Sunday, November 14, 2010

Examining Generation, Age, and Gender Dynamics Onscreen

For reasons entirely unknown to me, I saw Morning Glory this Wednesday, its opening day. It entertained me enough, but one thing struck me in particular. It was very apparent that the centerpiece of the entire film was the dynamic between Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), a curmudgeonly, seasoned news anchor, and Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams), a spunky, over-achieving TV producer.

The focus given to this relationship was rightfully due; their push-and-pull interactions masquerading a true affection and mutual understanding were the best in the whole movie. But the dynamic's not exactly unfamiliar. Many of their characters' conversations seemed to be lifted out of 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy-Liz Lemon handbook, which of course is an homage to the Lou Grant-Mary Richards relationship of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The formula is simple: begin with one (1) Type A, over-achieving, PC, and/or workaholic younger woman entirely capable of conquering any obstacle in her life except in the realm of love or a social life. (It also helps if she has no filter.) Then, add her boss, one (1) well-groomed older man to act as a mentor and/or father figure, who criticizes the younger woman's ideals and by-the-book nature, and often accomplishes what she cannot with effortless ease. (It also helps if he is sometimes slightly offensive and/or misogynistic.) Let marinate in a plotline for 22, 44, or 100 minutes, and voila! The result is delicious.

Why, then? Why does this recipe work so well?

Ultimately, it boils down to the interaction between two utter and complete opposites, who actually benefit from their relationship, without any hint of romantic entanglements. Free of sex and dating, the dynamic can crackle with the friction of man vs. woman, old vs. young, veteran vs. rookie. And through all this back-and-forth can emerge a mutual respect, whether it be in the form of a father/daughter relationship, or in the case of Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy, "work husband/uncle" and "co-worker/little brother."

Perhaps more interesting than the "why" is the "why now?" - why is this homage to Mary Tyler Moore emerging as a popular dynamic to portray on screen?
In addition to the emergence of 30 Rock and Morning Glory, we saw a similar rapport between Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) in last year's critical darling Up in the Air.

It's perhaps easiest to answer "why now?" by examining the dynamics using the concept of the "generation gap." Movies about generation gaps are nothing new; but each one is specific to the generation of context. Now, we're starting to get movies about the
Millennial Generation, as they enter adulthood. Previously, we've seen a lot of Generation X (born 1961-1981). Gen X seemed to display a certain amount of angst about interacting with society and their elders, due to growing up in the shadow of the Vietnam Conflict, economic crises, the negative swing of recreational drug use, and the rise of broken families. Gen X is casually referred to as the MTV Generation, and usually gave way to stories of youthful rebellion and dealing with feelings of isolation.

But then the Internet came along and assured young people that they're certainly not alone in their growing pains. The Internet shaped Millennials, and connected members of this new generation in a way that helped to remove some of the drama of interacting with society. We're understood! We have AIM and fan forums! Other people 'ship Draco and Hermione too! We're not alone! We don't need to crank up "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and wallow in detached solitude! Thanks, Internet!

Okay, that was a huge (but kind of necessary) aside. Let me continue, on topic.

In the case of Natalie Keener (Up in the Air) and Becky Fuller (Morning Glory), both young women are products of the Millennial Generation. Millennials, or Generation Y, are characteristically jettisoned into the workplace with an absurd amount of optimism and new ideas about the ability of technology and innovation to change an industry. Working with a Millennial Kid is probably the most annoying thing to an aging Baby Boomer or even a Gen X-er. (Especially because Millennials are freakishly proud of being Millennials. If you were born between 1982-1995, you are a Millennial; and if you said "HELL YES I AM!" when you read that, then you just proved my point. Still, high five!)

We saw a Millennial-Baby Boomer dynamic a few years back in the Dennis Quaid-Topher Grace 2004 movie In Good Company. That part was interesting enough. But, replace Topher Grace's character with a woman, and you're golden (and more aligned with the topic of this entry). Millennial Feminism is a different breed than Boomer Feminism. Boomer Feminism struggled for equality and the eradication of discrimination. There was a lot of bra burning. But Millennial Feminism has moved forward, and is tackling the power of choice and the female "image." We're now operating on the basic established concept that Boomer Feminists fought for: that a woman is equipped with all the same workplace ability as a man and should therefore be treated no differently than a man.

Liz Lemon and Mary Richards, being embedded as a Boomer and a Gen X-er, bridge all the traits of Boomer Feminism and Millennial Feminism. It's even perhaps because of Mary's influence that Millennial Feminism even happened, and Liz's contributions that Millennial Feminism is reinforced. (I can't be the only one who watches 30 Rock every Thursday night and wonders if Liz Lemon is my spirit animal, can I?)

However, the world is still adjusting to the concepts put forth by Boomer Feminism (really, World?) and the Boomer Bosses in Lou Grant, Jack Donaghy, Mike Pomeroy, and Ryan Bingham like to poke holes in the idealism of their younger co-workers. Mary, Liz, Becky, and Natalie still have a lot to learn, despite their college educations and stringent ideals about the corporate world.

Of course, the most genius part of it all is the classic "we're not so different after all!" wherein the two parties realize they understand one another far more than they originally thought. The Liz Lemons realize they've come to rely on the advice of the Jack Donaghys, and the Ryan Binghams discover they've learned a lesson from the Natalie Keeners. Then you get a relationship something like a bittersweet chocolate - yes, they fight, but there's a real respect there. Even better than that, neither character (or generation) is 100% right or 100% wrong. Their relationship is a discussion, not a statement. And that's just the classic hallmark of good storytelling.

In short, the best movies strive to reflect the current sociology through cultural examination. And what better way to tap into the zeitgeist by creating two opposing characters who have been shaped by their differing environments, and then forcing them to play nice?

The reason the Mary Richards-Lou Grant dynamic is interesting again is that it has found new relevance. It is feminism effectively applied to the delicate overlap in which Boomers and Millennials are interacting in the workplace, and results in fascinating and relevant conflicts. Perhaps no two generations are ripe for squabble like Boomers and Millennials, and those creative Hollywood types are wise to capitalize on that. And no one ever gets tired of a man and a woman arguing - as fans of EVERY SITCOM EVER can attest.

I have to say, it's really one of the closest things to storytelling perfection these days. In each of the four works discussed, that particular character dynamic is easily the show-stealer. And if you were to change any little detail, it just throws the relationships completely off-balance. What if the woman were the boss? What if they were the same gender? What if they were similar ages, or from similar backgrounds? What if feminism were not even on the table? Or the worst - what if you introduced sex into the mix? Well, then you're - well, you're screwed. The whole thing would just be ruined, and Mary Richards would want a word. Sorry, Jack/Liz shippers!

Phew. Thanks for reading, nerds! If you made to this point, I salute you. You have spunk, and I love spunk.


  1. So much truth in this hurr post! I venture that we find Baby Boomers as annoying as they find us. Presumably because they are usually our parents.

    Boomer is a funny word. It looks AND sounds funny.

    Clearly I have nothing brilliant to add. I know you're right but I don't watch enough of this kind of tv (or these movies) to be able to contribute meaninfully. :B

  2. Discussing generations is fascinating to me now! I didn't really mean to turn this post into a discourse on it but WHOOPS IT HAPPENED ANYWAY. Hee!



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