by Meredith O’Brien
From playing fictional roles on the silver screen and on the intimate medium of television, to the bloodsport known as American politics, criticism of the women who assume those roles have felt abundant lately.
The Los Angeles Times’  Mary McNamara, in a piece published this past week called “Shrew versus shrewd,” took one look at Katherine Heigl’s star turn in the new film The Ugly Truth and said that she didn’t understand why Heigl would want to leave her meaty, television role on Grey’s Anatomy -- where she’s a smart, up-from-her-bootstraps doctor who grew up in a trailer park and is now battling cancer -- for thin ones in romantic comedies as the damsel whose love life is in dire need of saving.
“Watching Katherine Heigl attempt to inject life into yet another cardboard cut-out of a controlling, manic working woman in The Ugly Truth, you have to wonder: For this she wants to leave television?” McNamara asked. “. . . There are more and better roles for women on one season of Brothers and Sisters and Big Love or Damages and Desperate Housewives than there will be in an entire year of Hollywood films. Roles that require depth and wisdom and boundless energy, that demand of their performers dramatic flexibility and exploration of character. Roles that don’t seem to punish them simply for being women.”
As examples of shallow leading women’s roles, McNamara pointed to Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, the women in He’s Just Not That Into You and Renee Zellweger in New in Town as actresses who “have all found themselves doing the Taming of the Shrew two-step without the benefit of Richard Burton or Shakespeare.”
Over on NPR , Linda Holmes called McNamara’s comparison flawed and argued that there are indeed substantive roles for women in today’s popular films, but you just have to know where to look. “[Glenn] Close’s Damages is not the equivalent of He’s Just Not That Into You, is what I’m saying,” Holmes wrote. “Well-written roles for women still exist in movies – just not usually in mainstream romantic comedies.” She singled out last year’s Doubt and Rachel Getting Married, which spawned Oscar nominations for their leading ladies, as having “stupendous roles for women.”
In the meantime, I heard a news report last week about a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll  of 900 registered voters which got me thinking about the roles women play in real life, and what people expect and desire from them. Here’s what got my attention: When asked by the pollsters  what vocation former Alaska governor and one-time Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin should seek now that she’s left elected office, more voters picked the role of “homemaker” over the other choices; it garnered 32 percent of the responses, followed by 17 percent who thought she should be a TV talk show host, 14 percent for vice president, 10 percent for college president and 6 percent for president. Sure, 47 percent of those polled did select a paid occupation for Palin, but I could not imagine, under any circumstances, a pollster would ever ask people whether a former male vice presidential nominee should be a homemaker or an at-home dad. Can you? People certainly didn’t ask whether Democratic presidential candidate, vice presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator John Edwards was going to become a homemaker after he quit his presidential campaign in 2008, even though he does have two very young children and a wife who has terminal cancer at home.
The whole poll thing bugged me so much, that I looked up the poll info  to find out if the wording of the questions somehow led respondents toward the answer of “homemaker,” but I couldn’t find the specific wording online. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not slamming folks who are at-home parents or who folks call themselves homemakers, but it rankles me that pollsters would ask if a prominent, widely known female politician should become a homemaker when we all know that the same wouldn’t be asked about a male pol. (If you’ve got an example to prove me wrong, I’d love to hear about.)
During the same week when 32 percent of voters in a national poll told Palin that she should go back to Wasilla to tend to her youngin’s, anonymous Democratic U.S. Senate staffers were whispering into reporters’ ears at the web site Politico , spreading the notion that California Senator Barbara Boxer wasn’t “up to the task” of chairing the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, particularly when it’s working on a major piece of legislation such as a climate change bill. Calling Boxer’s personality “abrasive” and her behavior sometimes “embarrassing,” the staffers were critical of Boxer’s handling of a similar environmental bill last year -- which failed to gain traction -- and of her decision in June to publicly ask a brigadier general to call her “Senator” instead of “Ma’am”  during a committee hearing she was chairing.
A few weeks later, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor got a lecture  during her confirmation hearings from a male senator about how she should get a handle on her temperament following comments from anonymous lawyers on a web site which tagged her as “a bully” and “a terror.” Just before the confirmation hearings commenced, current Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg told the New York Times  that if people think Sotomayor is a tough judicial questioner, “Has anybody watched [Justices] Scalia or Breyer up on the bench?”
So what to make of these things when they’re all lumped together? It doesn’t matter whether you’re Katherine Heigl playing a fictional TV desperate housewife on TV, a former governor who is advised that she should forgo paid employment and make a home for her family, a senator who requests that she be called “Senator” (which, after all, is what she is) when she’s running a committee hearing, or Sotomayor receiving disapproval for her tough, probing line of inquiries from the bench. No matter what role you play, someone, somewhere will have something critical to say about it.
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