This season is one of unprecedented visibility for shows created by and starring women. 2 Broke Girls, Whitney, New Girl, Pan Am, Prime Suspect, The Playboy Club, and several others feature more female protagonists than we’ve seen in a while. As both a feminist and an entertainment writer, I think pop culture matters a great deal in terms of both how us women see ourselves, and how society is comfortable treating us. I want to support women in television, so I tried to give each of these shows a fair shake. Unfortunately, despite their dominance by ladies, I don’t think many of these offerings are helping to combat sexist stereotypes. I’m talking about the stereotypes we see in characters on television, as well as the stereotype that women just aren’t funny.
The figure who looms the largest in this arena is Whitney Cummings. She co-created two new shows this season, one of which she stars in. Cummings first gained prominence for her dirty, nasty speeches at Comedy Central’s roasts, so I was excited to see how her take on comedy would translate to prime time. Unfortunately, the answer is “not very well.” Pretty much all of the jokes in Whitney are based on old school, “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”-style gender stereotypes. Whitney plays a shrewish woman who hassles her oafish boyfriend (sometimes amusingly) about stuff; she built a whole episode around getting mad at him for checking out another girl. As if that weren’t bad enough, she also insists that women don’t ever check out handsome men, and mocks her boyfriend for thinking so. An informal poll of my female acquaintances reveals that not a single one has ever gotten angry with a boyfriend for looking at another woman, and furthermore, we all notice when a fellow is physically attractive. (I mean, duh. Just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean you stop having eyes.) Also, I realize this is subjective, but I didn’t laugh a single time when watching the first few episodes of this show. I did, however, share glances with my roommate like, “really?”
Whitney’s other creation, 2 Broke Girls, is more progressive in its premise; it’s great to see a buddy comedy about two women in which men are the auxiliary characters. I also give the show 1,000 points for admitting that yes, women masturbate. But sexism affects men, too, and most of the male characters are flat stereotypes, like the libidinous line cook who can’t stop staring at Max’s tits, or the heavily accented diner owner Han “Bryce” Lee, who is mainly used for race gags. But the show’s greatest crime is the fact that it’s painfully un-funny. Whatever hip, cutting sarcasm they’re trying to imbue Max with is completely undermined by the incongruous laugh track and off-the-mark cultural references. (Last I checked, most indie music snobs would rather commit hari kari than admit they listen to Coldplay.) And I’m not even going to touch the lack of realism in terms of where in Brooklyn “2 broke girls” can afford to live.
New Girl suffers from a combination of the aforementioned sexism and un-funniness; you know you’re in trouble when it seems like Zooey Deschanel is too nuanced an actress for your show. The Playboy Club presented an idealized fantasy of Hef’s empire of boobs that might have appealed more to men than women, and has already been canceled. The only two notable standouts I’ve seen so far are Prime Suspect and Up All Night. In the former, Maria Bello plays a bad ass detective who is as well-rounded as it’s possible for a character to be, given the limits of the genre. In the latter, Will Arnett stays at home with the baby while Christina Applegate goes back to work, and parents are portrayed as human beings with lives outside of child rearing.
This disappointing lack of progressiveness gets less surprising when you consider that the percentage of women working in writers’ rooms has dropped from 35% (in ’06-’07) to just 15%. (The percentage of racial minorities is even worse, and a topic for a whole other essay.) The easy slide into sexist jokes gets a whole lot easier when there are few women around. And as for the shows’ quality, it’s not like King Of Queens or Two and a Half Men is any funnier than Whitney or 2 Broke Girls, but the success of shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock shows that it’s possible for a show to be smart and hilarious and remain on the air. It’s great that women are gaining more visibility in TV, but we still have a ways left to go. With quantity must come quality; just because you have a vagina doesn’t automatically make your material a step forward for women, or for comedy.