I Bitch About Network Television Some More

6 Oct

If you live in a major metropolitan area and have so much as left your house, you’ve seen advertisements for “Whitney,” starring stand-up comedian Whitney Cummings. Now, network sitcoms are the biggest money-making form of comedy in show business, there’s no disputing that, and plenty of comedians jump at the chance to get one because of the payday. However, there’s a reason why network sitcoms are so successful:

1. They get exposure to a broad, mainstream audience.

2. Broad, mainstream audiences are mostly dumb.

3. The sitcoms are written to be mostly dumb.

Number 3 is always applicable to how that show handles gender relationships, and Whitney just reminds me of some of the problems I have with the way gender is portrayed in mainstream comedy. Specifically: men and women in a relationship with each other are never shown as equals.

Depending on whether the show is trying to cater to men or women, a relationship is shown in one of two ways:

1. The man is a lovable, dumb, man-child loser who just wants to have fun, and his wife is constantly frustrated by his mess-ups, but we’re supposed to love him anyway because we’re told he’s lovable.

2. The woman is castrating and mean to the man, because that’s Hollywood’s only way of depicting a woman who is “independent” and “liberated,” and the man somehow wants to stay because we are told the woman is lovable.

Whitney seems to opt for number 2, a vibe you can get simply by looking at this promo image:

The main characters are supposed to be a long-term boyfriend and girlfriend, but would you get that vibe from looking at this image? Do they looks like people who like each other? I see Whitney’s smirk as saying “Awww yeah, I’m gonna make his life a living hell,” and the boyfriend’s raised eyebrow as saying “Oh no, what the hell have I gotten myself into?”

Also, consider one of the gags from one of the episodes. Whitney’s character agrees to make roleplay part of their bedroom rituals, so she dresses up as a nurse for her boyfriend. The joke is that she then asks the boyfriend to fill out a bunch of forms (something I can, having dealt with hospitals and ambulances lately, identify with) and then leaves the room. Now, if this is supposed to be punishment for the boyfriend asking for some kind of fantasy play she finds demeaning, fine, but the boyfriend just sits there and shrugs, taking it, with no attempt at reaction, which I don’t buy.

Now, keep in mind, I am saying I have a problem with a depiction of BOTH genders here. I think there are more ways of writing a woman than just “tired housewife” and “sexy, mean bitch,” as well as there are more ways of writing a man character than “dumb” and “pussywhipped.” Why can’t we see what the guy’s reaction to this is, and see what the argument is like, which may provide for some more jokes?

One of the things that bothers me about it is that it seems kind of pointless in today’s context. There’s not as much of a reason for plots to center around the tired old battle-of-the-sexes themes when the truth is that when women say they are searching for “equality,” they mean just that, “equality,” not just to tame men and keep them as pets. That’s just what mostly male comedy writers think of when they’re told to write women who are “equal.”

Women can make money and, mostly, live without men, if they so choose, so there seems less reason for two people to stay with each other if the script just shows them sniping at each other and competing all the time. At least when Lucy and Ricky were trying to outwit each other, it was because there were clear and present social constraints on women that gave Lucy’s quest for attention and autonomy some kind of meaning and urgency. Now the dynamic seems more to say “Hey, we HATE each other, and that’s why it’s funny!”

For some reason I have a particular affection for Lucy and Ricky as a model of a relationship where there was truly some sense of equality. Despite the fact that Ricky was the head of the household and the one who made the money, Lucy had a wit in the way she talked to Ricky that made her seem capable without seeming castrating. There was an affection in the way she would tease Ricky for his accent or his temper, and the schemes she would concoct were often not with the aim of humiliating Ricky, but just to be a part of his life.

Maybe it was because in real life Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were very much equals, acting as business partners as well as husband and wife, and continuing to work together even after their divorce. It was modeled on an actual relationship, instead of just manufactured to provide HEE-LARIOUS, pseudo-witty repartee.

I guess that exposes a much greater flaw, in that the whole sitcom is built around trying to get jokes and gags out at a rapid-fire pace instead of developing and exploring plausible character relationships. One thing I’ve learned from listening to experienced sketch writers and improvisers is that the best comedy comes when the focus is on developing a character and a premise, and not just going for jokes. Maybe that larger flaw in the foundation is what leads to a perceived need to pander and create these useless, erroneous gender dynamics. Why build a character when we can rely on already understood stereotypes?

Yuck. I might work for some of these people some day.

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