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Just about everything you need to know about the life and loves of Felicity Porter, a New York City college student played by Keri Russell on The WB's "Felicity," took place in the show's pilot three years ago. In the pilot, Felicity followed her high-school crush to college in the big city. And, three years later, she is still twisting her life around every Wednesday night for the same guy. Elucidates the show's website: "She scrapped ... everything she thought her life would be--all for a guy with a great smile. Well, wouldn't you?"
Evidently the National Organization for Women's answer is yes. Last month, in its "Feminist Primetime Report Update" (the successor to last year's "Feminist Primetime Report"), it ranked "Felicity" as the third-most-feminist of the 59 shows it surveyed, giving it the "NOW Recommends" seal of approval. NOW rated prime-time programs on UPN and The WB, and new prime-time shows on the other four major networks, for gender composition/diversity (the more women and girls, the better!), violence, sexual exploitation, and social responsibility.
The shows that did best were those, like "Felicity," that feature heroines whom NOW called "intelligent," "well-rounded," and able to "break out of the sex object role and portray authentic people." Which would be fine, except that many of the characters NOW praises don't break out of the sex object role at all; they bask in it. If heroines like Felicity are empowered, it's only because they've decided that what really drives female power is sex. Specifically, the power of very attractive, very young women to attract just about any man they want. True, that is power of a sort--just not the sort you'd expect NOW to applaud.
Take "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," among the shows "NOW Recommends." Starring blond bombshell Sarah Michelle Gellar as a vampire-slaying college coed, "Buffy" receives feminist kudos for depicting a take-charge woman who kicks butts of both genders. But the constant barrage of "Buffy" promo photos featuring the cleavage of a braless and tumescent Gellar makes it difficult to divorce the ass-kicking from the tits and ass.
The same goes for "Dawson's Creek," which makes NOW's list of the ten shows with the least sexual exploitation. But when the show first aired in 1998, even generally lenient TV reviewers were struck that, as the Los Angeles Times' Howard Rosenberg put it, "the minors are anatomically fixated, and some of their elders just as genitalia-minded." In the show's pilot, we learn that, as Rosenberg recounts, star Jen "lost her virginity at 12 and went on to 'sleep with half of New York City.'"
Indeed, a trip to the message boards of these programs' websites makes it clear that, if NOW thinks these teen-goddess shows smack of feminism, their fans see things rather differently. Here are some recent snippets from chat among girls on the site for "Dawson's Creek": "Well I am NOT a lesbian or nothing but personally I think Joey is the prettiest. I so envy her!!" and "Joey is cute, but the sexy one is Jen, she has more attitude."
In fact, when Felicity chopped off her trademark tresses, her show's ratings plummeted. Reported a WB spokesman, "When she cut her hair, [women] basically said, 'I don't want to be that person; it ruins the illusion for me.'" But not to fear, ratings grew again, along with actress Russell's locks. "It's grown out," averred Susanne Daniels, The WB's entertainment president, last year. "[S]he looks fabulous ... the hair crisis has passed." Just to be on the safe side, actresses on NOW's number-one show will not be making the same mistake. Says creator Amy Sherman-Palladino: "No one on 'Gilmore Girls' will cut their hair, ever."
To be fair, NOW didn't have much to choose from. Numerous teen shows like "My So-Called Life," "The Wonder Years," "Party of Five," and "The Facts of Life" have proved that teen girls need not slay vampires--or be vampy--to handle difficult life situations or to feel empowered. Unfortunately, they've all been canceled. And most of what's on the air has little feminist redeeming value--or any other sort of value, for that matter. "WWF Smackdown!," for instance, in which breast implants are virtually a requirement for female participation, ranked appropriately poorly.
But there is at least one female star who attracts viewers for her smart mouth rather than for her large breasts--Anne Robinson, the surly, whip-smart host of NBC's new hit "Weakest Link." You'd think that NOW--having complained in last year's report about "male-centered" game shows--would be flush with praise. You'd be wrong. NOW's latest report bashes the show "for its host's nasty demeanor." It adds that Robinson "struck feminist analysts as both a harsh stereotype and a tough ground breaker." Of course, any aggressive, opinionated female host is likely to take flak for not being softer or sexier. But you wouldn't expect it to come from NOW. Perhaps she should grow out her hair.