Media Portrayals of the Military, or How Fox’s Enlisted Could Have Been Awesome
A few Left Face bloggers got some links from a producer’s assistant recently so we could view the pilot episode and a few additional episodes of this new series called Enlisted. The pilot? Well, there’s a good reason the producer, Kevin Biegel, apologized for it. I’ve heard a few say it’s insulting, and I can definitely grok that when “Rear D” is portrayed as the sadsack crew who are too dumb to figure out how to do jumping jacks and who wear American flag nail designs and who walk around with their blouses wide open, and no covers over their long hair*.
Here it is, if you want to see for yourself. You should probably pass, though.
Just. Wow. But Biegel insisted we at least try one post-pilot episode and reserve judgment until then. I tried two. And now I’m judging.
I have developed a kind of mil-life Bechdel test for TV, movies, books, etc. It goes a little something like this:
- Are there milspouses/milsos (i.e. service members don’t exist in a vacuum)?
- Do they and/or the service member have to deal with some fucked up, stressy situations?
- Do they get to avoid shitshows like reunion pr0n, dependapotamus or similar portrayals, and scenes that gloss over all the actual, real stressors they have to deal with on a daily basis?
If all three answers are “yes,” congratulations! You get a cookie.
Clearly, very few portrayals of the military life on screen pass. Sadly, very few of the books I read as part of my day job pass this mil-Bechdel test. Most of the books I come across (or end up editing) gloss over #3 on this list. Hardcore. So do movies and the telly, when milspouses are even factored in.
And that’s where I’m finding Enlisted also falls down. It’s my kind of humor – very Scrubs only with soldiers on a base instead of doctors in a hospital. And like Scrubs, it takes a second from the verbal sparring and hijinks to glance through the peephole at more serious aspects of the military experience. But it still glosses. Take the second episode, for example (we will pretend the pilot never happened). The main character Pete *just wants to be alone*. It’s kind of implied that he’s maybe got a touch of the PTSD. That’s just…well…
Again, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, it sucks that so much PTSD is in the media conveying the idea that every service member returning from Afghanistan (or Iraq back when) is a bomb waiting to explode in a PTSD flashback…which leads to almost a pathological need to touch on it in any mil-portrayal. On the other hand, couching this subject in humor is super tricksy, and I just don’t think it came through the other side. Mostly because it was there vaguely for five seconds of a 22-minute episode, and by episode 3, it was gone. Maybe it comes in again later? I don’t know. But it gets such light treatment, I don’t know if I trust it coming around again. Better would have been for Pete to go through the ridiculousness that is the Army “suck it up” attitude that’s been hard at work killing soldiers in record numbers of suicides. Or have this be a small running thread for a secondary character who’s just come home. There are other ways to do this than “sometimes, because shit maybe got real over yonder, soldiers just need to be alone for a while.” I didn’t even get the whiff of PTSD until that comment was made, but it’s at least a trope and bordering on a cliche to see this as shorthand for a psychological concern.
The second episode’s serious moment is during an “FRG” meeting. The FRG meets in probably the nicest Army base housing I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve seen a lot, but jesus crispy christ do enlisted Army get pooped on with some 3rd world housing units, and this looked more like the huge tracts of new faux-stucco North County San Diego houses). Then, it’s like 5 women and a soldier who comes to mansplain to the wimminz how to get their FRG crap done (what??). Despite there being female soldiers all up in the cast, there were no mil-husbands in that living room. And their meeting discussions? Which color paper to use for the care packages.
One wife speaks during the serious moment, and it is a totally legit concern. Her DH has been deployed for over a year, and she’s worried. Yes! This! This is precisely what we need in milspouse portrayals to close that military-civilian divide. This is what will give civilians the context they need to understand why reunions are so incredibly intimate and wonderful and difficult and awful and exciting all at the same time…and why reunion pr0n is therefore exploitative and voyeuristic and unbalanced in its storytelling. This is what we need.
But then she gets another line. And this line gives me a sad.
“Does he know I haz all the feels?” she asks the soldier who’s never deployed ever.
And I tear out my hair. It’s at this point I realize the producer does, indeed, have veterans advising him, but they’re likely old dudes, judging by some of the milspouse portrayals. And he probably has ZERO milspouses advising. Because, yet again, we’re an afterthought, and our own conflicts and struggles mean about jack and shite unless our lives can be turned into a completely ridiculous soap opera on Lifetime. Huzzah.
The show has some funny moments. I lolzed it up during the cooking contest, and I think YodaMan will have his own set of lulz if he sees the disaster preparedness training (zombies FTW!). I really like how Sgt Perez is portrayed. She’s a kick ass woman, and even though she’s a secondary character, she ninjas a lot of scenes and delivers some throat punches on her way out the door. (Just, please Dear Writer, for the love of all that is holy, don’t develop a romance there. Leave this relationship in the friendzone, I beg you. I edit romance novels for a living, and *I* think this one’s better left alone.)
The banter is fun, and though much of the setting is still unrealistic, it’s better than the pilot’s setting. Also, hairs were cut and blouses were buttoned and covers are appropriately doffed and donned as far as my Navy knowledge goes, so we’re definitely on an upswing.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see. I’m sure this season’s shows are already written, edited, and in whatever pipeline teleplays go through. But if this show survives into another season, maybe it will pick up some meatier plot threads. Maybe it will pass my mil-Bechdel test later. For now, I’m going to have to urge everyone who’s curious to miss the pilot, skip right to the second episode (really, here’s all you missed: Pete punches his CO and is busted down and sent back to Florida, where his two brothers are also stationed), and judge for yourself. I think some will like it just fine. I think some will hate it with fire. Either way, I do believe Mr. Biegel when he says, “Please just know the show comes from a place of love for my family that did the job, not Hollywood holy-ier-than-though-ness.”**
Me? I’ll figure it out later, when I’m no longer worried about how we’re going to make up the $100k Congress just cut from our retirement pay. For now, it’s merely one more voice threatening to trivialize our trials and exploit our tribulations. I’m hoping it won’t, but in the last 19 years of living in the lap of mil-luxury, I’ve learned to expect the worst, hope for the best, and invest in vegan cheez*** to get me through the rough patches.
* I know the other services do covers different than the Navy. Or maybe it’s something about how they salute without a cover on? I can’t remember. I just remember thinking how fucked up it was in ROTC. Consistency, people. No roof, cover on. No cover, no salute. Exception: screwy ship sitches. Ta da! Now nobody’s confused unless they’re on a screwy ship.
** Though that’s the second time in a week a producer dissed on Hollywood to me. Is this a thing?
*** Kite Hill, bizatches. That’s some tasty stuff. So ridiculously expensive, but it’s almond milk cultured just like real cheese. Om to the nom.