SASSY YOUNG WOMEN IN 1970s PRESTIGE DRAMAS THE DEUCE AND MINDHUNTER
I've noticed a trend in prestige TV lately. All of the sudden, I’m seeing sassy, well educated younger women all over the place (in shows set in the 1970s.)
The Deuce, created by David Simon (of The Wire) for HBO, was my first exposure. In The Deuce, James Franco plays twins: a good twin and a bad twin, to be precise. The good twin is a mustachioed barman who leaves his floozy wife and begins to flourish as an entrepreneur under the guidance of the local mafia dudes in 1970s Times Square. He gets set up in his own bar, and he immediately sparks with a young woman named Abbi, played by Margarita Levieva. We first meet Abbi at NYU, where she’s banging professors and sparkling as a sexy, intelligent young woman. Abbi is probably 18 or 19, and she promptly drops out of school after her friends leave her hanging when she tries to score some speed for midterm studying. The sleazy cop who arrests her takes her to Franco’s bar, and the two hit it off.
Abbi finds herself in need of a job, and after a stalled attempt at telemarketing, she ends up in Franco’s bar again. Happy to see her, he gladly offers her a job and a leotard to go with it. Bippity boppity boo, these two start getting down in the Biblical sense. Abbi begins to learn about the dark side of Times Square. She attempts to intervene in the life of one of the prostitutes, only to have it backfire when the woman comes back from the trip home that Abbi paid for, having used it as a recruiting trip to ensnare an innocent young woman. Abbi clashes with the local pimps, bonds with the gay bartender, and brings hip music talent into the bar.
Abbi seems as if she’s above all of this—she has a real sense of privilege that keeps her insulated from most of her decisions. At any time, she could go back to school, or back to her parents in their palatial Connecticut estate. Her time in the bar among the prostitutes is only a sojourn, a semester abroad, and her romance with Franco is the fling she’ll look back on when she’s all grown up. She plays with Franco like a cat plays with a delectable mouse, constantly using her intellect and background as both a weapon and a lure.
Late in the season, she borrows a dress from another prostitute she’s trying to help, and brings Franco to a soiree at her parent’s estate. Franco is under-dressed in his cool guy leather jacket, and Abbi luxuriates in the revealing whore dress, ready to shock her parents with her inappropriate choices. To their credit, her parents are nice to Franco and recognize her acting out for what it is: the tantrum of a spoiled brat. Given every advantage, and now learning about the way the bottom half lives, Abbi is keen to show off her rebelliousness to all. At the end of the season, she and Franco agree to move in together, but there is a The Graduate moment of dull regret and anticipation of worse to come as they lie in bed in the closing montage.
Another period piece, Mindhunter on Netflix, is also set in the 1970s and features a sassy young, educated woman. Hannah Gross plays Debbie Mitford, a confident young post-grad at University of Virginia. She picks up the main character, FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff, current star of my fantasies), at a bar. She clocks him for a narc, teases him about sociological theory, and negs him mercilessly about his square attire. Before you know it, she’s lured him back to her apartment to smoke weed and be belittled.
She sees him as the ultimate square, and is constantly finding ways to push his boundaries. She teases him about his lack of kink, telling him that if he thinks going down on her is kinky, then he is stupid. (This show has a number of scenes that feature her receiving oral pleasures—it’s almost like 1) she knows baiting him that way will lead to more cunnilingus and 2) the showrunners feel like they have to balance all the horrible sexual violence with an act that is focused on female pleasure.) (To which I say, bravo to all involved.)
Debbie is definitely one up on Holden: she knows more, she’s experienced more, and she’s better educated. She’s definitely not housewife material. In my favorite scene, she catches him ironing his shirts at her place and is genuinely astounded that he found an ironing board. She pushes him constantly, strapping on high heels and lingerie after he’s chatted with one of the serial killers about heels and women’s panties for men. Toward the end of the season, he catches her with her fellow grad student, and it seems as though they’re going to break up. But he finds his way back to her.
Abbi and Debbie are basically sisters. They both are beautiful, confident, and styled the same, right down to the mane of wavy brunette hair. They serve the same function: to bridge the cultural gap for the slightly older male characters. It makes sense, to a certain extent, that both shows need these female ambassadors. Franco’s character in The Deuce is married and missed the 1960s completely, mostly due to class. He wasn’t a part of the free love experience—he had money to earn and mouths to feed (and neglect emotionally).
Holden Ford is 29 when the show starts in 1977—old enough to have lived through most of the seismic cultural changes but somehow insulated from them by his upbringing and his nature. In a later episode, Debbie and Holden discuss mask theory, and Holden states that he would wear his plain clothes uniform even without societal pressure. He seems a born FBI agent.
What’s uninteresting about this is the age mismatch. We’ve been conditioned to accept the age differences. Franco is probably ten years older than Abbi (if not older). Holden is probably five or more years older than Debbie. This is all boilerplate sexual dynamics. (In Mindhunter, the other female character is a lesbian paired with a much older lover.)
But what they lack in age they make up for in education. Both use their education as a cudgel against men, and hey, more power to them! Considering that higher ed was basically closed to women until the 1960s, these women have earned the right to do so. I would argue that Debbie and Holden have a more adversarial relationship around education. Franco does not seemed worried about his lack of education, but Holden is irritated a bit. Similarly, both women flirt with men of their age, class, and educational status, and in Abbi’s case, it seems to be mostly to fuck with Franco’s head a little bit.
Both women are sexually dominant, or at least control the dynamic sexually before the act itself. Countless scenes in Mindhunter take place with Holden’s head between Debbie’s thighs as she teases or schools him. (Also: yes, show!) Abbi keeps Franco at arm’s length before they consummate. There is a narrative need in both shows for this power dynamic. In The Deuce, most of the female characters are prostitutes, turning tricks and being dominated by their pimps. In Mindhunter, most of the female characters are corpses. It’s good to have one lady in charge sexually. I could also write a whole thesis on their hair color: sassy intellectualism is a brunette’s bread and butter.
So what ultimate purpose do they serve? I can’t help but identify a trend among 1970s set prestige dramas. If anything, they are like (NERD ALERT) opposite Doctor Who companions. In Doctor Who, the usually female, usually young, usually Earth-ian (okay, I know it’s Terran, but I’m feigning ignorance) companion acts as an audience surrogate. She gives the Doctor someone to explain things to. These bright young brunettes perform the opposite function: they explain things to the older man. They can act as a guide through a culture that might confuse the main character. They pack the bowl, handle the lighter, and pull the bowl out of the stem. All that’s left is to inhale.