Monday, February 15, 2010

Butching the Femmes: US & UK (web) soaps/drama - VENICE & FAR OUT

Web soaps/dramas and lesbian representation

From Guiding Light to Venice
In the final months of the long-running US DayTime soap Guiding Light, I got hooked on the Otalia same-sex romance.

When the show was coming to an end, I became an instant fan of a web show in-the-making, hooked on Crystal Chappell's highly public approach to creating the web series Venice.  I liked that she and her co-producers used social networking as a way to connect with and get feedback from fans, and were aiming to cater to a perceived unfulfilled, international desire for realistic, lesbian-themed drama.
And I liked the premise of the show: centred on Gina (Crystal Chappell), a successful interior designer, her family and relationships within a network of people living in Venice Beach, CA. (MindSchmootz has a great review of the premier episode.)

Venice Fan Expectations: supportive energy or conflicting demands?
Now it seems many fans had/have different expectations of the show, and they may be pushing it in a different direction from what I had anticipated.  Unlike many fans, I have had no expectations of seeing another same-sex pairing played by the Otalia actors, Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia.  While I do favour watching some actors more than others, my interest tends to be more in specific characters and their stories. Knowing which actors will be paired for an on-screen romance amounts to a massive spoiler - and I am SO anti-being spoiled in any way.

But here I seem to be out of step with the majority of posters on the forums, who have filled long strings of topic threads speculating on future hot-romantic couplings, often enflamed by any hint of any spoiler that drops off their cyber-screens. Many fans are happy to have had their requests fulfilled with Venice's latest addition of promo/teaser clips a week in advance. But to me it just taps into a culture of never-fully-satisfied desires, where instant gratification is accelerated into the future - a place where there will always be new desires to be satisfied.  My main satisfactions come from taking more time to enjoy any (often unexpected) pleasures that I come across, by discussing what's actually IN an episode.

Hot or Not?  Desire & lesbian representation?
However, I guess I'm not totally free from the infectious giddiness of the expectation of unfulfilled desires: I had thought that FINALLY Venice would be the show that integrated lesbian and heterosexual stories while including characters of diverse ages, and not only ones who are conventionally pretty.  Yet, there seems to be a trend amongst fans, and supported by the producers of Venice, to celebrate the appearance of youthful and conventional feminine attractiveness. But for me the promise of an excess of "pretty" (as often tweeted by the Venice producers) was more a turn-off than an incentive to watch. Conventionally feminine & pretty women are not always the hottest, or the most charismatic on-screen.

Unlike many fans, I'm quite enjoying the flirtation between Gina & Tracy (played by two talented and experienced 40-something actresses, Chappell and Lesli Kay).  Many fans complain about the lack of "chemistry" between the two characters.  (Please, can that word be banished from the soap fan lexicon? Over-use breeds aversion!)  The "chemistry" can be created in the writing and directing, as much as by the actors.  Often the focus on Allan's (Michael Sabatino) story in the same scenes, sucks some heat from the Gina-Tracy flirtation.

Having seen some of the excitement that preceded the first appearance of Lara (Nadia Bjorlin) in Venice, I wonder how much the intense speculation about some (potentially hot?) pairings, eg the Ani (Jessica Leccia) & Lara one, influences people's perception?  And, in spite of my attempts to avoid speculation, did I get caught up in some of the excitement?

On first viewing, I really liked both parts of episode 9. I particularly appreciated the fact that, for the first time in Venice, we get to see a (potential) couple meet, and meet "cute" - as we are very used to in mainstream productions.  And the cuteness level is raised a little by some snappy repartee (Ani: "Do you take a Metro card?" & "I'm usually so together." Lara: "Yeah, I can see that." - the show could do with more of this).

While I tend to to be turned off by a whole cast of pretty, Lara has a major dose of it, and it is mesmerising. In episode 9 she has a strong screen presence that goes beyond a conventional feminine prettiness: it hints at a restrained but powerful personality, and a quirky kind of fun.  But, on re-watching episode 9,  I'm just not feeling a gay vibe in the Ani-Lara interactions, expecially not from Ani.  Leccia plays a very charming, down-to-earth Ani, one who successfully conveys many emotions - hurt, caring, frustration and deep attachment, for instance.  But I'm not seeing any (woman-to-woman) passion or desire in her feelings for either Gina or Lara.

US Glamour: UK 'realism' - Desire, diversity & lesbian representation?
Perhaps I'm a bit out of step with much of the Venice fan energy because I have more of a background in watching and enjoying British soaps and dramas, which lean more to 'social realism'.  US soaps have tended to focus on excessively perfect people in an enticingly glossy world. In contrast, British soaps tend to create a familar, everyday world with characters that engage because of they are very like the viewers - and with varying degrees of the 'pretty' and the 'plain'.

Hot, exciting & 'real': can we have it all?
Maybe different viewing histories at least partly explain the differences amongst lesbian and bisexual fans, in the ways we want to see lesbians portrayed on the screen?  Some want to see conventionally feminine & pretty lesbian characters, because they undermine the stereotype of 'unattractive' mannish lesbians. Others, including me, want to see lesbian characters more like ourselves and ones we know, and/or that have a less gender-conventional kind of sex appeal.  We ask, why is it that the standard idea of female attractiveness lies within traditional femininity?  When will we get more lesbian soap/drama characters with the sex appeal and/or magnestism of
 Rachel Maddow,                     or Jeanette Jenkins, or Queen Latifah.

The pilot epsiodes for the British web series Far Out,  (created, written and directed by Faye Hughes: Inner Sanctum Productions Ltd.) makes a strong contrast with Venice, in being more within the British social realist tradition.  The characters are not especially glamorous or overly pretty. I have seen them described as ugly and poorly acted on afterellen forums. However, this show has potential.  As with Venice, I like it's premise and cast of characters.

But also like Venice, the faults are more in the execution and the details of writing, directing and cinematography, than in the main ideas and stories.  I wasn't surprised to see that the Far Out actors have had more stage than screen experience. The show comes off as quite stagey, which makes it seem 'over-acted'.  But I do feel that, at least, one character has an attractive screen presence (Jen Stuart - played by Fliss Waldon - seen in the pic above leaning against the wall in a dark suit and specs), even though she isn't conventionally attractive.

On the other hand, the Far Out cast is largely young, unlike Venice with its appeal to my no-longer-very-young self. And HOW GOOD was it, to see Gina and Guya (Hillary B. Smith) playing so well off each other without a lot of  glamourising make-up and Dos?  They looked so delightfuly trashed and playful, enjoying a bit of 'everyday' fun and interaction that cuts across some genre-dependent, screen stereoptypes of women.

Some say Venice's frequent inclusion of booze and profanities jar.  They see them as an immature attempt at rebellion, unrealistic for characters of their age - throw backs to college days that they long ago left behind (ah, but weren't they some glorious times?  And did we have to leave all the pleasures and progressiveness of those days behind in order to be, what is often regarded as, staid, mature and grown-up?)  I like that the Venice creators are trying to take a little walk on the wildside rather than stick to the more conventionally femininised decorum of US soaps. And the swearing and booze don't seem out of place in my world.  Growing up is SO over-rated (and I never said I wasn't contradictory - like most people!).

So I will be interested to see how much these two very different web shows engage me in the future.


  1. Thanks for putting such a thoughtful commentary out there. Good on ya!

    Just a few quick responses.

    The demands of the Venice audience are extremely difficult to parse; they are so varied and indeed may conflict with one another. At its core, I think most of the audience wanted to recapture in new stories the sensitive, layered, and realistic portrayals that were the best of Otalia, but in a medium unconstrained by homophobia. Beyond that, do people primarily watch for the plot? The characters? The actors? The pretty? The sex? What genre of storytelling do they wish to see? All of those different expectations may set up conflicting demands. I don't think it's primarily about spoiling or not spoiling the plot.

    I think Venice affords Chappell the opportunity to dial down the conventional soap glamour, to the benefit of realism, but without a strong script to support the more naked performances, that approach is carries risks.

    Chappell can certainly bring a less "gender-conventional" performance; I think that is an intrinsic part of her.
    Helen Mirren recently said in an Advocate interview: "I think the most interesting actors are the ones who bring a mixed sexuality to the table—the male actors who have a lot of femininity in them and the actresses who have a lot of masculinity. That’s the nature of acting, in a sense: to fall somewhere in between the sexes in general." I agree completely with Mirren that these are the most interesting actors; this is certainly part of what makes Chappell compelling. However, I don't think it's about being "between the sexes," nor is necessarily about butchness, masculinity, or even androgyny. I think it's about occupying a space of constant awareness of and openness to multiple possibilities for connection and desire. I've seen awareness, tenderness, and longing in JL's performances, but I've yet to see heat. But that doesn't mean she's can't bring it in the right setting, or with a strong director. Nadia is still an unknown quantity, in my book.

    I don't mind drunken selfish immaturity either, as long as it sets up a character arc of greater self-awareness and growth. I do find the daddy issues a little tedious in a woman of Gina's age, and her kind of arrested development just isn't proving to be that dramatically interesting. To make Gina's struggles compelling, she needs more depth and complexity than she's been given. We have to see that the drunken good-time girl shtick is more than a childish pose for adolescent angst. That's been hard to pull off in the writing. I'm not sure how gendered this issue is as written - adolescent angst isn't that interesting in adult men or women, in my opinion. The disapproving, withholding father and absent mother set-up would play out similarly in fucked-up attractions to romantic partners, even if Gina were Gino, in this vision of Venice.

  2. Thanks for your comment, weltatem. Some great points – has set me thinking.

    Ah, yes I was really interested in that Helen Mirren article – e.g. that bit about Jane Tennyson of Prime Suspect actually having been based on a real life lesbian police woman. But her comments on interesting actors and openness to explore across gender/sexual boundaries were enlightening too.

    Here, transgressing gender conventions and transgressing sexual conventions tend to get interwoven. But as you say, that probably has to do with a wider openness to explore possibilities generally.

    I do feel “heat” (or a sense of sexual-romantic desire) is missing in many of the couple interactions so far in Venice, including those of Gina and Ani, and Owen and Sami, as well as (except for a brief moment) between Tracy and Gina. It IS hard to identify where the fault lies. I think it may be partly due to some of the acting, but a lot to do with the writing and the way the scenes are directed/shot. I’m also not sure how much this is due to the time constraints & doing everything in a hurry.

    I do think they could have made more of conflict to generate tensions that can quickly translate into sexual tension – an old Hollywood trick. But also there could be more use of camera work to create a sense of desiring looks: e.g. of eye-contact held for a moment too long, of gazes momentarily fixing on another’s body, integrated with camera shots that show that body in a sensual way. But that would probably have taken more camera set-ups and more time.

    In the Ani-Lara scene, I did get a sense of Lara’s gaze gravitating to Ani. The restrained movements of Lara’s body, indicates a physical awareness of Ani’s presence that suggests attraction. Ani, on the other hand, seems more self-contained, and even when she looks at Lara & has eye-contact, there seems to be no awareness of Lara’s physicality.

    On the alcohol issue, I have a relative or two who continued to have daddy & mummy issues, and sibling rivalry into their old age, deriving from childhood experiences. This was evident in their conversation more than their behaviour. So, I don’t think it’s a wrong theme for Venice, but the problem may be in the subtleties of execution – again the finer details of writing and directing. And as others have pointed out elsewhere, ep 9 tended to show that alcohol is a Bognoni issue, while Ani, Lara, and probably Sami don’t have the same excessive use of alcohol.

    As you point out, there are a range of ways viewers differ, including with actors/casting. On Destini’s Indie Intertube podcast they discussed what happens when 2 actors successfully portray a popular romantic couple, especially on soaps (?). Fans may later have difficulty accepting both appearing in a new show and not also being paired romantically. I’m probably out of step with a lot of fans, but from my viewing perspective, I would have liked to have seen some sexuality switches for one or two of the Venice actors. E.g. I would have probably cast JL as a heterosexual, and either Gina Tognoni or Hillary B. Smith as a lesbian/bi – what about GT as Ani, and JL as Sami, for instance? That would then have truly made a statement about Venice not continuing the Otalia story by proxy. But I guess it’d have pissed off a lot of fans.

  3. you did a fantastic job by posting this article it is very interesting keep it up. Webtains

  4. Nicely written and insightful observations such as the dearth of normal integrated lesbian/hetero scenes in the media.
    Julia XX