Familiarity Breeds Content: Gender Roles in Freshman TV Comedies

by: Riley Thomas

Because sitcoms are designed to appeal to the largest amount of people possible, executives in the entertainment industry have rarely used this format to break boundaries, test limits, push a social agenda, or do anything that might alienate viewers.  Familiarity, in this case, breeds content.  In a way, this demonstrates how American situation comedies can be a cultural mirror of many ideas, including how we believe men and women act.  More importantly, sitcoms reflect how America believes men and women are supposed to act.

It is unsurprising to find that many of the new shows in the primetime lineup demonstrate little progress in the way America views men and women.  Shows like How to Be a Gentleman, Man Up, Last Man Standing or Friends with Benefits are all regurgitations of archetypes audiences have already experienced.  That’s not to say these shows are without merit, but they do little to expand the ideas of gender identity beyond what’s considered culturally “normal”.

But there are four popular primetime sitcoms that approach America’s gender norms in less than traditional ways: Up All Night, which leads the charge, followed by New Girl (Zooey Deschanel is brilliant), Whitney and 2 Broke Girls.  It bears mentioning that all of these shows are created and driven by women, itself a non-traditional approach to television.  But social evolution is as slow as biological evolution, and the progress these shows depict is largely cosmetic.

There has never been a lead of a sitcom quite like Jess from New Girl.  Zooey Deschanel has created a whimsically weird character: a bizarre, ephemeral songstress who viewers would never expect to identify with.  She rides an odd sense of confidence like a princess rides a unicorn.  The show has taken a character that wouldn’t have rated a recurring role ten years ago and turned her into a headliner.

But the reason New Girl is progressive is simply because it focuses on Jess, the non-traditional personality.  It never gets much farther than this.  Zooey Deschanel has a remarkable characterization of the role, but she’s also endearing and captivatingly beautiful, which may leave viewers with the feeling that it’s only okay to be a different kind of girl if you can pass for normal.  Additionally, the rest of the regular cast are pulled straight from the sitcom warehouse: her “normal” and stunning model best friend, and the three guys she lives with who are typical late 20-somethings that care about looking good, making money and getting laid.

On Whitney, the titular character is presented (mostly through references, not actions) to be a non-traditional kind of girl, with unpredictable and unorthodox reactions that are contrary to the current idea of femininity.  However, each episode has been centered with a very traditional and very “feminine” storyline, with Whitney acting as one would expect a customary female to act.   When she suspects her boyfriend has checked out another woman, she gives him “the silent treatment” for the entire episode.  Her boyfriend reacts just as customarily, with bliss at the momentary quiet.  Another episode has the couple arguing over who is the least romantic, and in a galling show of one-upmanship, they compete to see who will tap out first after being disgusted by the other’s over-the-top romanticism.

This could have been a great demonstration of how a woman doesn’t need to value romance to love, but it wound up predictably: they witness a proposal and Whitney has tears of joy, proving – surprise – she is a romantic after all.  It helps that Chris D’Elia, the man who plays her boyfriend, strays a little from the leading man look, and Maulik Pancholy’s characterization of Neal is a little alternative, but overall, Whitney chose to fill the ensemble from the same warehouse as New Girl, with a womanizing male friend, a blonde who’s perpetually single and unhappy about it, and heavy handed, obvious pokes to gender paradigms.

Max, one of the main characters on 2 Broke Girls, is same archetype as Whitney.  Self-described as “not your grrr or your grrrl, and definitely not one of those two for one girlfriend crap a nail store”, Max is a Brooklyn waitress strung out by debt, who seems disenchanted by the fancy or the feminine.  Out of all the characters in this fall’s lineup, Max (ironically with a name that’s more frequently male) is arguably the most progressive in terms of gender identity.  She thrifts at Good Will and happily shovels droppings from her pet horse.  (Side note: Pet horse in Brooklyn?  Really?)  But Max’s role on the show is to serve as a foil for her new friend Caroline, a riches to rags beautiful blonde heiress.  Nothing more needs to be said about Caroline, because everything that one can assume from the phrase “riches to rags beautiful blonde heiress” has so far been proven correct.

Not enough good things can be said about Up All Night, which is beautifully written, refreshingly self-aware and subtly progressive.  Gender roles are shifted all over the place.  Chris and Regan (played delightfully by Will Arnett and Christina Applegate) are a couple with a new baby, but it’s Chris who has left his job to take care of their daughter, not Regan.  Regan’s boss is Ava (Maya Rudolph perfectly walking the line between hamminess and believability), who embodies some characteristics viewers are used to seeing in men: careerism, ineptitude with children, and genuine cluelessness.  Regan and Ava work with Curtis, who has an uncanny affinity for dealing with the new baby.  But what makes this show so progressive is that all of these dynamics simply exist.  It does not leave room for viewers to dwell on the abnormality.  They are not commented on or made into punch lines of the jokes, they are what the humor is born from.

Television is a powerful medium through which social evolution can be realized.  As sitcoms expand their ideas of what normal can be, America might be able to expand their own.

Riley Thomas is a New York City-based playwright/composer.  A volunteer with the HRC and otherwise subtle activist, Thomas hopes to use words and music to make the world a better place.