This year has been heralded as a huge one for women on network television. Sitcoms with female protagonists like “the New Girl,” “2 Broke Girls” and “Whitney” have premiered, while standbys “30 Rock,” “the Office” and “Parks & Recreation” have fostered and added to their female supporting casts. “The Good Wife” fills the law procedural niche, just as “Bones” fits for those who love their forensic investigations with a hint of neurotic romance. Warning: don’t get too excited.
“We’re approaching labia saturation on television,” said Two and a Half Men creator Lee Aronsohn earlier this week. “Enough, ladies, I get it. You have periods.”
We are, apparently, in the era of “Bridesmaids”-esque gross-out girls. Women on network television, really for the first time since Roseanne went off the air in 1997, are visible, sexual and imperfect. These women are largely white, and in urban, class-privileged positions, but there are a lot of them, and that, in and of itself, presents a threat to the status quo.
“Two and a Half Men,” created as a a vehicle for noted misogynist Charlie Sheen and his character (named Charlie), has only featured women in a number of standard paradigms: bimbo, shrew, stalker, desexualized and aggressive fat woman, drunk WASP mother, etc. The show, which until Sheen’s departure was among the most highly-watched shows on television, has never really been a site for women to flourish. These female characters serve exclusively to further the plotlines and wacky situational comedy of their “two and a half” male characters. This is not to entirely fault “Two and a Half Men;” how many male-centric sitcoms would be able to survive without the jokes made entirely on the backs of their beleaguered and tropic wives, girlfriends, daughters, grandmothers, female employees and co-workers?
There is never a sense that “we” will ever approach dick saturation, though we’ve heard that some are small and some are large and they get even smaller after one goes into a pool. There is never a sense that “we” will ever approach talking-about-football saturation, even though we’ve seen these serious discussions run the gamut from mundane to enthralling on television, from Budweiser commercials to “Friday Night Lights.” Women, however, are doing it wrong. Remember, y’all? Women aren’t funny.
Of course it is not relevant that these shows are mostly written, directed and produced by men, on networks run by men, owned by conglomerates run by men; Lee Aronsohn is aware that we’re getting our periods, ladies.
Aronsohn’s been defended all over the place – by Rush Limbaugh, but also people who are not Rush Limbaugh – by folks saying his quotes were being taken out of context, that he’s been instrumental in pioneering female-centric sitcoms (just not this “kind” of female-centric sitcoms), that he’s not really a misogynist but really just doesn’t care about your period. These things all may or may not be true. Emily Nussbaum, television critic from the New Yorker, tweeted and re-tweeted, defended and outsourced many sides of the argument on Monday, and it was WAM!mer Alyssa Rosenberg, of ThinkProgress, who challenged this whole approach, saying “I guess I’d ask why we’re outsourcing what counts as a useful or feminist show to a dude. Norms change.”
One such norm is how “ugly” women are allowed to be. This is not ugly in the Ugly Betty sense, or ugly in the best-friend-with-whom-there-will-never-be-sex sense, but more along the lines of complicated and flawed and inconsistent and shitty, like a lot of us are in the world outside of network sitcoms. WAM!mer Sady Doyle wrote this week at Tiger Beatdown about the joy of watching terrible Betty Draper Francis on “Mad Men,” because Betty is an asshole.
“I selfishly want Betty to be awful because I just really enjoy unsympathetic female characters,” Doyle said. “I think they challenge the idea that women in the public eye should never be ugly; that a woman’s first duty, at all times, is to be merely “pleasing.” I enjoy a story that makes you hang out with flawed women, and forces you to value them for something other than conventional lovability.”
Aronsohn’s comments aren’t really about anyone’s vagina; they are about weird, antiheroic women, unlikeable women, women who have no interest in fucking Charlie Sheen, even if they might want to talk about it for a few hours. This reinforces, as Rosenberg said this week, that even when television is for women, it’s really for men.
That may be the reason why, while I’m glad that women are being seen more fully and more often, I don’t particularly like any of these new female-driven shows, or their protagonists. And that’s okay; not everyone can watch everything. I can’t stomach Zooey Deschanel’s manic pixie dream girl thing, “2 Broke Girls” is apparently super racist, and from the posters I saw leading up to its premiere, “Whitney” and I don’t really have the same ideas about gender essentialism. I am only one woman, and there’s good evidence to show that women (and men!) who aren’t me are watching. I also know that the newest and most heralded show about “ugly” women, HBO’s Lena Dunham-created “Girls,” sounds like my worst nightmare. It is my worst nightmare, though, because I know versions of those “girls” in real life, and I’ve been trying since middle school to steer clear. I understand that everyone has problems, but I spend enough time with 20-something white upper-middle-class girls who go to private colleges; I’d rather watch “Say Yes to the Dress.”
The lesson we should take from this new round of sexist bullshit is the same message coming from the VIDA count, from the stories about Limbaugh, or from coverage of this week’s National Magazine Awards, for which not a single woman was nominated. Write! Act! Create! Build a counter-narrative! Foster the talent of those around you! Ladies (and allies) in positions of power: nurture and hire women! And don’t let anyone tell you we’ve reached a “vaginal peak,” because we can only go further from here.