Of all the changes MTV has gone through in the past three decades, from the disappearance of videos to the development of hybrid-reality TV, the most disappointing is the role of women.
Growing up in the eighties and nineties, I relied on the network to provide aspirational versions of the grown-up high school nerd. They were the 'it gets better' spokespeople for Gen X girls, reminding us that clever and unconventionally pretty, could be a winning combination in adult life.
At a time when primetime was ruled by Dynasty and Dukes of Hazard, Quinn provided an alternative view of a women who didn't need diamonds or Daisy Dukes to be utterly watchable. She laid the groundwork for dry, clever commentators like Kennedy, as well as MTV newsers like Tabitha Soren and Alison Stewart, who won a Peabody award in 1992 for her coverage of the election on the network.
These days, the female face of MTV is a fall-down-drunk, breast-flashing, often-hand cuffed, lovable dim-wit named Snooki. What happened to sharp, quirky, un-phased: Kennedys, Quinns and Darias of our youth?
Blame reality TV, or rather, hybrid-reality, a device that's garnered the network some of it's best ratings. When "The Real World" premiered in the early '90s, the female cast-members were career-driven, decently-dressed and prudish in their on-camera romantic exploits. By the time the rest of TV caught up with the reality trend, the network put a hot-tub in every house to ensure that bikinis were worn at all hours of the day.
Then came the success of "Newlyweds", a series that made Jessica Simpson famous for being a dumb blond. Her Chicken-of-the-Sea confusion created a caricature of woman who was celebrated for what she didn't know, as opposed to what she did. "Laguna Beach" and later, "The Hills", picked up on the shiny, blond, unintentionally humorous trend. And by the time "Jersey Shore" premiered, airhead-ness was equal-opportunity.
The roster of "Teen Moms", though troubled may have been a return to the roots of real women. But airing on the same network as Snooki, they hit roadblocks. Two of this season's cast-members have gotten breast implants since the series first aired and several others have been in serious brushes with the law for violence, drug use and theft.
Attempts to bring back that old high-school-outsider-turned-cool-girl of Quinn's era were noble failures. "My Life as Liz" was canceled in it's second season, unable to complete with "Jersey Shore's" record breaking ratings. And reporter Su-Chin Pak, the last vestige of Soren's school of thought, has been relegated to "Teen Mom" post-shows on the web.
Where did all the cool girls go? Vanished with out a trace. The only hope for a sea change: the network's newest scripted series, "Awkward". The Heathers-meets-bloggers comedy about a brainy high school outsider, debuted to strong ratings last week. Consider it a signal to programmers: there's still audience for the Martha Quinns of the world.