Mindy St. Claire and the Male Gaze (Or Lack Thereof)

by on Jun 14, 2018 in Nonfiction, Slider | 0 comments

Mindy St. Claire and the Male Gaze (Or Lack Thereof)

[Editor’s Note: This has spoilers for the first and beginning of the second season of The Good Place.]

I am an unapologetic fanatic lover of The Good Place. I’ve seen each episode multiple times and encourage everyone I meet to watch it. I have a crush on both Chidi (for looks and intelligence) and Jason (for looks. Obviously).

If you’re new to it, The Good Place, an afterlife comedy that has a woman, Eleanor, arrive in “The Good Place” (they rarely say “heaven” or “hell” because each religion’s concept of the afterlife got about five percent right, according to Michael, the architect of this particular place) and realize that she’s not who they think she is, and she isn’t supposed to be there. Flashbacks confirm this; Eleanor was a real asshole on Earth.

Eleanor died dropping a bottle of margarita mix, getting hit by runaway shopping carts, and flattened by a truck advertising erectile dysfunction pills. “A very ‘me’ way to go,” she admits.

Now in the afterlife, Eleanor meets her soulmate, Chidi, an ethics professor from Senegal. Their neighbors are Tahani, a British philanthropist, and Jianyu, a Taiwanese monk. The main cast rounds out with Michael and Janet, a sort of AI who knows literally everything and runs the whole Place.

Close to the end of season one, Eleanor outs herself as not belonging. Around the same time, Jianyu (who turns out to be Jason, a DJ from Florida, another interloper) has fallen in love with Janet. Realizing that none of them fit in, the three run away to the Medium place, a sort of Purgatory inhabited by one lone woman.

Meet Mindy St. Claire.

THE GOOD PLACE — “Mindy St. Claire” Episode 112 — Pictured: Maribeth Monroe as Mindy St. Claire — (Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC)

Mindy was a hotshot lawyer in the 1980s. She cared about making money and doing cocaine and nothing else. However, one night she had an epiphany and conceived of a charity that would help kids, revolutionize agriculture, and essentially change the whole world.

Eleanor: “You were pretty coked up, huh?” 

Mindy: “Oh, yeah, man, I was flying high, it was so awesome!”

The next day, she withdrew her life savings and then immediately fell onto subway tracks and died. Her sister took her money and plans and started the foundation, creating the biggest charity in the world.

People running the Good and Bad Places argued about who should get her: she was a garbage person her whole life but ended up making a huge difference to a lot of people. So, they created the Medium place just for her. The Medium place has Mindy’s favorite beer, but it’s always warm, and the only movie is Cannonball Run II. (And, The Making of Cannonball Run II.)

I love Mindy. But it took me a long time to figure out what I loved about her, and I’m going to unpack my thinking here. I’m a feminist, but not a scholar, so it took a while to see it, but when we meet Mindy St. Claire, the male gaze is utterly, completely, absent. 

The male gaze1 is a concept coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, explaining the way through which we view most women in media. Putting it simply, women are presented in a way that society assumes straight men will want to see them. Sexy, vulnerable, alluring, maternal, nonthreatening, taking up as little space as possible, and passive.

I’m not talking about just showing women as sex objects. It runs deeper than that. Buffy Summers was a great character, but she fought demons in leather pants and heels, with her hair down. (I know the hair was supposed to obscure the face of the stunt double, but nearly every fight I was distracted by, “How is she doing this with all that hair flying around—and why isn’t the vampire grabbing it? It’s RIGHT THERE.”) Dana Scully wears a sensible suit but also wears heels. The women in LOST and in The Walking Dead are living in worlds where survival is paramount, but even when they are completely filthy, they always have shaved armpits and legs.

Here’s a clue, dudes. When the zombies start rising, my concern about whether you see my pit hair will be one of the first things to die.

In her memoir Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher tells of the time that George Lucas told her she couldn’t wear a bra; that there simply was no underwear in space. And apparently that word reached the people behind the new Netflix show, Altered Carbon, because when we first meet Miriam Bancroft, she is wearing a thin, fashionable dress around the house (another hint, that’s not how most women dress around the house. Even the rich ones, I’m pretty sure). She is obviously wearing neither underwear nor bra, and her nipples could cut glass. Then she blatantly hits on Takeshi. Because that’s what scantily clad women do in elevators.

Or that’s what the male gaze wants to think women do.

But back to The Good Place and our friend Mindy: When Eleanor, Jason, and Janet come across Mindy’s house, she’s outside gardening, naked. It’s not played for sex appeal, or funny sex appeal (like Roxanne’s unfortunate, chilly episode of being locked outside her house in the movie Roxanne). Eleanor yells, “Oh, she’s naked!” and hides her eyes. Mindy screams and hides behind her sunflowers, demanding to know who they are. She continues to yell in fear and outrage. Jason is so startled by all the noise that he turns around, hiding his eyes, yelling in panic himself.

THE GOOD PLACE — “Mindy St. Claire” Episode 112 — Pictured: Maribeth Monroe as Mindy St. Claire — (Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC)

We don’t get a shot of Mindy from the shoulders up, or a bare back shot from behind. It’s obvious she’s naked, but the cut is so fast you barely see her at all. What we don’t see is more telling: Jason, the one (assumed) straight man among them, doesn’t take a moment to admire her, and he doesn’t laugh in that “haha you’re vulnerable and naked, I’m enjoying this” way (like my least favorite part of It’s a Wonderful Life, incidentally). We see a startled woman hiding, and the people who come across her are startled and uncomfortable, too. There’s nothing sexy about it. It feels real. That is what I would expect would happen if this improbable scene played out in real life.

In the next scene, we are inside her house, where she comes out wearing an Eighties’ power suit (complete with shoulder pads!). She apologizes and mentions when you live alone, you tend to wander around naked. The only person who comments is Eleanor, who says, “If I may say, you keep it tight.” Mindy replies with, “Thank you, that is the nicest, and only, thing said to me in thirty years.”

Jason has no interest in Mindy’s nakedness. He’s thinking about his own problems, mainly being married to an AI and wondering how they can consummate their marriage. (Incidentally, they never go into details, but he and Janet have trouble figuring out how to have sex. They try for hours. Janet says, “It was weird!”)

But the way we meet Mindy is not the only subversion of the male gaze. Mindy talks about masturbation. A lot. And in my experience, women talking about masturbation in media usually is presented as a way to turn straight dudes on. It’s treated much like lesbian sex, which is funny because both of those activities need no man at all, and I guess it has to be sexy to dudes to make sure they don’t feel left out. The male gaze must see these sexual acts as a performance done for men’s pleasure, not as something that women enjoy with no guys present at all.

But when Mindy talks about masturbation, it’s matter-of-fact, it’s when she is referring to her personal schedule, and it’s a way for her to offer exposition.

Mindy’s time is very important to her.

Mindy: “Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s my masturbating time.” 

Eleanor: “When isn’t it?”

The big reveal in Season One is that our characters aren’t in the Good Place; they’re in the Bad Place, which is designed to make them torture each other socially and psychologically. Every time they figure it out, Michael (who’s really evil) erases their memories and tries again. In the second episode of Season Two, when our heroes have had their memories erased many times, they arrive at Mindy’s to ask for help; their first time, they think. She welcomes them (even though she’s pissed that they didn’t bring her any cocaine, even though she asks them every time they meet). She, Eleanor, and Chidi talk about their options to leave the Good Place; Mindy tells them that they will go back, because every time they talk about this, they always end up going back.

“Sometimes you go back because you feel bad your friends don’t know what you know. Sometimes you go back because you walk in on me while I’m masturbating and sometimes you go back because I walk in on you while I’m masturbating.”

Mindy is unapologetically filthy. Eleanor discovers that in past reboots of their afterlife existence, she and Chidi were lovers. More than once. She learns this by watching the sex tape Mindy has made of them.

When Mindy discovered they were sleeping together, she decided to drill a hole in the wall so she could tape them. She calls it her “lookin’ hole.” She makes porno out of the footage and listens to them say “I love you” to cool off. It really kills her mood, you see.

Mindy is inconsiderate, rude, and completely and utterly self-centered. It’s not that she’s inhospitable to her visitors (uh, aside from the whole invasion of privacy thing); she is willing to help them with their problems in the Good (Bad) Place and never turns them away, even though they keep visiting her without gifts. But her needs are paramount in her existence, and nothing will change that. She can’t be bothered to spend time with them right now; it’s masturbating time. While showing Eleanor the sex tape, she says in one breath how she tapes them through the lookin’ hole, and in the next breath says she’s rooting for them and hoping they can get together again because clearly they “have it bad for each other.”

Mindy’s sexuality is hers alone. She isn’t naked for anyone else in the Medium place—or anyone in TV land, watching her. She presents masturbation in the way that most people use it in real life: an act to pleasure herself and absolutely no one else. If the others want to hang out in her house, cool, but she’s not going to change her habits.

I figured out the lack of male gaze when I realized I didn’t find Mindy attractive. I’m not putting down the actress, Maribeth Monroe, who’s very pretty. I’m not even putting down the aqua 1985 power suit she wears. It’s that she’s not presented the way the male gaze has taught us to see women as attractive. She’s direct, self-centered, gestures dominantly with her hands, and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. She talks about cocaine and masturbation. She’s not the picture of feminine grace that Tahani is, and even the more-slouchily-dressed Eleanor cares more for how others see her (Eleanor’s “hotness” is a frequent topic she will insert into a conversation about something else entirely).

Mindy St. Claire is a minor character who, in two seasons, appears in four episodes (five if you count audio). Even though she serves as a catalyst for the main cast’s actions, she’s not a big part of the show. And yet, I want her to have her own damn show. She’s unlike most characters you see on television and so entertaining. I don’t think she compares to the direct, dominant women we see in a lot of shows, like How to Get Away with Murder or Dark Matter, both of which have great characters. But a character who’s a badass lawyer/CEO/captain often hides some kind of a private life, and hiding that life indicates that they care what others are thinking. But Mindy will reveal anything about her private life you want to know, and some stuff you don’t. She is direct but doesn’t care if you follow her advice or commands. The only time we see her vulnerable is when she’s asking if they brought her cocaine.

It’s a shame that she’s unique, because if we had more people like her in fiction, stories would be more interesting. We need female characters who don’t care what others think, who aren’t sociopaths per se, but also aren’t people pleasers. We need more women portrayed realistically and not through a gaze that requires vulnerability, beauty, grace, and zero talk of cocaine and self-pleasure.

I’m jealous of Mindy, actually (peeping and nonconsensual filming aside). I’m ashamed to admit that I am a people pleaser and would love to have a smidge of her confidence and her inability to care what others think. Mindy exists for herself. If you want to come along, that’s fine, but you have to do it under her terms, or don’t come at all. She frankly couldn’t care. And that’s the biggest subversion of the male gaze; women who just don’t care what people think about them.

Mur Lafferty is an author, editor, and podcaster. Her recent books include Six Wakes (Orbit), which has been nominated for the Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards, and I Should Be Writing, a book based on her podcast of the same name. She also co-hosts the Hugo-nominated podcast, Ditch Diggers, and co-edits the science fiction podcast magazine, Escape Pod. She lives in Durham, NC, with her husband, daughter, and two dogs.

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