May 29, 2014

Bunheads: It’s Complicated

Bunheads: Boo, Mel, Sasha and Ginny

Bunheads: It’s Complicated
“He’s dead!”, I shouted at the TV in glee at the end of the first episode of Bunheads. “Oh, I’m so glad he’s dead!”. There may or may not have been some fist pumping involved. I’d never really imagined I could be so happy and relieved to see a character go. Thank goodness for Hubbell’s accident — I honestly don’t think I’d have been able to carry on watching this series otherwise, and when I pause to think about all the things I loved about it, I know I’d have missed out. Then again, with Hubbell around Bunheads couldn’t possibly have become the series I grew to love.

I’m not worried about spoiling this series’ pilot for two reasons: one, because it’s only the pilot, and what happens then is more about setting the premise for the series than it is about its actual plot. And two, because I suspect some of you might actually need the reassurance of knowing Hubbell won’t be around for long to be able to give this series a chance. I worry a little that the first two thirds of this post will make you think I hated Bunheads, when in reality I liked it a lot (no, not as much as Gilmore Girls, but with that out of the way I’ll try to resist further comparisons, because I don’t think they’d be useful); it was only the pilot that I hated. I need to talk about how I survived that first episode, though, and more importantly about how much I wish I didn’t need to survive narratives like this. I wish they weren’t so pervasive that I’m bound to encounter them even in women-focused stories with a feminist sensibility.

I’ve been drafting this post in my head for a few weeks, and now that I finally get to sit down to write it, I do so with the knowledge that something dreadful beyond words has recently happened. We live in a world where disrespecting a woman’s right to say “no” is culturally acceptable, and when taken to its full logical consequences this is an attitude that kills. With this in mind, it’s impossible not to find the pilot of Bunheads incredibly creepy — and even more so because it’s not meant to be creepy at all.

The protagonist of Bunheads is Michelle Simms. When we first meet her, she’s a dancer in Las Vegas. Michelle has an admirer: a Californian businessman named Hubbell who always goes to see Michelle’s shows when he’s in town, brings her flowers and expensive gifts, and repeatedly asks her out, even though Michelle has made it clear that she doesn’t reciprocate his romantic interest in her. In the pilot, Michelle has an audition the morning after her show, and when she hears that Hubbell is in town and will probably want to take her out to dinner, she comes up with a plan to sneak out without running into him. Michelle’s friends, who keep Hubbell company instead, guilt-trip her for this: Hubbell is such a nice guy; she shouldn’t treat him that way. Hubbell’s creepy persistence only means that he’s constant and that his feelings are true, unlike all those flaky other guys. Michelle should give Hubbell more of a chance. He deserves it. He’s been there for her all along.

Then the following happens: Michelle’s audition goes terribly and she’s sad and demoralised. After her show the following evening, she does let Hubbell take her out to dinner. When he gives her yet another expensive gift, she breaks down crying and says he’s such a nice guy, so much nicer than she deserves. A drunken, emotionally fragile Michelle agrees to marry Hubbell and move to California with him, and although there are some “have I made a terrible mistake?” moments, the narrative supports the idea that Hubbell is really a kind and steady man who truly loves her, and that Michelle was right to finally give him a chance after stringing him along for so many years, without any ambiguity.

No. Just, no, no, no, no.

I deeply resent this kind of narrative because there’s already enough in the world telling women that rejecting men, including creepily persistent men, is terribly unfair of us. There’s already enough telling us to distrust our instincts, to second-guess ourselves when a situation makes us uncomfortable, to put men’s feelings above our sense of safety, to be absolutely sure before we remove ourselves from potentially dangerous situations, without this kind of romantic trope reinforcing these ideas.

The only reason why I was able to keep watching Bunheads was because Hubbell died and this meant I wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore — for the most part. The most upsetting moment in the series didn’t actually happen during the pilot: it was when a discouraged Michelle rewatched her and Hubbell’s wedding video (which she didn’t remember because, I repeat, she was drunk) and came across a moment where Hubbell talks about her to the camera while she goes to the bathroom. Hubbell’s words are kind and encouraging: he talks about how smart, passionate and full of energy Michelle is, and about how he doesn’t doubt that she’ll go on to do great things. Hearing this gives Michelle some of her confidence back, and the scene is clearly meant to be a touching moment about love and trust and healing.

However, all I could think was this: he doesn’t know her. To recap, Hubbell used to go watch Michelle dance whenever he was in Las Vegas. He pursued her romantically, but until the night of their wedding they’d never really had a personal conversation. It’s only hours after their first serious conversation that he talks to the camera about his deep and intimate knowledge of what makes Michelle tick, and I can’t get over the fact that, again, the narrative frames him as being right. There’s nothing inherently wrong with sexual attraction or infatuation at first sight — they’re human experiences, and they can be the starting points of intimate relationships. But the idea that you actually do know someone you obsess about from afar, that whatever you project onto them is not the stuff of your imagination but a real glimpse into their minds, is foolish and dangerous and wrong. It’s the kind of stuff that encourages harassment and stalking, and it’s deeply dehumanising for the person on the receiving end. Having a complete stranger presume to know you intimately and act accordingly, feeling your individuality be erased by their projections, is a seriously distressing and unpleasant experience. I’m so, so tired of stories that legitimise creepy behaviour by dressing it up as romantic.

The issue is not just Hubbell, though. Bunheads had problems with its romantic leads in general: Michelle’s love interest, Godot, actually says the words “‘No’ is just another way of saying yes” in what is meant to be a flirtatious way; and the fact that Boo’s boyfriend, Carl, was fixated on her before they started dating is once again portrayed as the mark of a constant man. Why, then, did I like this series so much in the end? I hope that by telling you just how much what it does wrong bothered me, I will also make you see how much it had to get right to win me over in the end.

Bunheads: Fanny and Michelle

With Hubbell out of the way, Bunheads becomes a story about women — one where their ambitions, their struggles, their work and their relationships with one another are taken seriously and take centre stage. Michelle inherits Hubbell’s house in Paradise, California, his land, and the dance academy her mother-in-law Fanny runs. The story is very much about Michelle finding her place in this small, tight-knit community and learning to navigate her relationship with Fanny. Fanny is as complicated and strong-willed as Michelle herself, and watching the two banter, grow to respect each other, and eventually become friends was an absolute delight.

But it’s the four ballet students at Madame Fanny’s academy we get to know well — Boo, Sasha, Ginny and Mel — who were, for me, the heart of the series. Because of these characters, Bunheads recovered from its absolute train wreck of a start and became a series I looked forward to every evening. The series was cancelled much too soon, but eighteen episodes was enough to establish these four girls as smart, funny, complicated female characters of the kind I look for in all my media.

Bunheads: Sasha, Boo, Mel and Ginny

My favourite was Sasha, for reasons I’ll go on to explain, but I loved them all. I especially loved how their emotional ties with one another were given prominence. There’s teen romance in Bunheads, but to me this was a series about four friends going through things together. I loved Boo’s struggles with body image and how much of a difference the support she gets from her mother makes to her; I loved how Mel is allowed to be uninterested in boys (though, like many fans, I wish the series had been brave enough to explicitly portray her as queer, and that it had done a better job with diversity in general); I loved that Ginny gets to feel trapped in her relationship and isn’t punished for it; and I loved how the writers never give in to the temptation to oversimplify Sasha.

Sasha is tempestuous and complex in a way I don’t think girls are allowed to be very often. She’s desperately unhappy at home, she needs her friends but is known to lash out at them, she’s impulsive, she’s cruel one moment and fiercely kind the next, she’s talented and ambitious and not one bit apologetic about it, and she’s smart and brave and vulnerable and occasionally terrified. When Sasha becomes interested in sex, she drags her friends to the library on the grounds that she’s “an intelligent young woman and won’t have ignorant friends”. She equips herself with information and with emotional reassurance from the adult she looks up to — Michelle. What a pity that this happens to close so the end of the series that we never get to see what happens next.

The fact that Bunheads was cancelled just as it was starting to handle its teen characters’ sexuality in such interesting ways almost makes me want to cry with frustration. As I said earlier, I was also very interested in Ginny’s story and in the fact that she’s never punished or slut-shamed. When we meet Ginny, she’s been with the same boyfriend since the second grade. He’s kind and attentive, but Ginny eventually realises that she’s bored, and that life is too short to settle for a relationship that bores you at age sixteen.

Bunheads: Michelle, Sasha, Ginny and Mel

So Ginny breaks up with him, for no other reason other than that she wants to. Not only that, but she becomes attracted to Frankie, one of two glamorous siblings who move to Paradise. The series makes it clear that Ginny desires him, and in the very last episode, we watch her tell Michelle that she’s slept with him. As I said, there’s no slut-shaming whatsoever in this scene — Ginny is upset because Frankie hasn’t called her, but her emotional vulnerability goes hand in hand with frankness about what she wanted. My kingdom for a second series where Ginny would have gotten to carry on being fabulous and wasn’t punished for acting on her desire. It makes me hopeful that the writers allowed someone like Ginny, a clearly sympathetic central character, to make a decision like this, but oh, how I’d love to know for sure. We need more stories about girls with sexual agency where we know for sure that they are doing just fine, thank you very much.

Bunheads has a lot of heart and warmth, and I really can’t go on enough about how refreshing the female focus and the relationships between the characters were. In addition to the four main girls, there’s Michelle and her best friend and occasional visitor Talia; there’s Truly (Mindy from Friday Night Lights!), who’s initially set up as a rival for Hubbell’s affection (yawn) but becomes a friend; there’s Michelle’s relationship with her students, who to her initial horror look up to her; and there’s of course Madame Fanny, queen of sarcasm but also of encouragement. I know I vowed to stay away from further comparisons, but I think that in time this is a series that could have rivalled Gilmore Girls. What a shame that it was never given the chance to grow and become everything it could have been.

Bunheads: Sasha, Boo, Mel and Ginny

Bottom line: There’s no overstating how terrible the pilot was, but I’m so glad I pushed through. If I had a time machine, I’d advise my past self to skip it, start with episode two, and pretend for the whole series that Hubbell was a rich great-uncle Michelle inherited the house and dance studio from, or something. In all seriousness, I hate that the series’ premise is steeped in such a problematic trope, but when I look beyond that what I see is a series full of richly drawn characters that’s all about the “basic feminist act” of centring a story on a group of women. Recommended with a huge caveat, but recommended nonetheless.


  1. Wait wait wait...she moves to Paradise? As in, little town up in the hills of northern CA? Or is this a fictional Paradise? That would be a really weird place to set a TV show and surely I would have heard about it? Must investigate.

  2. Yep, a fictional Paradise in Southern CA. Sorry for the hijack. :)

  3. Agreed. It was starting to do some interesting things. The Hubbell setup stuff was all kinds of icky, even without intending creepiness.

  4. Well, you've left me all kinds of conflicted. :P I love, love, love this post actually. I don't know that I've ever even heard of this show before, but the title does ring a bit of a bell. Certainly had zero idea what it was about. And I appreciate so much how you were able to spell out the truly awful, and yet make me see how this show would be worth my while.

    "I deeply resent this kind of narrative because there’s already enough in the world telling women that rejecting men, including creepily persistent men, is terribly unfair of us. There’s already enough telling us to distrust our instincts, to second-guess ourselves when a situation makes us uncomfortable, to put men’s feelings above our sense of safety, to be absolutely sure before we remove ourselves from potentially dangerous situations, without this kind of romantic trope reinforcing these ideas."<---Love this!!! *huge hugs*

  5. Huge yes to everything you've said. I was initially very put off by the pilot, and if I hadn't read in a recap the information that Hubbell dies at the end of the pilot, I wouldn't have carried on. But (in spite of the lack of diversity in the cast, and Amy Sherman Palladino's extremely snotty and tone-deaf response to being called out on it) I thought the show was great, and I loved the relationships between the girls. Sasha was my favorite too -- one of my all-time favorite moments in the series is when she confesses to her boyfriend that she's been avoiding him because she's nervous he'll think that her having her own place means SEX SEX SEX.

    Plus of course the "Istanbul not Constantinople" dance, one of the most successful weird moments I've ever seen on TV. I am actually going to just go watch that again real quick.

  6. I couldn't get past the the first few episodes of this show...and it wasn't just the Hubbell thing, I just found it...irritating! I did happen to catch a later episode in the series on TV and thought it had improved, but the early episodes were like...ugh I don't know how to explain it, but it's likely an aesthetic preference and not driven by story.

    but really Ana I thought you were looking for shows that had been on air for awhile!!

    (PS you should try the Fosters TBQH)

  7. Wonderful post, Ana! 'Bunheads' is one of my favourite series (I haven't seen the second half of it yet, I will have to catch up one of these days) and so it was wonderful to read your post. It was interesting to read your thoughts on the first episode and the episode where Michelle watches her wedding video. I actually liked Hubbell :) But I agree with you - it is virtually impossible to say things about someone whom one doesn't know well. The episode where Michelle sees her wedding video - I actually liked the scene before that very much in which Fanny asks Michelle to come home. I didn't like Fanny initially, but as I kept watching, I fell in love with her. My favourite character out of the four students was Boo, but I agree with you - Sasha was quite complex and probably the most fascinating out of the four. I also liked the way the relationship between Fanny and Michael was depicted. I also loved reading your thoughts on how Ginny's breakup with her boyfriend was handled. (Do people really have boyfriends in second grade? I didn't know that.)

    It is a real shame that there is not going to be a second season of 'Bunheads'. I wish the show wasn't cancelled.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.

  8. Forgot to add one more thing, Ana. My favourite part of your review was this - "No. Just, no, no, no, no." :)

  9. I haven't watched this - in part because the five seconds I saw while flipping channels ages ago made me cringe. You may have convinced me to give it a go though. Your last recommendation - Veronica Mars - rocked my world, and we are of like mind on the awesomeness that is Friday Night Lights so....

  10. I have no thoughts about Bunheads, other than that it's in my Netflix queue :)

    But I have SO MANY THOUGHTS about the pilot as you describe it. It's the kind of story that is so pervasive, and I'm done with it. It's absolutely true that some of those ardent, worshipful guys could be great partners, but anyone has the right to say no to a potential partner, even a potentially good one! And the fact that he won her over when she was feeling vulnerable and insecure sets off all kinds of alarm bells to me. Gross.

    But I'd still watch the show. Not every show is going to get it right all the time. If the grossness isn't celebrated the whole time, I can deal with bits and pieces of it.

  11. The pilot creeped me out, too, but I liked the idea of a cast of mostly female dancers so much that I decided to set the series to record and see what happened. I liked the second episode an awful lot--but the next week, I realized I didn't actually have the channel it aired on. It was just a temporary free preview.


    Now I think I ought to make an effort to get my hands on it this summer so I can watch the rest. It sounds mostly wonderful.

  12. I read it because of Gilmore Girls and after the first half of the first season I really found myself enjoying it. As you mentioned there are dozens of problems with how the shows was handled, but it was the characters and their relationships that won me in the end.

    p.s. Sutton Foster actually graduated from the same college that I did :)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.