I'm doing a rewatch of Veep, and I'm at 2×08 which is always where I start feeling really uncomfortable about how the show treats Amy. There's that scene where Janet Ryland's producer gets REALLY aggressive with Amy, and then Mike and Dan swoop in to mansplain Amy's anger away. It's an uncomfortable scene, and I'm always torn between wondering if the sexist writing around Amy started here or if it was meant to show that kind of misogyny in Amy's world, but deliberately not addressing it further.
I hesitate to get too emphatic about this, but I tend to think it’s the latter, mostly because of how Ianucci has depicted sexism in other works.
There’s a scene in the final series of the Thick of It that made my skin crawl the first time I watched it. An economist has come in to meet with the Minister and his advisor to discuss a social entrepreneur fund (or something). She’s a young, pretty woman, and all the way through the meeting the way both men react to that is just…uncomfortable.
Not, I should say, because they’re being overtly horrible – there are very few people out there as unpleasant as Jonah after all – they’re actually attempting (very poorly) to be nice. And yet, they can’t stop touching her.
It was one of the more accurate scenes I’ve witnessed of what is like being a woman in the world. Because while dealing with the Jonahs of this world is upsetting, it’s those interactions – the “are they being gross or socially awkward, I may never know, or may only know when it’s too late to put a stop to it” – that create that low-level but constant sense of anxiety (at least, in my experience).
Similarly, it really stuck out to me how the script in The Death of Stalin treated sexual violence. Because, on one level, the script cannot stop talking about it – it is emphasised and re-emphasised to us that these men have abused their power by coercing sex, that rape is a constant in their world – and yet the question of WHY they do this, what the drive is, is never examined in any real sense.
So what I think you get with Iannucci is someone who goes to some trouble to depict sexism and how it limits women’s lives, and yet simultaneously maybe isn’t all that interested in sexism as a subject. It may be that he considers it a matter more of realism than anything else.
And I think, as a general rule, we’re more used to sexism being underlined as BAD by our entertainment, on the rare occasions people make the effort to engage with it. Take Mad Men, for instance – it depicted horrific treatment of women, but as a general I don’t think the audience was ever in any doubt as to whether the behaviour they were seeing was INTENDED to be reprehensible or not.
Whereas Iannucci’s approach is a lot more passive. That is an episode I have some problems with mind you, because while Mike is useless, I cannot believe that both Dan and Amy are so incompetent that they didn’t think to prep Selina – and even more so Catherine (who should have been given some kind of media training years ago) – for difficult questions that might come up. Even if they did have an agreement with the producers – which isn’t THAT unusual – any media person worth their salt would still prep an answer, just in case.
And I think some of the producer’s lines to Amy are SO obnoxious that they strain credibility a bit – especially as he says them in front of other people – perhaps he thought he could get away with it because the Hughes administration was a lame duck by that point, but it’s living dangerously. If he pisses off Amy too much he can kiss goodbye to any access to Selina Meyer in the future, which might be a mistake if she ever, I don’t know, becomes President. It would be more believable to me if he saved his real awfulness with Amy for when they were alone – the way we’ve seen with Leon, who is a hell of a lot more aggressive with Amy in that one scene where they’re alone in season 5 than we’ve ever seen him be with anyone else, including Selina, who he supposedly loathes.
But I don’t think Dan or Mike’s behaviour is out of character given the stakes involved in the interview – rushing to smooth things over and silence the angry woman seems depressingly predictable to me. If anything, it reminds me of that awful Arrested Development interview. And I’d say Dan at least was aware that Amy’s anger was legitimate – he physically pulls her away from the producer (which is obnoxious, because no way does he have the right to get all grabby-mac-manhandling with her at that point – Mike or Gary would NEVER get that physical with her), but notice how he also KEEPS touching her while he’s talking her down? And not in the “getting physically close to manipulate you” way we saw earlier in the show – he does genuinely seem to be trying to soothe her (which, in a neat bit of character continuity, is something we actually see him to do quite a lot as the show goes on, especially in season four – one wonders if it’s something the actors have discussed, because I would imagine it’s almost entirely subconscious on Dan’s part). (Whether or not Amy’s anger SHOULD be soothed away is a whole other question – female rage being so often de-legitimised not matter what the cause – but somehow I doubt either of them wanted to get into that larger feminist discussion at that time).
Now, it does seem to me that for someone who depicts sexist worlds with some degree of precision, Iannucci is incredibly reluctant to allow his female characters to actually TALK about it. I mean, DAN gets more lines condemning sexual assault than any female character – and he’s also far more overtly appalled by Selina being groped in Finland than either Amy or Selina are. His reaction isn’t massively distinct from Gary’s to be honest. (I think I know the reason for this – with how gross Dan’s treatment of women is implied to be, I think they gave him those lines to establish that he did have SOME standards when it came to sexual behaviour – if you want people to root for Dan and Amy to get together, in any sense, you want to make it REALLY clear that Dan’s arrogance and entitlement does not extend to being sexually abusive. That said, some of the lines come up in very unexpected places – to Tom James of all people – which makes them stick out more than I think they’re meant to).
For instance, we’ve not ONCE heard Amy express feelings about how Jonah treats her. Which, while the crucial power element is mostly lacking there, it seems to me that Jonah’s relentless pursuit of Amy in at least the first three seasons comes very close to out and out sexual harassment. Like, when does Amy get to say NO and have him respect it? (I am in two minds as to whether Jonah would be capable of sexual assault – I’m absolutely certain that Dan isn’t – but he definitely seems like the kind of man who would be oblivious of how intimidating his physical presence could be to a much smaller woman. At the same time, he lacks any real desire for dominance – his ideal seems to be a woman who sleeps with him, bosses him around all the time and occasionally lets him cuddle her, which would explain his attraction to both Amy and Shawnee).
Whatever else though, I think it’s fair to say that the subtlety of Iannucci’s approach to all of this did not persist when he left – for evidence look at the different way Iannucci and Mandel have people use the word ‘shrill’ (an incredibly loaded word when it comes to women) about Amy.
On the other hand, I sometimes get the feeling that it’s Amy’s increased openness to relationships and children that really bothers people in Mandel’s writing, which is a position I very much disagree with. Romantic relationships and motherhood are experiences most – not all – but most women go through st some point in their lives, and I think it’s imperative to find ways to talk about these things that acknowledge the realities of women’s experiences.
For what it’s worth what really bothers me about how they’ve written Amy is how her role in the political plot in season 6 was whittled down (the decision to prioritise Jonah and Dan’s stories is…let’s call it a loaded one), and how consistently her supposed lack of acceptably feminine qualities (like charm and a soft voice and absence of ambition and ESPECIALLY sexiness) is morally equates by the show (in Mandel’s years) with, say, Jonah’s raging entitlement and irresponsibility or Dan’s cold-blooded selfishness. That seems an EXTREMELY gendered assessment to me, and one that Iannucci did NOT make. (I also hated the way they gave Selina lines about having had abortions in season 6, with the clear intent of implying that she was a bad person. Any women who avoids having Andrew Meyer’s baby seems to me to be making a responsible choice). (In case you’re wondering, I LOATHED the film Nocturnal Animals with every fibre of my being).