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The Women of Treme

November 13, 2012

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.

  1. November 14, 2012 12:11 am

    Outstanding piece, Sam! I love it and you have just given me a hook by which I can sell this show to friends who might be otherwise hesitant to invest themselves in watching it. Great stuff!

  2. Mary Christine permalink
    November 14, 2012 8:35 am

    Nice piece, thanks for sharing that. My feeling about Annie is really about the more recent episodes. For one, to lead a band as a vocalist, you need to have some kind of pipes. She does not. My other feelings are more a disappointment as a fan of DS, who has provided the most tv gratification I’ve ever had. From Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets (book, I know) but it inspired the ever great HOMICIDE, THE CORNER. Can we pause a moment and think of the amazing femaie characters on that show. One of whom was Khandi Alexander. THE WIRE. The out and out sex scenes were real and relevant. The Annie jumping up and down on the bed served one purpose that I can see. And that is to get older men off. It feels gratuitous and smarmy. Other than that, still love the show and every other female character.

  3. November 14, 2012 1:21 pm

    Yes, to you all.

    What I may respond to more than anything about the female characters, is they are no different from the male characters. They exist in a matrix of relationships, many relationships, that matter, and matter in different ways, but all of which help sustain them.

    What seems a little odd though, is how few in these matrices for the female characters are other women.

    Toni seems to live in a bubble of solitude — not even family, other than Sofia, which is really odd for somebody born in New Orleans. Her assistant is someone she mentors and respects and likes, but she’s not an equal. The closest you’ve seen this working with her, is with LaDonna, and their shared grief and pain in season one.

    LaDonna, though, had / has her mother. She and Desiree have a mutually repectful relationship that works, which is good. Other than that, generally it seems LaDonna is not much of a woman’s woman. It’s probably not useful to speak of her Mardi Gras fling with her ex-husband and the betrayal of a ‘sister,’ in this context, because — well, those ex thangs, well, they can be complicated, can’t they?

    Sofia, well, she so young she’s in that period of her life that her friends can change with each change in her circumstances. As you point out, she’s had a lot of changes to cope with in th last two years, with others right in lap, and others looming soon, such as going away to college (Tulane — “my safety school!”) But you do see her in the context of various groups during the programs.

    Janette has her own mentor and sponsor, Susan Spicer. They seem to exist in a mutually positive relationship that is personal as well as professional. But no other female friends for Janette. As you say, that scene from the first Mardi Gras, Janette the Fairy with the magic wand — that is priceless brilliance that nobody can forget. Was there ever anything, so brief, so condensed, that speaks to the allure and glamour of Mardi Gras — that beckons every year? that magical transformation — that even if not this year, there’s always Mardi Gras comin’ again? As for that guy who wrote that sour sour sour observation that the show gives New York the credit for Janette learning how to chef it right? That’s not even worthy of a rebuttal. Food, cuisine, cooking is like music. It doesn’t respect anybody’s boundaries, geographic or cultural. It travels, transforms (like the wand hopefully wielded by Mardi Gras fairy, Janette), and recombines, making something wonderful and new — and yet, still, holding on to its roots and foundation. That’s Janette!

    Desiree, however, we see in nearly every episode, moving within a life filled with other women, with whom she shares warm, confident, comfortable and comforting friendships. Even as it seems the case for Davina, Albert’s daughter — she’s always running into other women she grew up with and the bonds seem to still be in place.

    Annie’s mentors are all male, so are her band members. Eeek. But — she and Harley’s sister bonded. And other female musical artists seem to like her. But we only see her interacting with male musicians.

    Ah, now see what you set off? 🙂 I hadn’t thought of any of those things, except with Janette and Annie. Thank you for your sparking and for your indulgence.

    Love, C.

  4. November 14, 2012 1:59 pm

    Wow. You know you’re right! Maybe that’s the writers’ blind spot? They know how they relate to women but not how women relate to women? I hadn’t thought of that at all but you are totally right. Toni curls up on her couch and works. We’ve seen her have drinks with men, Colson being the only tentatively personal one, the others all related to work. Janette, even her roommates in NY were men. Yes we’ve seen her have a connection with Spicer, but even then we don’t see her grab Susan Spicer up from that table and say, “I gotta TALK to you later! You won’t believe what this asshole is doing.” None of that.

    I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed that. I have some really remarkable male friends and was one of those females who didn’t have a real female friend until I was nearly 20. But from that point on I needed other women in my life. The male/female friend dynamic is different: often they are the ones we turn to when we need explanation from a male point of view, i.e. why does this guy THINK that? The female/female dynamic is different. They are the ones who tell us when we’re being idiots or doormats, they are the ones who encourage with all their hearts and can share experiences that are uniquely feminine. They are also the ones to tell you never to wear that dress again because the color looks awful on you!

    Well, dang, C, you got me off on a whole ‘nother tangent. I’ll have to think about that.

  5. November 14, 2012 2:37 pm

    I forgot Aunt Mimi. But if ever there is a woman entirely comfortable with who and where she is, it is Aunt Mimi. She’s one of the many sorts of New Orleans women I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know, that if ever things went wrong, I’d want working on my side.

    That’s true about all of them I think, except maybe Annie, who hasn’t demonstrated much of a capacity to handle things that haven’t been fairly handed to her on behalf of the talent that she is claimed to possess, and to which she works to expand and make deeper. She is the reverse of Antoine, for example, who has to work very hard to just to maintain the non-top level of musicianship he inhabits. I loved his looking at that, and asking for advice from Delmond, on how to ‘shed a whole new kind of musicianship. What he’s after is much more difficult for him than it was / is for Annie, trying to follow Harley’s mentoring. Class and race trumping gender this time? Or — merely her much larger talent (as they tell us she’s got)trumping Antoine’s?

    Love, C.

  6. November 14, 2012 4:53 pm

    Also — none of my blather is judgmental of the characters or the writing, as whether good or bad, right or wrong. Just want that to be clear — it’s merely observation of these people within their world.

    Since they have been having to process everything that’s happened to them, their lives, and the people they love, and the world they love by the Failure, and having to deal with one crisis after another — they haven’t had much left over for other things. And it’s the same with us as we’re trying to process what these characters are processing and experiencing.

    We can only observe, we don’t know. Presumably DS and crew know, but we — or at least I — don’t.

    Love, C.

  7. M. Christine permalink
    November 14, 2012 5:28 pm

    “That kind of writing takes balls.” Or as James Brown would say “It’s a Man’s World.” My husband has introduced me to many of the great writers – Pelacanos, Price, etc. But are there any female Writers on Treme? I think this may be what is dampening my feelings. Everyone is working so hard but something is missing and I’m glad it was pointed out. Besides Desiree, we really don’t see any interaction of women with their close friends. Women know that it is part of their mental health to have relationships with other women.

  8. November 15, 2012 9:52 am

    Not just female writers are few on Treme, so are directors — though there are some occasionally. The brilliant director, Agnieszka Holland, with whom DS has worked often, did the first episode of the first season. Mari Kornhauser write the wonderful episode from last season, “Slip Away,” that included the re-creation of Dinerral Shavers’ funeral.

    One thinks things might be rather different if there was more female input as both writers and directors than so many male writers who specialize in the deeply masculine genres of crime thrillers.

    Love, C.

  9. November 16, 2012 3:30 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this for a couple days now. I still say that their writing of the women themselves is wonderful and strong. We don’t look at any of these characters and say bimbo, although I’m pretty sure they could have written a pretty good bimbo too if she was necessary to their vision of the story. I have to applaud them for giving these women depth, something we see too rarely on television.

    The fault we’re finding is the female characters’ lack of female friendships, something I confess I hadn’t noticed. It is interesting to note though and I wonder again if it’s because they have no experience with it, and by virtue of their gender, really kind of can’t.

  10. November 17, 2012 11:07 am

    You right. 🙂

    Love, C.

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