Throughout most of its history, the general trend of television has been sexist, with lots of hysterical women driving dramas and lots of eye-rolling jokes about women being nags and prudes filling up sitcoms. The past decade, however, has seen a rise in high-quality television that strives to engage creatively with interesting, socially relevant ideas. This has meant much better, more complex female characters on TV, as well as feminist themes interwoven into the plots of the show. It’s a good time to be a thoughtful feminist watching TV.
But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Despite an overall improvement in the quality of television, even the best shows sometimes fall back on tired clichés about gender and sexuality. The reasons vary dramatically, but at the end of the day, these moments of tired sexism are most jarring not because they’re “politically incorrect,” but because they come across as false and push the audience away from maintaining their suspension of disbelief. So here’s a list of eight WTF sexist moments that hurt–or in some cases, permanently destroyed–otherwise good television shows.
***SPOILER alert: This post contains details about past episodes of “Community,” “Mad Men,” “30 Rock,” “The Killing,” “Veronica Mars,” “The Walking Dead,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Sex and the City.”
1. Britta Perry declares her love for Jeff Winger on “Community.” Britta Perry is the token leftist feminist of an eclectic group of friends in this show about the comical goings-on of a Colorado community college. Most feminists don’t mind the constant potshots taken at Britta for her often-childish and self-centered take on feminist and liberal politics. The show leaves no sacred cow untipped, and feminists are certainly not off-limits for ribbing. But Britta has also been consistently characterized as breezily assured of her sexuality and her right to indulge in casual sex, in contrast to tedious sitcom stereotypes that would have you believe all women mistake sex for love.
So why then did the writers have her humiliate herself in the finale of the first season with a public declaration of love for Jeff simply because they had a one-night stand? Until that moment, there had been no indication that Britta felt anything for Jeff besides naked lust combined with a bit of fraternal camaraderie. Why would the audience think she would turn to a simpering romantic just because she touched his penis once?
Luckily, the writers seemed to grasp just as quickly as the audience how out of character this behavior was for Britta, and simply dropped the romance storyline, replacing it with indications that Britta and Jeff have nothing more than a friends-with-benefits relationship.
2. Joan Holloway on “Mad Men” doesn’t get an abortion. “Mad Men,” a drama about a 1960s-era advertising firm, is renowned for its thoughtful, pro-feminist view, so this failure is especially disappointing. When Joan got pregnant, the pro-choicers in the audience collectively grew anxious. Already, “Mad Men” had engaged in the cliché of having a character, Betty, consider and then abandon the idea of an abortion, even though it seemed like the smartest choice. With Joan, the possibility of keeping a pregnancy seemed even stranger. Not only were the stakes higher in her situation, as she’s married to a violent rapist who is likely to react poorly if he finds out she’s pregnant with another man’s baby, but the show had already established that Joan had prior abortions and no moral qualms about the procedure.
After leading the audience to believe for several episodes that Joan did, in fact, get an abortion, the show’s writers punked out in the season finale, putting her in a scene where she’s chatting about her pregnancy with her husband while he’s stationed in Vietnam. While there were prior efforts to show how much Joan wanted a baby with her new husband, the moment still felt false in an otherwise great episode. Joan Holloway has always been portrayed as a survivor and an eminently pragmatic person; it’s hard to imagine she’d be this eager to put herself in danger just to have a baby right now.
3. Liz Lemon steals a baby on “30 Rock.” While “30 Rock” employs a lot of traditional sexist tropes to create comic situations in its setting behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show at NBC, they are usually tweaked in some way to subvert expectations and avoid the typical sexist themes. Sure, Liz may be a loser at love, but you discover that it’s not because of TV’s steadfast belief that “career women” can’t find husbands, but because Liz herself is a misanthrope who sabotages every potential relationship because deep down, she has no real desire to share her life.
Would such a woman be baby crazy enough that, when given a random baby to hold at work, she loses her mind and wanders home, coochie-cooing the baby for half an hour until she realizes her terrible mistake and returns the baby in shame? It doesn’t make any sense, but this happens in one of the least funny incidents on the fast-paced sitcom. Sure, babies are cute, but there’s no way they’d try that story line with a male character. The show seemed to be suggesting that because Liz is female, she can barely control her baby lust or her strong desire to stay at home instead of hold an income-generating job. The show is much better off when it portrays Liz as a workaholic who can’t quite accept that she’s married to her job, rather than a baby-hungry, single-woman stereotype.
4. Detective Linden has stupid problems on “The Killing.” “The Killing” had one of the most promising pilot episodes of any TV series in recent memory, immediately drawing hopeful comparisons to luminary programs such as “Twin Peaks,” with its portrayal of a sharp detective trying to solve a single murder that has implications for an entire city. To add to the excitement, the show was built around a normal-seeming but highly competent female detective, setting expectations high that we would see a female professional portrayed honestly on television.
Unfortunately, the show demonstrated in a few episodes that it had no chance of living up to the high expectations. One of the most prominent demonstrations of its lack of imagination is the stereotypical, sexist problems the writers gave Sarah Linden in her personal life. She had a nagging son and fiancé, and while she clearly loved her work, we were expected to believe she was ready to throw it all away for marriage without really thinking it through. The ready assumption that professional women necessarily struggle with unsupportive families and a desire to head to the kitchen seemed like it was straight from a ’70s-era reactionary film, and no amount of grim determination on actress Mireille Enos’ face could cover up the flaws in her characterization.
5. Evil feminists fake a rape on “Veronica Mars.” The first two seasons of “Veronica Mars” nicely helped feminist TV fans minimize the withdrawal symptoms from the end of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The show followed a teenage girl who chooses to live a life of a private investigator instead of simply being content with high school and college. Sure, Veronica could never fully compete with Buffy in a one-on-one competition of witty, badass ladies with surprising vulnerabilities, but as a 21st-century Nancy Drew, she still provided the audience with mysteries to solve and a fun and clever heroine to root for.
Well, the writers must have realized they’d cultivated a feminist audience and feared they’d get cooties, because they spent the third season portraying feminists as evil bitches set on destroying the supposed wonderland of the college Greek system. Feminists on the show faked a rape specifically to take down the fraternities at Veronica’s college, and only Veronica has the wits to stop them.
A word to every television writer who thinks it’s clever to write a plot where a woman “cries rape,” is instantly believed, and turns out to be a liar: you’re not clever. That may be the stupidest cliché ever on television. To watch TV, you’d think all rape victims are instantly believed and comforted, and that the vast majority of them are lying. In reality, the percentage of rape reports that are false is 2-8 percent, in line with false reports of other crimes. Victims who speak out don’t actually face a warm bath of social acceptance; more often they get mostly hostility from friends, family and law enforcement. Because of this, only an estimated 6 percent of rapists actually spend a day in jail. TV writers who want to do something daring and interesting about rape would actually be going against the grain by showing a determined crime fighter getting justice for a rape victim who is being stonewalled at every turn. Learn from the failures of “Veronica Mars,” which was summarily canceled after the feminists-are-evil plot of season three.
6. The baffling would-be abortion on “The Walking Dead.” Lori Grimes on “The Walking Dead” is pregnant, and for very good reasons, doesn’t want to be. After all, the show follows a band of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, which ranks at the top of least ideal situations in human history for bringing forth new life. Zombies are known to pick off the slowest member of the group, so waddling along heavy with child simply isn’t in your best interest. To make it worse, Lori might be pregnant by her husband’s best friend, whom she sought comfort with while mistakenly believing her husband dead.
The show deals with this in the worst possible way. First of all, Lori is shown trying to take a box of pills comically labeled “Morning-After Pills,” even though that’s just a nickname for emergency contraception. This, even though the morning-after pill is not abortion, and taking it after testing positive for pregnancy is likely to work as well as jumping up and down. But even allowing for the slim possibility that the writers were trying to show that the characters are stupid enough to believe this, the way the entire plot goes down is unforgivable. The writers employ the standard “woman gets talked out of an abortion” cliché that follows every time someone has an unintended pregnancy on TV, right down to using a sad and desperate husband bully his wife into having a baby by saying, “We’ll find a way.” Oh really? A way around the zombie apocalypse? If you actually had such a way, you wouldn’t be holding back until someone has an emergency pregnancy situation to break open the glass labeled “finding a way to raise a happy family during a zombie apocalypse.”
7. April Ludgate and Andy Dwyer get married on “Parks and Recreation.” Fans love “Parks and Recreation” for its warm-hearted but satirical take on life inside small-town, middle-America government agencies. After countless jokes about how April is too young to do much of anything, including go into a bar with her over-21 boyfriend Andy, the writers decided that the best thing to do with these two characters is marry them off. That wasn’t so much of a problem, since there’s no rule on television against characters doing profoundly stupid things (and in fact, you need characters to make bad decisions to make sure the plot keeps churning).
The problem is that the show clearly wanted the audience to root for immature marriage as an objective good. The main character Leslie Knope plays the role of the curmudgeon throughout the episode, and her wise reminders to take your time and not rush into marriage are portrayed as clueless moral scolding. The climax of the show centers around Leslie giving up her cherished feminist beliefs about delaying marriage until maturity and joining in a sentimental celebration of two very immature people making an important decision they’re clearly not ready for.
The episode hinted at the decline of what was once the best sitcom on TV. The most recent season has featured a drift away from the satirical approach to the characters and toward a sentimental goopiness that doesn’t allow that the characters could ever really be wrong in their decisions, even when it’s something as foolish as getting married too young.
8. Miranda Hobbes dashes out of an abortion clinic on “Sex and the City.” It’s a wonder abortion clinics in TV Land stay in business, since it seems most of their traffic comes from women coming in, sitting down for two minutes, and then dashing out the door in a vale of tears. Perhaps abortion clinics charge a cover at the door on TV. “Sex and the City” practically set the template for this kind of storyline in 2001, when Miranda decides at the last minute to forgo an abortion on the grounds that this pregnancy might be her last chance to have a baby.
“Sex and the City” disappointed feminists in many ways, but the show was usually stalwart in its support of women’s reproductive, social and economic rights. Viewers could tell the writers were reluctant to give that distinction up, even while engaging in the cliché of having a character reject the possibility of abortion, and so Miranda’s story was accompanied by Carrie reflecting on a past abortion and Samantha mentioning having had two in passing. While it was nice having the writers go out of their way to validate both the choices to have an abortion and to keep the pregnancy, they still managed to do so in a way that avoided showing a character actually choosing an abortion during the course of the show. For a show that was supposed to be revolutionary in its approach to women, Miranda’s choice felt like a punt.
While television is becoming more daring and more feminist all the time, it’s clear from this list that there are many basic feminist ideas that still read as taboo on the small screen: the realities of rape, women’s ability to choose abortion without shame; the fact that not all women are hungry for marriage and babies; and women’s genuine experiences of having passion for their work. If you’re a TV writer looking to break some boundaries and do something genuinely interesting, may I recommend tackling these issues bravely and honestly?
Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.