The League, and The Problem with Sitcom Sexism
Being a feminist and existing almost entirely on a pop-culture plane is exhausting. Casual sexism is everywhere. Games of Thrones disempowers female characters through rape before they can become all-powerful. American Horror Story has been known to piss all over it’s male characters to make room for strong women. Black Canary in Arrow gets to fight crime in the extremely practical ensemble of a bodice-ripping corset, leather trousers, and a cropped leather jacket. Bleh . Once you start noticing these little, irritating slips, it’s hard to ignore them. So when I clicked on to The League a concept-driven semi-improvised comedy based around a fantasy football league, I promised myself that I would try to ignore any of the potential quiet sexism I’d gotten used to.
And, two and a half series in, there it was. Female judges who were just waiting to sexually dominate male characters; sexy teen au pairs hired purely on looks because the child’s father wants his kid to get used to being around gorgeous women. Katie Asleton, who plays the one female main cast member, is regularly shown to be “one of the guys”, enjoying dope and booze and sex (because hey, no women I know enjoy dope and booze and sex), an exception to the other wives and girlfriends in the series (one of the main character’s wives appears, significantly, once in the first season, where her episode arc revolves around cooking lunch for everyone while they try to watch football). Women are constantly hurling themselves at the five leading men, giving the romantic side of the series a sense of being scripted as somebody’s ultimate fantasy. It’s low-level, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s kind of irritating.
But I have sexism fatigue. I just wanted to watch a show where my feminism senses weren’t going to be tingling; I’m not looking for an excuse to be enraged or feel victimised, but seeing the same tired women stereotypes paraded out was grating as a fan of pop culture (because lazy) too. And that got me thinking: is sexism more damaging to shows than stupid stereotypes? And if it is, how important is sexism in judging the intentions of it’s creators?
I think that sexism is particularly egregious when it’s unimaginative. Sitcoms have comfortably settled into a recognisable rhythm, with certain beats to hit and characters to work through. The League regurgitates a handful of stereotypes- dumb blonde, stupid promiscuous guy, sexy Latina woman, oblivious wife- that only serve to underline how easy it’s is to fall back on gender and racial safeguards because they’re easy. These stereotypes are shorthand for spelling out things that the show hasn’t got the time or inclination to do itself, because when we see a few traits from a certain stereotype applied to a character we can fill in the rest of the blanks ourselves. I’m picking on The League here, but loads of sitcoms do it, and in a way it makes sense. With twenty-three minutes to tell a story, you don’t want to spend too long developing characters who aren’t going to impact much of the rest of the series, so you’ll rely on the audience’s knowledge of stock sitcom characters to cut out the middle man. But at the same time, it’s lazy: sketch in these characters, sure, but actually make them a bit different and a bit new. Subvert expectations. The closer you look at the low-level sexism that inhabits these kind of sitcoms, the more you realize that it’s less an issue of feminism or gender disparity than it is an issue of lazy (or time-constrained, depending on how you see it) writing. The fact that they use these stereotypes for more than just female characters doesn’t excuse them, but it at least makes it understandable- and explains why the problem with sitcom sexism might well not be ill-intentioned, but rather an ingrained, quick way to get a point across.
And here’s the kicker: does it matter if the show is sexist? In an interview with Salon, co-creator Jackie Schaffer said this on the subject of sexism in the show;
“I kinda don’t really think about what anybody says. I don’t really think the show is sexist. I think we try to make it feel authentic and – it’s what we’re writing about and it’s our point of view, so maybe the world or life is a little bit sexist…”
And I don’t think that’s an entirely unfair defence. The show itself is okay, not great, not awful, with a few laugh-out-loud moments and fun characters to watch for. This is a sitcom, so it’s naturally a bit bigger and more caricatured than real life. Most of the lead characters are pretty awful people in one way or another- the sort of people who’d rent out their unknowing friend’s apartment for a porn shoot (with Seth Rogen in it, bizarrely), or force another of their friends to pay for a giant anniversary party for his wife-but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to attach all those qualities to the people who write, direct, and act in The League. There are a handful of shows whose treatment of female characters does make me suspect sexism on the part of the creators; this isn’t one of them. And hey, people behind The League could probably do with being a little more self-aware about their treatment of women. I’m not saying we should let it entirely away with the occasional sexism (and grim stalkerish behaviour which I’ll go into in more detail when I review the whole show) but there are far worse things on television that we give a pass to because they’re considered of higher intellectual or artistic quality (Read: Game of Thrones). Many of the scenes involve men talking to other men in a facetious, often sexist way that’s clearly meant to bring the audience in on how awful these guys really are. The League isn’t high art; it’s a show about a bunch of dudes and a chick in a fantasy football league. And sure, it can be pretty sexist. But we need to look at it from a practical, time-constrained point of view, so we can understand it’s reliance on stereotypes, it if not excuse it. Because understanding a problem is the only way we can effectively get rid of it, and I am so, so ready to see the back of boring sitcom sexism.