Earlier this summer, when Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday used a tragic massacre at U.C. Santa Barbara to shine a light on cinematic “schlubby arrested adolescents” and the women who love them, she provoked a round of outrage, including tweets by Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow. Though Hornaday chose her moment badly, she drew attention to a genuine, troubling trend in filmmaking, one that doesn’t usually kill people, but does often distort expectations. After Hornaday’s piece, a consensus emerged: solve the problem by asking folks like Adam Sandler and Jason Segel to stop making movies where Mr. Greasy Flannel Shirt gets with Ms. Perfect Size Zero. After all, such films didn’t dominate the romantic comedy genre in the 30s or even the 90s, back in the heyday of Four Weddings and Jerry Maguire and Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, right?
What you’re not hearing is that the mentality won’t be easy to shake, because of the 14g-10b rule. Until now, you may not have consciously known about it, but your unconscious has known it for decades, because you, just like the most lauded showrunners on TV (and let’s be clear, the showrunners of programs like The Sopranos and Mad Men are the most regularly praised people working in Hollywood), have been watching TV for decades. More and more, the characters we see on TV and in movies represent the real world that we know from…other characters we’ve seen on TV and in movies. Perhaps in the 70s, a mere 20 years after the advent of TV, there was still a real real world that senior writers in movies and TV could draw from. Perhaps Nora Ephron drew on such a place to create characters like Harry and Sally. But now, as the Wachowskis tried to warn us in the Matrix films, everything is a simulacra of a simulacra. That’s one reason accents and dialect have barely changed in the last 40 years, compared to noticeable changes in the 40 years before that. What seems normal is…what seemed normal on TV when we grew up.
What does all this have to do with slackers or feminism? Plenty. The 14g-10b rule is: on a hit show that regularly features two underage siblings, one will be a girl of about 14, and one will be a boy of about 10. (Of course, this applies more to the first season. Kids do grow up.)
What shows feature this? In recent years: The Americans, Are We There Yet?, Homeland, How I Met Your Mother (in the flash-forwards, when it could have easily been otherwise), Mad Men, The Sopranos, and South Park. You could make the case that shows with three featured siblings usually follow the 14g-10b rule, but just add siblings, like Modern Family or Game of Thrones. This goes back to shows like Diff’rent Strokes (+1 teen boy), 8 Simple Rules (+1 nerdy teen girl), Roseanne (+1 nerdy teen girl), and The Wonder Years (+1 teen boy).
Are there exceptions? Yes. Start with Leave It to Beaver, Happy Days, Family Guy, and The Simpsons. Now, try to think of one non-animated, prime-time hit show created since Happy Days (40 years ago) that began by featuring two siblings (not more) and didn’t follow the 14g-10b rule.
Not easy, is it?
Perhaps you’re thinking: uh, Meadow and A.J. Soprano are sister and brother, they’re not gonna hook up! That’s hardly the point. The point is that TV promotes visions of who and what we are, what we should look like and act like. This isn’t because of any one show, but instead all of them. For some time now, when TV has shown the upcoming generation, it depicts a girl who looks a lot like a young woman, who wears makeup, gets three-figure haircuts, and barely represses her sexuality…and a boy who skins his knees, makes fart jokes, and generally thinks girls are icky.
Do you see the imbalance yet? Ann Hornaday pointed to a tree. I’m showing you the roots of the problem: basically, generations of infantile Hollywood casting producers, who wanted to see boys as baseball-cap-wearing 10-year-olds and girls as…let’s be honest, as someone with sex appeal.
We are taught to be who TV teaches us to be. Whether it’s Kelly Bundy, Meadow Soprano, Haley Dunphy, or Sally Draper, girls are taught to be anxious over their looks, their love prospects, their future. Whether it’s Bud Bundy, A.J. Soprano, Luke Dunphy, or Bobby Draper, boys are taught to be carefree about pretty much everything. Girls learn to be pretty, boys learn to goof off.
Now, the 14g-10b rule has an easy fix: write the shows differently. How about a show with a 14-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, like the first year of Family Ties? But when you look at the pedigrees and Emmy nominations of shows that follow the 14g-10b rule it doesn’t look like the problem is going away any time soon.
You know, shaming works. Last year, a group was incensed at the objectification of women in the 2013 Super Bowl ads. They dedicated themselves to shaming the ad-makers, and maybe 5% of Americans knew about the hashtag they created for the 2014 Super Bowl: #notbuyingit. But the advertisers listened to that 5%. The ads for this year’s game were surprisingly non-leering. The activists ended up not needing their hashtag; they’d already made their cause a thing.
Go out there, and make the 14g-10b rule a thing.