by Linda Holmes
I love, love, love nerd television. And I specifically often love nerd television from the History Channel (which is now just History, but ... whatever). They probably sent out a lot of screeners of their new show, America: The Story Of Us, and I'm probably one of a relatively small number of critics who sat down on a Saturday to watch it.
The show, which bows tomorrow night (Sunday), is a fairly old-fashioned piece of History programming, combining reenactments with voice-overs, adding context from interviews with scholars, politicians, and celebrities. The first hour, "Rebels," covers the founding of the colonies up through the beginning of the Revolutionary War. It's mostly a military/political history, much more concerned with the process of politically separating from England than with the development of the early American society, and as such, I wasn't particularly surprised that there were very, very, very few women mentioned or seen in the entire first hour.
It was also pretty clear that they were taking care to tell the story of the early African-Americans who participated in the building of the colonies and also fought in the militias. And that, of course, is a good thing.
But as I got to the end, and Brian Williams offered his comments about our national character, I thought to myself ... wait a minute. Were any of those celebrity talking heads women? Because if you're telling the story of a military battle, then I understand why I'm mostly looking at men in the reenactments. But if people are commenting on the character of the nation, then ... less so.
So, feeling like exactly the no-fun bean-counter I look forward to never needing to be someday, I went back and counted, and indeed, there are fourteen people seen in that first hour commenting on history and its meaning, and on how the United States came to be, and about what kinds of people the early Americans were, and so forth -- and only one of them, author and Rutgers professor Annette Gordon-Reed, was a woman.
There was room for Donald Trump. There was room for Michael Douglas. There was room for both Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. There was room for Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams. (Again, they did somewhat better including African-Americans than women, including Gordon-Reed as well as Henry Louis Gates and Colin Powell.)
But there was room only for that one woman.
The full story, after the jump.
I pulled out the "talent list" that History sent, which lists all 58 people who apparently participated in these interviews for the entire 12-hour series. Fourteen of those are women, which is almost one-fourth. So it presumably won't be quite as lopsided as 13 to one in future episodes.
Still, pardon me if I don't get all excited about one-fourth. What, exactly, is the explanation for a list of -- as History calls them -- "Historians And Notable Americans" that's slanted that far in one direction? That's massively lopsided, statistically speaking; if you started with a group that represented the population, that's the equivalent of ankling half the women and replacing them with more men.
Moreover, ten of the 14 women they included -- Margaret Cho, Meryl Streep, Rosanne Cash, Rosie Perez, Vera Wang, Jane Fonda, Martha Stewart, Melissa Etheridge, Soledad O'Brien and Sheryl Crow -- are essentially show-business people. Which is absolutely not a bad thing. That list includes some fantastic, exciting, rather brilliant and accomplished women I love to hear talk. But that means only four women will be shown in the entire 12-hour series -- Annette Gordon-Reed, professor Beverly Gage from Yale, author Jeanette Walls, and Ann Coulter -- who aren't actors, musicians, designers, or television personalities.
Of the men -- while there are obviously gray areas about how to count a guy like Sean Hannity, just as there are about counting Ann Coulter, so I figured that came out even -- I'd classify 15 as show-business people, including two athletes (there are no female athletes included). That's 34 percent of the men coming from show business, versus 71 percent of the women. The men are more than twice as likely to come from other places -- politics, academia, and business, in particular. It seems particularly galling that although there are plenty of female politicians, they have included zero.
This is a documentary, I should point out, that is going to be sent free of charge, they vow, to every school in the country. Every school in the country is going to receive a DVD demonstrating a "Story Of Us" in which women make up only one-fourth of the commentators, and when they're there at all, they're probably from the entertainment field. Some of them are going to show it. To girls.
It's not about perfect statistical representation. You can't possibly hope to achieve some sort of perfect microcosm. If it were 60/40 in the opener, I probably wouldn't have even noticed -- 60/40 is what you're numb to; 60/40 is the size of the callus you develop for these things. But when you put out the first hour of a splashy new series that presumes to call itself "The Story Of Us," and when nobody apparently even notices that you have included thirteen men and one woman in this hour of television, you have shot yourself in the foot before you even begin.