Thursday, March 8, 2018

It's International Women's Day, even in Collinsport

If you haven't heard, today is International Women's Day. As a 46-year-old white American man it's been my tradition during the previous 45 years to sit on my ass and do as little as possible ... which is pretty much what I do on every day that isn't Halloween. It's a plan that seems to be working out for a lot of people, right up to the point where it doesn't. How many women have accused our sitting president of sexual harassment, if not outright assault? How does everybody not already have the number memorized?

The theme of this year’s International Women's Day campaign is #PressForProgress, more clearly defined as “a strong call-to-action to press forward and progress gender parity.” So, what better way for a DARK SHADOWS fanpage to press forward than by leaping backward in time? Our destination is June 27, 1966, the broadcast date of the show's first episode. My first thought to was determine and discuss the first episode of the series that had an all-female cast, something that shouldn't be too difficult given its ostensible origin as entertainment for housewives. That episode arrived a little less than four months after the debut on Oct. 4, 1966, featuring a cast of Joan Bennett, Nancy Barrett, Clarice Blackburn, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Alexandra Moltke. In that episode Scott gets to deliver the revealing line, "I guess in a lot of ways, being a housekeeper for one man for so many years is almost like being a wife." Her character, Maggie Evans, has become the de facto head of her own household thanks to her father's depression and alcoholism. Many of the women of DARK SHADOWS carry the burdens that come along with having power, but very few wield any of it themselves. (Keep that in mind when Angelique arrives on the scene and upsets the apple cart.)

When Barnabas Collins crashes Collinsport in 1967, though, the dynamic of the series shifts violently. Yeah, DARK SHADOWS would continue to carry many of the hallmarks of passive feminism until its end. Women, for example, delivered the opening narration for 961 of 1,225 episodes ... but Moltke was responsible for almost 60 percent of those and she quit the show in 1968. After her departure, DARK SHADOWS fully became the Jonathan Frid show, for better and for worse.

Considering the gargantuan number of episodes and actors accrued by the production during its 1966-1971 run, it was going to hit the occasional all-female episode without even trying. The same can be said when applying the "Bechdel test," a tool that helps define the presence (or absence) of gender equality in a work. The test is named for Alison Bechdel, an illustrator who presented the concept in an installment of her “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strip. It asks three very basic questions: Does the movie contain two or more (named) female characters? Do those characters talk to each other? If so, do they discuss something other than a man? Easy, right?

Again, applying this "test" to a series that has 1,225 episodes doesn't prove much. But I thought it might be interesting to put the very first episode of DARK SHADOWS to the test. Conclusion: It takes about four minutes for the episode to clear all three incredibly low hurdles ... but what is more interesting is what was also missing.

Last year, I wrote a bit about how DARK SHADOWS used reflections and portraits to talk about the nature of identity. (You can read that piece HERE.) The series hit the ground running with this theme in the very first episode before the credits even roll. We're introduced to Victoria Winters, our protagonist, on a train ride from New York to Collinsport, Maine. Everybody she meets along the way has questions about her identity. Who is she? Where is she from? Where is she going? Why is she doing any of this? The fact that Victoria has no real answers to these questions makes up the core mystery of DARK SHADOWS, a puzzle whose solution is nothing more or less than the construction of one woman's identity.

And at no point in the episode does anybody ask Victoria who she is boning.

It takes three more episodes before anybody really asks that question, and when they do it arrives in the form of a rape-y inquiry from Roger Collins: "Pain sometimes precedes pleasure, Miss Winters, or are you too young to have discovered that yet?" Consider that a line drawn in the sand by the writers of DARK SHADOWS.

The traditional romantic entanglements associated with popular entertainment wander into frame later in the series ... and when they do, Victoria's dance card reads like a litany of bad ideas. There's the dependable-yet-boring Frank Garner, Burke "I just got out of prison" Devlin, and Barnabas Collins, a veritable forest of red flags. DARK SHADOWS refused to commit Victoria to any one person until Moltke negotiated her way out of the series, after which Victoria is literally absorbed by this new relationship and ceases to be. That resolution is cynical by design, and might even represent a little passive aggression on the part of Dan Curtis and co. about the actress's resignation. But the message is clear: Commit to being yourself, or commit to being nothing.

- Wallace McBride,

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