Now that it’s streaming on Netflix, I’ve been watching THE TWILIGHT ZONE for the first time. (I had a deprived childhood.) The show has had a big impact on the SF community for decades, like a grandfather who used to hold big barbecues at his house. I’m meeting him for the first time, and I’m finding my reactions are often different than those who watched the show when it first aired or who watched the show on reruns.
The show’s casual sexism is often painful to watch. So far, only three episodes have had female protagonists, and both of those women were dreadfully passive. The first is an aging actress who hides in her home theater because she can’t face the fact that she’s getting old. She never manages to leave. The second is a woman who drives cross-country and keeps encountering the same hitch-hiker. She never does anything except drive away from him and beg for help from strangers. (A strange man makes you nervous, so you go into hysterics and beg for help from OTHER strange men. Huh. Logic.)
Many episodes have no women in them whatsoever. Other episodes have women who poke their noses in long enough to show us a nurse’s uniform or a waitress’s apron or a mother’s serving fork. These women take orders from the menfolk and vanish again. In one arresting moment of hijkinks, a wife bops a bad guy with her car door in defense of her husband, but that’s all the action the women get.
For our third female protagonist, we get a special introduction. At the end of an episode, Rod Serling appears on the screen and announces that some viewers had pointed out he wasn’t “at my strongest when writing scripts for women.” (It’s nice to know this was an actual issue back then.) The next episode, he figured, would prove that wrong.
The next episode (“Mirror Image”) is about a woman who, while waiting at a bus station, begins to realize a parallel universe doppelganger of herself is trying to take her place. The episode starts well. We have a female protagonist. She realizes things are getting strange, and she actually investigates. She asks questions of the people around her and uses logic to figure out what’s going on. Go her! Go Rod! But it doesn’t last. Halfway through the episode, a man shows up and offers to help her. He follows her around the station, and when the woman actually spots her doppelganger on a bus, what happens? She faints into the man’s arms. Eventually, we discover that man thinks she’s crazy. He calls the police, who swoop in and take her away. Then a doppelganger of the man shows up. What does the man do? He chases his doppelganger through the streets. Rod, Rod, Rod. You said you could do a script for a woman, but you have her faint at the sight of her antagonist, while the man chases his bad guy. Like I’ve said before, period piece.
We do have two female villains. A ballbusting wife relentlessly abuses her milqetoast husband because he likes to read (and there’s a hint she’s a man-hating lesbian). Another woman is a murderous vixen.
The women in the show do get short shrift. You have to remind yourself that it’s 1959 and you can’t expect better from such unenlightened people, so let’s go watch a rerun of a recent tape in which our president-elect says he can grab women by the crotch because he’s famous.
–Steven Harper Piziks