by Meredith O’Brien
What, exactly, do you people want from women? Really?
Over the past two weeks, women have been sent all manner of confusing, contradictory and, frankly, deeply insulting messages, all centered around their looks. A writer on a national magazine’s web site told overweight people that having to watch them in leading roles on TV -- and even just exist in the world -- is revolting. A prominent newspaper scrutinized all facets of how current female politicians dress, from women who wear form-fitting attire to women who don loose-fitting conservative duds. On the other end of the spectrum, two twentysomething stars of a popular high school TV drama were attacked for agreeing to pose in their panties in sexual poses while they draped themselves around a fully clothed male co-star.
A writer for Marie Claire last week made a series of hateful statements  about the lead characters in the new CBS sitcom Mike & Molly  – a new show about two overweight people who began dating after meeting at an overeaters’ support group. The article was entitled, “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room? (Even on TV?)” and claimed that the show promotes obesity. One of the writer’s observations: “I think I’d be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other . . . because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them do anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room — just like I'd find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroin addict slumping in a chair.”
Just how many large women – other than Roseanne Barr from Roseanne – have had leading roles in TV shows in recent years? As I struggled to come up with one, off the top of my head I could name several programs where larger men were paired with skinny leading women, like on According to Jim, The King of Queens, Still Standing, the two animated series Family Guy and The Simpsons, and the May-December pairing of Jay and Gloria on Modern Family. But when someone had the nerve to create a show where BOTH the male and female leads are, like a growing number of Americans, overweight and suddenly it’s grotesque and should be banned from TV? If bad or unhealthy behavior or lifestyles should be banned from TV by everyone who’s offended by it, then there’d be nothing left to watch.
It seems odd to me that people didn’t make a big deal about Mike & Molly lead actress Melissa McCarthy’s weight when she was the trim Lorelai Gilmore’s beloved sidekick Sookie St. James on the Gilmore Girls. But now that she’s in the lead -- boom! -- suddenly her very existence on TVs across America is downright offensive and people are openly questioning whether allowing her or her co-star to appear in Mike & Molly promotes obesity . (According to this line of thinking, Mad Men must be promoting heavy drinking, cigarette smoking and racism; Breaking Bad and Weeds are advertisements for illegal drug use and Dexter is part of a public service campaign to persuade everyone to become a serial killer.)
Over in the pages of the New York Times, the focus wasn’t on fat, but on fashion, specifically the fashion worn by female politicians  such as Sarah Palin and Nikki Haley. They, along with other conservative female pols, were subjected to an intense analysis of their clothing styles which were described with adjectives like “rump-hugging,” their hair resembling “bedhead.” Women who dress in form-fitting clothing or very feminine attire were admonished in the article by a New York legislator who said political women “can’t be too provocative.” A “media trainer” chimed in saying that political women who emulate Palin’s fashion sense would be making “a mistake.”
Meanwhile in the same article, the Times article which quoted the editor of Vogue as mocking Hillary Clinton’s look as “mannish.” The article’s author noted that Clinton’s “mannishly functional wardrobe remains the go-to choice for women on the path to power.” She continued, writing: “Indeed there is much to suggest that women who aspire to office continue to dress defensively. Frightened, even terrified, of committing a wardrobe gaffe on national airwaves, most adhere to a rigid, patently dated style that has all the allure of a milk carton.” Yes, she wrote that. Milk. Carton. Just like she wrote “rump-hugging.”
Then there are the twentysomething Glee gals who posed for GQ in underpants, tube socks and high heels (sometimes cheerleader or schoolgirl outfits) while holding lollypops or ripping their shirts off to expose their push-up bras, occasionally with their legs splayed open or just generally hanging off of their fully dressed male colleague. They sustained criticism for the “rauchy” photos from everyone from the Parents Television Council , CBS anchorwoman Katie Couric  and an Entertainment Weekly critic . (I personally hated the fact that it was only the female Glee stars who were put into sexual positions while scantily clad, while the male actor was just there seemingly reveling in it all. It’s not surprising. It’s the same story with the way male politicians get to skate without people writing scathingly about their “pot belly-hugging shirts” or using pejorative adjectives to describe their appearance.
For those of you keeping score at home, the national media have told us: Women who are fat are gross and have no business being on TV (though skeletal actresses whose bony bodies promote eating disorders and whose abnormally buoyant breasts promote plastic surgery are just fine); women politicians are screwed no matter what they put on their bodies (while no one’s regularly writing about or severely judging male pols’ attire), and young females are enthusiastically encouraged to be nubile and sexy and get into slutty poses because everyone will buy the magazines or visit the web sites with those photos, plus it’ll make the actresses famous a la Paris Hilton’s video, Britney’s schoolgirl/snake antics, 17-year-old Miley Cyrus writhing around  on a bed while in underwear in a video, etc. Once those photos are posted, people will attack the women while others will attack the critics saying the young women have a right to be sexy. However I don’t see young men doing the same kind of body-revealing, sexually provocative photo shoots where fully clothed women have half-naked men clinging to them while the men are sexually suggestive food.
Instead of focusing on, say, whether the acting and the writing is any good on Mike & Molly, whether the politicians (male OR female) running for office are qualified and effective based on their policy positions, character and background, or whether the Glee actresses deliver solid performances on their own TV show, we see a sick circle of folks with their long knives out, ready and willing to slash away. The meta message: If you’re female, the content of your character, your thoughts and your actions don’t really matter, it’s the shape of your body, the snugness of your clothes and the level of sexuality you put on display for the world are the things upon which the world is going to judge you. Well isn’t that a great message to share with our daughters?