The Women of Treme
I have been contemplating this piece for almost two weeks, and the comments in the last two weeks have been great fodder. I am so glad I waited to write it.
On the one hand, I see two women, both of whom I know in real life, stretching their claws and discussing: shoes. I agree with both of them but that didn’t lessen my giggles. Their comments were exactly the kind of thing women talk about over drinks as a prelude to the deeper conversation or as a mood lightener after that deeper conversation.
On the other hand, I watched this week’s episode with three men, all of whom I know well in real life, and one of them said: “My god, Annie jumping up and down on that bed in the robe. . . . .I replayed it like ten times!” The other two agreed. Seemed like exactly the kind of thing that they would have talked about whether a female was around or not. Again, my giggles were not lessened.
At some point I made a fleeting decision that from now on I’m going to do the off the shoulder a la aging flashdance fashion that Aunt Mimi goes in for as, trust me, my jumping up and down on a bed in a robe–with or without stilettos-stacked or otherwise-is a feat, that while certainly not an appealing image, is also something likely to land me in an ER. Although, no doubt, my ten-fold replay friend would probably post the video to Facebook or YouTube or worse, I’d wind up the centerfold, er, centerpiece of a Tosh.O segment. Guess I’ll stick to flashdance and my own bottle of booze that I can toss into my bag as I walk out in a huff.
While all of that is amusing and has kept me laughing for a couple days now, what I really want to talk about is more interesting that all that, at least to me.
Think of the female characters in this show, the ones we know well: Toni, Sofia, LaDonna, Desiree, Annie, Janette and yes, Aunt Mimi. If I was choosing friends from a menu, these women would make the cut, even young Sofia and Annie. Here’s what’s really amazing to me though: these women are largely written by men, and written well. In fact, that was what made me want to write this piece: Men writing women well.
I checked IMDB then dropped the encyclopedic Mr. Dave Walker a line to make sure I was right. Here’s what he said: “Mari was a staff writer for seasons two and three, and like others on the staff she got to write one episode each season, though they all contribute to everything, as I understand it. Jen Ralston, who does sound for the show, got to write a script in season three with Lolis.” He also mentioned the great female consultants the writers use whose contributions must be noted, but seriously, we’re looking at three episodes and two women over the course of writing this series.
Our own Mark Folse mentioned that he thought I was perhaps underestimating the input of the actresses themselves, and I do believe that these women, consummate professionals all, have no doubt offered suggestions. I am certain that the writers and directors have heard at least once, “A woman would NEVER. . .” or “Toni/LaDonna/Janette, etc. would probably not respond like that.” However being professionals, they probably more often than not interpret their lines according to their inner understanding of the character they are playing. Which leads us back to the writers.
And the story arcs.
Toni: Civil rights avenger, mother, wife, widow. Toni is stubborn, compartmentalized, inhibited in everything other than her work. Her work shows her to be willing to flirt, make nice, make threats, melt butter in her mouth as she cajoles information out of reluctant sources in her relentless quest for truth and justice. (Seriously, just put her in a cape!) We see her rage, her sorrow, and her helplessness in her inability to understand Creighton’s decision to jump off that Ferry and we see her panic in her dealings with Sofia afterward. We see her terrified and confused and struggling with a daughter who is, well, simply put a teenager who’s been through a lot. She’s protective and loving, trying hard to do what’s right, actually living my mom’s great advice: “Sometimes you have to love them enough to let them hate you.” This woman is like a well trained guard dog, who’ll love those babies on the living room floor but if something ain’t right, look out, she will track you down and bite.
LaDonna: Wife, mother, ex-wife, sister, daughter, bar owner, rape victim. La Donna is every bit as stubborn as Toni, as relentless in her adherence to what is right for her. (Perfect case in point is her decision to leave the in-laws, and too bad if no one liked it.) We’ve seen her knees give way over Daymo, we’ve seen her psyche give way after the rape, we’ve seen cracks in the tough veneer every time the phone rings, but she throws those shoulders back, puts her foot down and keeps putting the other one ahead of it. Step, step, step, go ahead try to stop me, step. She took those steps all the way through the devastating search for her brother, the protection of her mother, her refusal to become a bored Baton Rouge housewife, the post-rape ER exam, the steps off the couch and into the DA’s office with her glorious rage, back to the car when the first three houses Larry showed her just weren’t right, and this week over to the window. She might need a shot of whiskey now and then to step past the fear, but she always, always takes that step.
Janette: Chef, homeowner, restaurant owner, restaurant worker, restaurant owner again, and great Mardi Gras reveler. (One of my still favorite scenes is her solo fairy dance on a dark sidewalk.) This woman has a passion for cooking, not like our great Aunt Sadie: we all have one, the one who cooks the holiday dinners or the best cakes, the food we can comfort ourselves with. Janette is an artist, always thinking about the next thing, the next dish, the next combination, twirling her hair. She’s resourceful, setting up a smoker after her restaurant goes bust, selling her house to Road Home because she was pragmatic enough to see that she couldn’t go after her dream and deal with the house/money issues too, moving to New York to see what she could learn. (One writer recently wrote bemoaning her New York trip as the writers slamming New Orleans food. I always felt it was something she wanted to do, for herself, to stretch and do a try out that was out of her comfort zone.) She has her physical needs met in a series of noncommittal one night stands using rather dubious judgment (or sometimes Davis) while her most committed relationship is with Jacques who clearly loves her but she’s too driven to notice or too frightened of it to reach for it. Now she’s stuck with Corporate Food schmuck and Al Roker, but we’re rooting for her to do what she wanna. Maybe take Jacques and run to a smaller place that is her very own.
Desiree: Teacher, partner to Antoine, mother, now becoming an activist in the great real estate theft of post-K New Orleans. Desiree is comfortable with and in her own skin. She’s patient but has boundaries and isn’t afraid to set them in no uncertain terms. She’s an active listener, letting Antoine go off on some tangent like a helium balloon, but the string is always tied around her wrist and she can reintroduce him to reality with three words and a look. While Desiree sometimes seems to be in the background, she doesn’t miss a thing. She’s smarter than Antoine usually gives her credit for until she says those three words and gives him the look, then he realizes what he’s got. She too is relentless as she fights to get her job back as a teacher, speaks the immortal “job job” line, takes photos of the guys demolishing the house. Not one to dwell on her disappointments (the NOT a ring box for Christmas), she glides through it all, hand firmly on the rudder of the boat watching for obstacles and you know that if you were in trouble and she was with you, you’d be okay.
Annie: Ex-girlfriend, musician, friend, girlfriend, musician, musician, musician. Okay, ladies, I hear the raspberries. Hear me out. Annie has gone from an utterly horrible relationship with Sonny (remember when we all thought he was gonna kill her?) to a cute and often sweet relationship with Davis who can be, well, a bit of a narcissist. Her friendship with Harley, coupled with her talent, has moved her up and up in the music world. While not overloaded with confidence and just a tad naïve about the new manager’s ulterior motives, she’s been steadily moving up the ranks from the street with Sonny, to the street with Harley, to trying hard to write songs, to her joy at playing on an actual stage, then getting guest shots with big league players, and now has her own band. We always knew she had more talent than Sonny and now she’s proved us right. Her timidity and lack of confidence held her back a little, but as with the other women, she kept trying, kept moving, kept chasing a dream, although unlike some of the other women her goal was never as clearly defined in her own head. She’s stubborn too. Clearly this isn’t what her parents had in mind for her but she’s standing her ground with them, and as Davis gets obsessed with his opera, she doggedly continues to move forward, learn a new track for a studio spot, packs her bags for the next gig. I think Annie’s a little conflicted. She truly loves New Orleans, she is still feeling the loss of Harley, and seems to miss her pre-almost a star life. Her missed catch of the bead throw on Mardi Gras after St. Anne on her way to the airport upset her. She felt she was missing something, and it wasn’t the beads. Soon she’s going to have to make a decision about what she truly wants and for Annie that will be hard because she’s so non-linear, floating from this serendipitous meeting to that lucky gig. (Remember how upset she was during the DC Mardi Gras party when she realized that the people there didn’t seem to care that there were legendary guys named Neville on that stage.) I am not bored by Annie. I am curious to see whether she makes her own choice or, as has been her wont, a choice is kind of made for her by outside forces.
Sofia: Daughter, young woman, carrier of trust issues that would cause an elephant to stumble. Sofia lived through the evacuation, the storm, the school changes, her father’s joy and her father’s despair, and eventually her father’s death. Her mother’s attempt to shield her from the truth was processed by her as lie and there was no quarter given to Toni by her daughter. Now because of her mother’s crusade for justice, she has to leave her home, her city, her friends, her school and all this just before graduation. The first guy she liked let her down and then she felt betrayed upon learning that L.P. had told her mother about the first guy’s age. At this point she trusts no one. She’s got the legal issues that are curtailing her choices, her mother’s work curtailing her choices, and face it, her age curtailing her choices. Sofia just feels completely out of control of her own life and resents it deeply. While some of that is normal during our teen years, this poor baby has had it all thrown at her, with a couple of bad choices on her part tossed in for good measure. But Sofia is also thoughtful, intelligent and curious, which gives us hope for her choices down the road as opposed to expecting the train to utterly derail as she moves forward.
Aunt Mimi: Aunt, financier, record producer mogul, party girl unwilling to give in to time’s passage and take up a rocker and knitting. She smokes, she drinks, she cusses a blue streak, she does whatever the hell she wants, she brags about her ability to break speed limits in college, she lusts, she laughs and boy does that broad live. Mimi is delighted by her successes and disappointments and clearly feels she’s had a great life and is planning on continuing it with a vengeance. We don’t worry about her. That girl can get through anything life throws at her, but we’d sure love to join her for a few drinks and hear the stories she could tell.
Every single one of these women are strong, multi-faceted, complex and intelligent. Each is willful in their own way. Each has weathered the loss of something that mattered to them: a husband, a daughter’s trust, a sense of security in one’s own business, a job as an educator that was viewed as a career, a house, multiple houses actually if you add them all up, a restaurant, a supportive friend and mentor, a boyfriend. . . . Each one of them has had their sense of security challenged by something. They have dimension in their strengths, in their blind spots, in their quests, in their faults. Not a single one of them could fall into the standard Madonna/whore paradigm so often seen when men write female characters.
These guys didn’t write their fantasy women (or maybe they did). There is no perfect full lipped blonde in pumps performing the duties of a CSI here. Uh uh. Not on this show. (I’ll give them a pass on the occasional stripper-like costumes and Lucia’s bouncing bed scene, cuz hey, we’ve all seen girls in those costumes on Mardi Gras day in freezing cold weather. It happens!) These men have delivered to us women, fully realized actual women, women with depth, and in the doing showed us their love of and respect for women in general. I am impressed as hell by that.
Look at other channels now and then. I do. Then I look at the women of Treme, I marvel at the uber-talent of the actors playing them, and I am endlessly impressed by the complexity and depth of those women who were written by men.
That kind of writing takes balls.