Open challenge to nerdy male writers: love an actual woman, not a fantasy.
Season Two of Master or None was deliciously binge-able. There were so many inventive moments. Portraying a deaf woman’s storyline in total silence? Brilliant! Watching an African-American queer woman journey out of the closet through a series of Thanksgivings? So touching and well-drawn! Both Aziz Ansari and his character Dev take pains to understand the lives of human beings other than themselves- a refreshing contrast to most auteur-driven shows that generally star hilarious but wearyingly narcissistic protagonists. It is in that context that the love story between Dev and Francesca is all the more disappointing. For although Dev meets a diverse array of women this season, in the end, as for so many male heroes, the heart wants what it wants: an insouciant white lady. Sigh.
Silly dream girls constantly replace authentic women in Hollywood’s romantic imagination. It’s one of the most tenacious of all the millions of sexisms we take for granted in film and television. I know that most men never tire of awkward, physically goofy guys getting models, (thanks again, Judd Apatow!), but women actually do.
If I were to update the acronym Manic Pixie Dream Girl, it would be Insouciant White Dream Girl, for aren’t they always white, even and especially when the dude isn’t? Perhaps dream girls need to be white because their minds can’t be cluttered with dreary annoying concepts like “racism” or “having rights.” I don’t need to add Beautiful or Thin because if a dream girl weren’t those two things, that would OPPRESS MEN. The “girl” part feels particularly relevant in this case, as the character Francesca is astoundingly infantile.
Much like my five-year old niece, she likes giggling, throwing leaves, jumping up and down, and dancing in her underwear. Like my niece, she is delighted by the all the colorful choices available in a pharmacy, and may even eat laxatives because they taste chocolatey.
Because she is lusciously foreign, Francesca’s grasp of English is so adorably inept, it’s hard to tell if she’s stupid or just too new to the language for us to glean the hidden depth of her soul. So we get to enjoy her exuberance at the most basic objects without admitting straight up:
We like stupid women. We like women who are happy 99% of the time. We like women who giggle more than they think. We like beauty more than anything else about a woman because beauty is magic and makes us feel so happy.
Like Madison the Mermaid of Splash, Francesca is filled with joyous wonder at everything. Having spent her life in a small old town in Italy, she has nary a bad word to say about America, suggesting she never read a newspaper. Like, ever. She prefers saying grown up words like “sex” and “kiss” and even “blowjob!” — and then giggling. When she can’t sleep, she doesn’t fret! She doesn’t go on Facebook! She does a silly dance party in an oversized man-shirt that twirls up to her underwear! Whee!
How does she look in her underwear, you ask? A-FUCKING-MAZING. Francesca is pretty much the most beautiful woman in the entire world, and that is why he loves her, and that means stunning beauty still counts as the best reason to really fall in love with a person, if that person is female. Member that super interesting African-American woman Dev met in Italy in episode one? Why couldn’t she have come back? Wouldn’t that have been more plausible? Dev isn’t twenty-two. He’s thirty. He’s smart and hilarious and unique. But he still doesn’t need his female companion to be. We are told (repeatedly) that Francesca is “funny,” but.. is she? Cause she laughs at his jokes and kinda copies them? I suppose that’s good enough to pass for funny because did I mention how gorgeous she looks in that dress that’s part-bra? Or how her smile is so wide and radiant it could almost make you forget democracy is hanging by a thread here?
Let’s contrast Dev’s trajectory with the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, where Rachel Bloom is obsessively in love with Josh Chan. Like Francesca, Josh is a gorgeous ding-dong, far inferior in depth and intelligence to the protagonist. But that’s like the WHOLE point of the show. There is an assumed dysfunction embedded in Rachel’s romantic choice- it doesn’t make sense that she would be with someone who is merely hunky. So the comedy of the show is dedicated to exploring the perverse logic of her taste, through examining Rachel’s neurosis, and also in the show’s meta-analysis of popular culture at large. Would that Dev had some self-awareness around his limitations. We simply have not yet arrived at a place in the culture where we think to question a man who prizes female beauty above all else.
(Louis CK’s character once gave an awesome fat girl a chance to speak her mind about this, but he lacked the imagination to actually go on a date with her).
There is one moment in Master of None where Dev’s friend reminds him that an actual relationship with Francesca would have been a “shitshow.” This is clearly true when one imagines how Francesca would fare during grown up activities like paying bills or attending a funeral (she would put on incredible designer glasses and pout during the former — ultimately leading to the power being turned off, and she would run into the bathroom and do a goofy dance at the funeral — even if Dev really cared about the dead person. Heck, he’d probably love it. Who doesn’t love a woman who shows you that nothing in life is ever serious! That’s why women exist- to lighten it all up!). In the two instances where the men in Francesca’s life try to speak to her authentically, both times she runs away. No can expressy feelings like adult-y. She’s essentially a child trapped in an impossibly glamorous woman’s body — a woman so thin she may make pasta, but can never eat it.
Oh shut up! you say. So Dev got wrapped up in a little magical fantasy- what’s wrong with that? Why must I always care about sexism? Fair, fair. I’m going to shut up in like two paragraphs.
The problem is that, as Virginia Woolf pointed out so many year ago, sexism adversely affects art. (Could the fact that both Louis and Aziz have been accused of different forms of sexual misconduct be connected to the sexism in their art?)
In this case of this show, it rendered an important story line unrealistic and boring. At least for me, a heterosexual cissy female. For people like me, (and there’s a lot of us!), montages of pretty ladies don’t do much other than undermine our famously robust self-esteems. We just can’t identify. Our hearts don’t ache along with Dev’s because… who cares? Why does he like such a dum dum? We like men who are interesting and smart or weird. We’re not thinking about having sex with Francesca and being thusly lulled along. I was mostly just wondering how a small-town pasta maker could afford such amazing clothes. Unlike every other thing about this groundbreaking season, that plot line could not hold my attention. I wanted more for Dev. And for me.
The unexamined conviction that (classic, white, model-y) beauty is all that is required for a compelling love story needs to be examined. More art by women will automatically help this project. But I’m also still rooting for male artists to open their minds a little bit. Come over here to the land of female complexity, fellas! The water’s fine.