The Cutprice Guignol

The Sixth Year: American Sigh Story

Tag: sitcom sexism

How I Slut-Shamed Your Mother

So, I’ve written before about How I Met Your Mother, because it was one of the first sitcoms I truly loved- sure, it might have paled in comparison to Frasier and Happy Endings and Suburgatory and Frasier (did I mention Frasier?) in recent years, but it’s still my baby and I adore it. I last watched it when the final season was airing in 2014, and I kind of forgot about it after that atrocious ending. A few nights ago, the Consort and I were looking for something to do (besides writing Doctor Who reviews, shameless plug), and we decided to watch a few of our favourite episodes of HIMYM. And both of us came away feeling kind of…urgh. I’d never before realized just quite how fucking grim one of my favourite comedies actually is.

I picked a shot with headless women in the background, because SYMBOLISM.

If you’re in any way acquainted with the show, you’ll know that Neil Patrick Harris, the King of my heart and also of this version of Sugar Daddy from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, plays breakout character Barney Stinson, a hyper-horrible pick up artist who treats women entirely as conquests to be slept with then discarded through any means necessary. Obviously, that’s pretty gross as it is, but generally the audience is encouraged to laugh at his pathetically grim attempts to pick up women, not with him. But then there’s the way he talks about women-hos, sluts, hefties, amongst a variety of other terms, all of which the studio audience howl along with. Guys, guys, look how funny it is that he consistently treats women like shit for engaging in casual sex or not conforming to society’s idealised version of them! And that ends up blurring the line uncomfortably between laughing at his convoluted “plays” to hook up with women, and laughing at the women he takes in with them for being so easy. Equally, there are a couple of episodes where less-than-perfect men are derided for, you know, having a sex drive and wanting to be treated like a normal human being.

If every single tertiary female character didn’t look and act like this, I might feel better about the whole thing.

His character might be a caricature, but the use of these terms isn’t, as evidenced by the fact the rest of the characters regularly describe women like that too. But who can blame them, considering the fact that almost every secondary female character on this show is treated like a dumb slut? They’re consistently stupid, drunk, gullible, vulnerable people, just waiting for our main character to swoop down on them, manipulate them, fuck them, and dump them. Or they’re prudes, torturing our innocent male characters with a lack of sex, (seriously, that plotline turns up an embarrassing amount during the series) which is equally awful. I’ve written before about how sitcom’s compressed time frame often cause sexist/racist/whatever-ist stereotypes, but none have done so as consistently as this. Especially when you compare them to the tertiary male characters, who get actual funny plotlines and don’t have to have their tits out to be shown on camera.

To be fair though, Kyle Machlachlan has a recurring role in the series so I love everything about it and it’s perfect.

But hey, I hear you cry, they have two female lead characters on this show (three if you count the titular Mother in season nine), so they can’t be that bad, can they? Well, yeah, I’m not going to dispute the fact that Robin (played by Cobie Smulders) and Lily (played by Alyson Hannigan) are as well-realized characters as their male counterparts, but they’re regularly shown as part of the Not One of Those Girls trope- they drink, they smoke pot, they enjoy sex, and they’re just as happy to describe women as “bitches” or “sluts” as their male counterparts. It’s okay to deride them, the show seems to tacitly argue, because even though they engage in a lot of the behaviours the derided “hos” do, because they shame other women for doing it, too. There’s something uber-grim about women shaming other women for their behaviour- Christ, it took me months to get rid of the involuntary twitch of disapproval whenever I met a woman who was engaging in behaviours I’d been taught weren’t “ladylike”-but here it’s used to show how cool and down these women are. Ladies, take note: dudes will like you if you call other women dumb sluts!

They’re not like those other girls, because the show often makes jokes of Lily’s high sex drive, or has the men encouraging them to perform lesbianism for them, or other characters calling them sluts for hooking up with people “too soon”. And it’s doubly a shame, because HIMYM has done some awesome stuff with it’s women characters- an infertility plotline was handled fucking beautifully, and the way the show treats their careers as just as valid as the male character’s is heartening. But let’s not forget that one of the biggest plotlines of the series revolves around Barney and Robin, and how he manipulates her by lying to her, dating someone she doesn’t like to make her jealous, and telling her they could never be together, only for her to fall at his feet when he proposes and have it treated as the most romantic thing in the world. For everything good they do with their women characters, they undermine it by holding up manipulation, unwanted persistence, and outright cruel behaviour as something women should look for in a man (and something men should be doing to get women).

Josh Radnor, who plays main character Ted, makes decent riffs on Woody Allen films now. Skip Liberal Arts, go for happythankyoumoreplease.

But when it comes down to it, this is a show that consistently shames women for their sexual behaviour, while it holds up men’s conquests as a victory. And that’s a shame, because it’s a really excellent comedy show- which is not to say that I suddenly don’t find it funny, but, with whole episodes revolving around how Barney has cruelly manipulated women into sex and then discarded them, it’s difficult to laugh along quite as heartily. God-dammit, How I Met Your Mother.

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.