‘American Woman’ is clueless in its portrayal of mid-century womanhood
It has been 23 years since the world was first introduced to Alicia Silverstone as the plaid-clad, “as if” spouting star of the cult classic movie “Clueless.” Since then, she has largely kept out of the spotlight, every so often featuring in small screen and big screen productions that don’t garner vast public attention. Now Silverstone is making an attempt at a comeback, starring as trophy wife Bonnie Nolan in the period dramedy “American Woman.”
Taking place in the ‘70s amidst the rise of second wave feminism, the series is loosely based on the childhood of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Kyle Richards, who is an executive producer of the show. Yet the drama and excitement that makes “Real Housewives” and Richards’ life in particular such riveting, guilty television, is notably absent from “American Woman.”
There is nothing particularly moving or interesting about “American Woman” or the characters in it. The first episode is mostly a set-up for the season, revealing that Nolan’s real estate mogul husband Steve (James Tupper, “Big Little Lies”) is having an affair. This results in a truly shocking realization for her: It’s hard for women in the ‘70s to become financially independent. If done right, this tale of a woman overcoming adversity to become a fully autonomous woman in an era that longed to keep women trapped in the domestic sphere could be inspiring, but in “American Woman,” it is often bland and cliché.
It should be no surprise then that this milquetoast story meant to center empowered women was written almost entirely by men. The program was created by John Wells (“Shameless”) and John Riggi (“30 Rock”), an interesting factoid given it was recently discovered that fewer women run big companies than men named John.
Bonnie Nolan is the exact type of starring woman a man would create. Her most prominent trait is her husband’s, and there is little to no depth added to her character with the exception of the small mention of a past passion for acting. Nolan is charming and spunky, but there is nothing about her that would warrant a role as an archetype for the typical woman in this nation. If you’re going to create a show meant to capture the essence of the quintessential, strong American woman, maybe you should in fact be an American woman.
The most redeeming quality about “American Woman” is its time period setting. The ‘70s sets the aesthetic of the show and is core to its perhaps unintentional message.
In regard to the aesthetic, the ‘70s fashion, interior design and pop culture is a bright touch to an otherwise drab half-hour of television. Yet the more impactful use of the ‘70s comes from the fact that looking at the way women were treated, some things have stayed generally the same.
In the beginning of the episode, Nolan’s husband scoffs at the idea of equal pay and women in the workplace, stating that he thinks “you women have it pretty good.” Later Bonnie’s friend Diana (Jennifer Bartels, “Broken”) talks about how she thought her five years at a bank would lead to a promotion, but instead she cries in the bathroom everyday and is told by her boss how nice her tits are.
In 2018, women on average make 20% less than a man in a comparable position, with the biggest gap between minority women and white men. With the surge of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment is at the forefront of the public eye, and finally, men are beginning to see just how persistent sexual harassment and assault in the workplace is.
As all of this happens, not just in America but in nations everywhere, it seems unnecessary to turn to a television show to watch a woman overcoming all odds. Instead, all one must do is pull their eyes away from the screen, and look around.