A retro game of Old Maid
In the world of tween tv, most adults are complete idiots. That’s a given. And it makes sense — many adults are complete idiots, especially when viewed through the unforgiving eyes of adolescents. More importantly, like all tv shows, tween programs draw in viewers by providing vicarious fantasy lives and opportunities for identification, and for most fans of TeenNick and Disney, who are struggling to gain independence, a world without parents, teachers or other authority figures seems like a pretty good place to be. Thus in these shows, parents are generally absent, but since teens and tweens are forced to spend so much of their time in school, teachers and principals still inhabit their world and exhibit tendencies toward both tyranny and incompetence. But no figure is more vilified in teen tv than the Single Professional Woman. And that’s pretty disturbing considering that while few of the viewers will be secret rock stars, fifteen-year-old vice presidents of fashion design companies, stars of their own internet show or members of a hit tv comedy troupe, many — maybe even most — will one day be single professional women. And that can’t be something they look forward to if they watch most shows on Nick or Disney.
On Disney, there’s Miss Emma Tutweiler of The Suite Life on Deck, a teacher on a semester-at-sea type cruise ship. Like most SPWs, she takes her job way too seriously, particularly in her attachments to her students, even those who clearly see her as a joke. In one episode, A+ student Bailey breaks up with her boyfriend and is so distraught, her friend London is driven to consult the ineffectual Miss Tutweiler for advice. She eagerly invites them to her cabin way, way, way below deck, where “rats are not a problem” because it is filled to capacity with cats, one for every nasty breakup Miss T’s suffered — and there are more cats in unseen rooms. Miss Tutweiler encourages them to join in her breakup ritual of eating ice cream from the carton and dressing up her cats for a fashion show. Even the preternaturally brainless London recognizes that this is not just lame, but horrifically pathetic, and drags Bailey back to the deck filled with normal people, lest Bailey become as hopelessly lovelorn and catmired as Miss Tutweiler.
In the time-honored tradition, many of these SPWs have cats that they are devoted to. Another redheaded cat-addled teacher on Disney is Miss Joy Bitterman (get it?), played by Newsradio‘s Vicky Lewis (below — no photo was available online of Erin Cardillo as Miss Tutweiler, though apparently some nude pictures are available). The set teacher for the young comedy troupe on Sonny with a Chance, Ms. Bitterman insists on having all suitors approved by her ferocious orange tabby, Mr. Mittens. It is clear that this is her primary relationship.
If a girl thinks she can escape the fate of the dorky spinster by avoiding the teaching profession, she’s out of luck. Nick’s iCarly, which was just featured on ABC’s Nightline as “the show America’s kids are turning to” certianly has its share of twisted teachers. There’s the bagpipe- and Randy Jackson-obsessed martinet Ms. Francine Briggs, played by Mindy Sterling (from the Austin Powers movies), as well as the psychotic Miss Lauren Ackerman, who weeps over men in her classroom and assigns them too much homework when her heart is broken. And we learn her heart deserves to be broken when she dates Carly’s brother Spencer and becomes so clingy Carly and the gang have to have the FBI haul her away for illegally downloading music on the “Pear pod” she bought for Spencer after a few dates.
But on iCarly, an otherwise fine show, there are plenty of other SPWs to warn us of the psychologically perilous life of a successful woman with no man. Marissa Benson, played by MadTV‘s Mary Scheer, a part-time nurse and single mom, she has no life other than fretting over Freddie by vacuuming his ears and giving him a weekly tick bath, insisting he wear “cloud block” (pictured below!) every time he goes outside, and even had a microchip implanted in him in infancy so she would always know where he is (and this proved twice to be very useful). Younger but perhaps more obnoxious, Candace showed up in the “iWon’t Cancel the Show episode” as a rare professional adult willing to dat Carly’s brother, Spencer. (Though in his mid-twenties and Carly’s guardian, Spencer is the sort of overgrown adolescent any kid would want to have in charge of them, as he makes spaghetti tacos, tends to blow stuff up, quit law school and now works as a sculptor, all managing to somehow pay the rent on a a ginormous two-story apartment with no job.) Candace showed up to dinner dressed for work, tried to talk endlessly about mushroom tartlets, and failed to be gracious when she learned that Spencer kept abandoning her at the dinner table because he was helping Carly and Freddie with their show by dressing as “Baby Lumpley” ijn a pram while his sister, dressed in a nanny uniform, force-fed him with a large spoon. She left in a huff, having been splattered by Baby Lumpley’s “creamed fish” and all were relieved that Spencer dodged the bullet of adult responsibility by proxy. Because nothing is more boring, and more treacherous, than an educated woman with a job, apparently.
Now, I really like iCarly, though I fear it’s jumped the shark (or beave-coon) this season. It’s well written and the kids have excellent comic timing, and I think that right now Nick’s True Jackson, VP with its SPW killjoy Amanda Cantwell, might be the funniest thing on TV. But I have to wonder about the message that is being sent to young viewers. who see unmarried (though presumably heterosexual) professional women portrayed as manhungry, bitter, and unfuflilled losers. I could list so many more such characters on these networks — even the always fabulous Heather Locklear played a bitter divorced mom who had no time for Miley’s dad’s country charm (or hair) on Hannah Montana. In the nineteenth century, women considering college (or much education beyond the basics) were warned that their ovaries would shrink if their brains were too stimulated, and we’re all familiar, thanks to Betty Friedan, with the stultifying results of following Hollywood’s proscription of the ideal female role after World War II. As a kid growing up in the 70s, I was “free to be you and me” and taught that my potential was limitless. I worry that this might not be apparent to girls watching these shows today, who at the very least are getting a mixed message from their moms and the shows that depict working single women as so joyless and bitter. I hope they see their futures in a better light in the real world.