama. “Roseanne” tackled many social issues and was never afraid to court controversy; issues such as poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, birth control, teen pregnancy, obesity, abortion, race, social class, domestic violence, infidelity, and gay rights according to Wikipedia.
(The heyday of “Roseanne” coincided with a period of time in which I did not have a TV set, and I never found Barr to be particularly funny – though my sense of humor is such that I’m in no position to judge for anyone else; there are a LOT of TV shows and movies that I don’t find funny. It doesn’t stop me from respecting the people who work very hard to make others laugh – or think).
While no other shows on mainstream television since then have even approached the acerbity and confrontational expression of a flawed character, from that point on, it became very difficult for such sanitized roles as were appearing elsewhere not to look vapid in comparison with more socially-acceptable flawed male roles. “Roseanne” marked a turning point in the characterization of women on television. From that time on, it became almost necessary for the female characters to be flawed in some way.
Departing from the script
Most of what I’ve written so far has been somewhere between recapitulation and synopsis of the Documentary that I referred to at the start of this article. It went on to discuss the disintegration of the myth of the ‘perfect mother’, the rise of Cable TV (where the restrictions are far less compromising) and shows such as “Sex In The City” (1998-2004), “Desperate Housewives” (2004-2012), “The Good Wife” (2009-present), “Nurse Jackie” (2009-present), and “Weeds” (2005-2012).
I was only half-listening; in fact I had to go back and watch this part of the documentary again (fortunately I had time-shifted it and could do so). That was because I was distracted by the insights that I mentioned earlier.
Dysfunction, Failure and Flaw
One of the common points that many of the producers, writers, actors, and actresses made in the course of the documentary was that the more dysfunctional and flawed the characters that they created, the more easily the audience was able to identify with them. These characters went from ‘impossible perfection’ to ‘achievable ideal’ to ‘just like me’ to ‘makes me look good’ as television matured. And I began to wonder whether or not these relationships with the characters were reflected in the relationships of audience members with other aspects of society – from striving for a standard of perfection that was unattainable, and being forced to compromise with reality, to being told ‘it’s all right to be as you are, warts and all, because it could be much worse’. Were people in fact being given a license to indulge themselves and their vices by society and social standards?
Why had television evolved in this way? I could summarize the three goals at a meta-production level as Relevance, Realism, and the pursuit of Shock Value, because all three brought good ratings. Character values were either secondary qualities of the character, described as naiveté, or were doomed to failure in the mire of the character’s feet of clay.
The Dark Side Sells
There is clearly an opinion in Hollywood that “The Dark Side Sells”. From early hits like “NYPD Blue”, to “The Sopranos”, to “House”. Even idealized characters from earlier eras were re-imagined with modern flaws – in “Elementary”, Holmes is a recovering Drug Addict, and someone who struggles to learn social niceties.
Characters with flaws are easier to write, more interesting to portray, and have greater depth and verisimilitude. Even characters aimed at children are expected to express some (carefully controlled) flaws these days – look at “Shrek” for example. Somewhere along the line from G-rating to MA-rating (or even R-Rating on cable), there is a slide from “The Good Guys Always Win In The End” to “Anyone can win” to “The Bad Guys Win because you can’t tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys anymore”.
Personally, I think the major switch occurs with shows aimed at teens and young adults; teenage rebellion makes the “sappy, saccharine” overtones of children’s TV unpalatable, they want something that makes them feel more “grown up” than that.
And Yet – idealism can be even more commercially viable
The last, and strongest, holdout from this way of thinking are the cop shows. They flirt with the dark side, but the formula is that Justice is served in the end. Sometimes at a price, and sometimes after exploring some provocative ground, but they usually get there. Consider, for example, the CSI franchise, and the Law & Order franchise.
In fact, with only a few exceptions, the longest-running TV series are always idealistic in some fashion.
In addition to the examples offered above, consider the following list:
- Perry Mason
- Mary Tyler Moore
- Marcus Welby MD
- Trapper John, MD
- Happy Days
- The Cosby Show
- The Star Trek Franchise (in general)
- TV Cop Shows prior to NYPD Blue including Hawaii 5-0, Ironside, & CHiPS
- Knight Rider
- The West Wing
- Mission Impossible
… the list just goes on and on.
It seems easier to have a successful short-lived show that accentuates the negative, and easier for a positively-oriented show to flop – but for longevity, find yourself a positive show that avoids falling off a cliff and it will last. But I find it significant that of all the examples on the list above, only one is still in production.
The creator of “The United States Of Tara” has said, “There’s this belief that characters on television need to be extra-relatable, and extra-sympathetic because they are coming into your home week after week. The idea of normal has definitely been skewed. I think now we’re realizing that abnormal is ‘normal’.”
Dystopia, and short-lived successes, seem to be the modern stock-in-trade. At least for now.
It should be clear that if my theory is correct, there has been some serious social damage that has resulted from this headlong pursuit of shock value and and realism in plots and characters.
But it has not been without its redeeming social benefits. It started with acceptance of women as professionals. It progressed through into acceptance of racial minorities and the rejection of stereotypes. In more recent times, it has moved on to fostering acceptance of misfits and “geeks”. There is now a common acceptability of people as individuals, flaws and all. This is a good thing.
Social problems of all sorts have been scrutinized, and if there have been no realistic easy answers discovered, no-one really expected to find any. It’s more important to start dialogues about these issues from which real-world solutions might eventually result. The first step is always to de-stigmatize the issue. It can be argued that television has made an indirect contribution to every piece of social progress that has occurred in the last 75 years or so.
But here’s the outstanding question: can you really state that having one automatically mandates the other? Could we have had the social progress without the lowering of acceptable standards of social behavior?
To some extent, the answer to the first question is yes, and the second, no. The reason “Roseanne” had such impact with its examination of social issues is because these were ordinary working-class people with whom the audience could identify. If those characters then learned or expressed a social lesson, the audience took that lesson on board as something to at least think about.
But also, to some extent, the answers might well be no, and yes, respectively. If I accept the last logical point that I made, I then need to ask whether or not the trend that produced characters who were plausible enough for the audience to identify with, was then extended beyond the point of necessity. And I would have to say that yes, it was. Even “Roseanne” was probably on the outer limit of necessity in terms of achieving social progress, if not slightly beyond.
The Evolution Of RPGs
It’s my contention that RPGs have emulated the drive toward Relevance, and Realism. I’ve argued in the past that the early games were more frivolous, and more freewheeling – more about fun – refer, for example, to What does “Old-School Gaming” really mean, anyway?.
At the same time, the older the game, the more prone to reinforcing stereotyping it is. The first stereotype to fall by the wayside was the pro-male gender bias; the second were class level limits for non-humans, i.e. Minorities. Outside the D&D range, other games were introducing characterization tools such as the Disadvantages of the Hero System. Throughout the 90s and into the noughties, the goal was to achieve more “realism” in characters – though that term needs a little more definition before anyone will agree with me.
I’m defining “realism” in this context as “true to the source material”. Fantasy characters that were more like those in the novels and computer games. Superhero characters that were more like those in the comics (the movies and TV shows were mostly lame in comparison). This trend reached its high mark with franchised tie-in RPGs starting with things like Dr Who, Star Trek The Roleplaying Game, Ringworld, and so on, and has stayed there ever since.
It wasn’t just the characters. Every aspect of the RPG was affected – from rules to encounters to plotlines to campaign backgrounds. Of course, there is a natural corrective mechanism built into RPGs – go to far, and the game becomes unplayable, and GMs look for shortcuts and house rules. One of the best examples of this trend that I can point at is the evolution of the Traveller game system, but I would also point at the rules for Star Fleet Battles and Supremacy even though they aren’t strictly RPGs.
D&D wasn’t spared. The 3.x rules were pretty good, but by the time you bloated the systems out with all the game supplements, the results were pretty unwieldy, as I pointed out in one of my earliest articles here at Campaign Mastery, Google Groans: Misplacing the Rules. You really need a search engine to find all the rules that are relevant to a situation – unless you bite the bullet (and possibly annoy your players) by restricting their sources for things like feats. Of course, to be palatable at all, if you restrict the players choices, you also have to restrict your own.
And slowly, the games have become more serious, and some of the outright, outrageous, sense of fun has gone. The whimsy began to be seen as silly.
Glass Half Empty to Glass Half Full?
What is wrong with television having characters just flawed enough to be recognizable and permitting the audience to live vicariously through their struggles to be better people?
What’s wrong with letting the Fun element overcome the deathly serious slant of modern games every now and then? With giving up some of the shock value for the fun value?
What’s wrong with putting some Idealism back into the realism equation?