I tuned into HBO's new series, Rome, hoping that it might fill the void in my TV viewing that the recently-ended Six Feet Under left. I was hopeful for this new series, but I soon turned off, long before I switched off.
"I, Claudius" it ain't...
This program exists to stroke male egos and remind them of a time when they could be all-powerful, especially with regards to women. It will, of course, be compared to the BBC's production of Robert Graves' "I, Claudius", which casts a very long shadow, even though it aired in the U.S. on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre some 27 years ago. HBO consciously plays upon the screen-burn that "I, Claudius" left on the America's collective memory by casting British actors, which creates an air of high art and legitimacy upon the series. (Whenever Hollywood feels wanting in the acting department, it imports British actors.) HBO has positioned the "Rome" series as high entertainment - a majestic, sweeping historical series with ambitions to match, or even surpass, the much-lauded "Six Feet Under", "The Sopranos" and "Deadwood".
But - surprisingly - Rome's extravagant, and no doubt costly, production is hindered by the very elements HBO thought would recommend it. The ability to shoot on location de-emphasizes characterization. There are many "gee-wiz, look at all this historical reality!" type shots. These are all well and good, but there had better be a well-written script to back up the pretty scenes, and in Rome's case, there isn't.
Re-telling the same tired old Tales
What I was particularly non-plussed about was the way women were portrayed. Yes, I know that women were very much a subordinated group in ancient Rome. Yes, I understand that any attempt at a realistic portrayal of women in Rome would reflect their oppressed status. But I didn't think that the cultural conditions of Rome warranted:
- not one, not two, but three different naked women in one episode, all of whom were young and very skinny;
- one woman to position herself in the "doggie" style on a bed for her much older soon-to-be husband to have sex with;
- a long lingering shot of a woman's breast, with large erect nipple, who is about to breast-feed her baby;
Concerning the first item: while I don't object to sex scenes, they were so obviously scripted and directed from a male point of view, that these scenes looked scripted in solely for voyeuristic purposes. And not only were they from a male point of view, catering to a male audience, but they were also tailored to modern-day tastes (gee, the women just happened to be skinny, the current ideal for women today). Moreover, in these scenes, the audience is given very little view of their bodies: the men lay on their backs in bed, surveying (as we are meant to direct our attention) the naked women moving on top. The focus is clearly on the heaving, moving bodies of the naked females.
Concerning the second item: there's nothing inherently wrong with the "doggie style" per se, but the way in which it unfolded was coded in a particularly gross and offensive way. There was a power imbalance between the two characters (one a relatively powerless, inexperienced young women, of high birth, and a much older, much more powerful male character). And then there was the way it unfolded on-screen: we cut from some dialogue between the two very quickly to a shot of her (reluctantly) moving towards the bed, then quickly cut to her form completely naked and frozen in a passive position waiting for the male character to "happen" to her. How humiliating is that? How is that not meant to degrade her, and how are women viewers supposed to feel watching this?
Concerning the third item: again, there's nothing wrong or offensive about showing a character breast-feeding, and it was warranted in the storyline. (Two women discuss the impending war; one is obviously very worried about the effect war will have on her baby.) But the way it was shot was obviously voyeuristic and meant to gratify hetero male eyes: a long, slow shot of her naked (rather perfect, of course!) petite breast, with the baby's head some ways away so as not to disrupt our view of her breast, and a long (not really needed) view of it before the baby's head is finally slowly brought forward to suckle. The nipple is quite erect and quite prominent (which may or may not be realistic, or may just be for erotic purposes).
The other objection I have is the way men talk and treat women. Again - yes, I understand that Rome was a rigid and extreme patriarchy. I understand that men would've spoken in dismissive and hateful terms about women. But it's being trotted out in a way so that the viewers can get off on it. There's a lot of "Do as I say, woman!" type stuff going on, and women being mean and nasty to each other in order to curry favor with the male characters, who hold all the power. There's also some infantilization of women (one young woman yells the cliche line "I hate you!" - what a tired, trite cliche that is of an emotional and powerless woman).
At least "I, Claudius" had the Machiavellian character of Livia, who schemed, killed, maneuvered, and manipulated. She was a formidable character and reeked much havoc, until she was sussed out in the end. In HBO's "Rome", there are no particularly good female characters.
And why did HBO choose to commission a new series based on a historical portrayal of Rome, anyways? Out of all the story ideas they could've run with, why do a series on Rome? I propose that HBO was drawn to the Rome concept because it portrayed a time when men could be all-powerful and had much higher social status than women; when women led dull lives confined to domestic settings, when men did all the interesting things and things of importance, and when men could be ultra-masculine and brutally violent. What a comforting world for the modern-day male who may dislike the advances women have made to step into; what soothing balm "Rome" offers this male viewer, who must deal with women in the workplace and at home who demand equality and respect. What misogyny HBO still has to peddle. And what better things I have to do with my time than watch HBO's "Rome". But then, I doubt I am the target audience HBO is courting with "Rome".