Written by Amber Leab. Originally published at Bitch Flicks. Cross-posted with permission.
After the season premiere of Parks and Recreation (Knope 2012!) and The Office last Thursday night, I left the TV on and caught the series premiere of Whitney, the new sitcom created by and starring comic Whitney Cummings.
I was first taken aback by the retro format of Whitney: it had a laugh track. To be more accurate, the show is taped in front of a live studio audience, but the frequency and monotonous tone of the laughter reminded me of nothing but a LAUGH sign flashing in front of the audience, and everyone there dutifully following the director’s cue.
What was far worse than the studio audience laugh track was the actual content of the show. Before I start sounding like a hater–a comedy created by and starring a woman is progress, right?!–let me say that I do sincerely hope the show gets better. Much, much better, and quick, or else I fear it may be canceled. Which may or may not be a good thing.
Warning: there are spoilers here if you haven’t seen the pilot yet, but I’m not going to ruin anything good, I promise.
Here’s the basic premise of the pilot: Whitney and her long-term boyfriend live together, and we see that familiarity in their relationship (she shaves her upper lip in front of him) has put a damper on their sex life. She tries “Spicing Things Up” (the title of the episode) with a little role playing. She finds a naughty nurse costume and, when the intended ravaging doesn’t take place, spends the rest of the episode still wearing the costume. Some other things happen, physical comedy, conversations between women in which other women are bashed, blah blah blah.
The show is a run of cliches. The episode kicks off with a wedding. The romance is gone between Whitney and her man, and it’s up to her to excite him (lest he run out and get it somewhere else, which is immediately presented as an option for him). A black woman appears as an emergency room nurse and is deemed “scary” by the star. A racist mother is played for laughs and deemed “eccentric.” There’s a joke about online stalking. And blackface.
The race fail cannot be ignored and is, unfortunately, par for the course on network television. Whitney is another show focusing on privileged white people, with a minority character or two thrown in for ‘flavor,’ but not featuring a person of color as a major character. The repetition of this scenario in show after show reminds us that institutional racism is far from a thing of the past.
There’s a lot more I could say on the previous point, but I want to focus on the contradictions of a show created by and starring a woman that participates in misogyny and sexism. Romance fades in relationships and people try to bring it back, and there’s ample room for comedy in that scenario. What bothers me most about the pilot of Whitney is that she wears the nurse costume for the entire second half of the episode, after taking her boyfriend to the hospital (I won’t tell you why he goes–it was the only thing that made me laugh). Was it to keep men watching the show? “Oh, we’ll trick MEN into watching by keeping the star in a humiliating skimpy costume! Brilliant! Hahahaha!” Was it supposed to be funny, showing us how silly and hapless Whitney is? It wasn’t funny, it was distracting. All I kept thinking was how I’d at least throw some sweatpants on before leaving the house.
This self-objectification (assuming Cummings has creative power in her show and chose to wear the costume) is nothing but enlightened sexism and does not, as the episode would likely have us believe, show that we’re post-feminist. Self-objectification is still objectification. Even if Whitney took the lead in going out to find a costume for role-playing, her body is on display–even if it’s part of a joke–for viewers to consume.
But here’s the kicker. The content of the pilot directly comes from Cummings’ standup–except it reverses her comedy. Here’s a clip of her bit on role playing, and how ridiculous it is for women to wear costumes to please men (warning: not safe for work):
Here, Cummings makes fun of the concept of role playing, whereas her character in the show willingly participates in it. I wonder if this reversal is supposed to show us how clueless the character Whitney is, how unenlightened she is, how willing to demean herself. This kind reading (giving the show the benefit of the doubt, hoping that it’s not THAT blatantly misogynist) doesn’t do the show any favors, either. Sure, take a cliche as the premise–but turn it on its head. Make us want to watch. Do something different.
I can’t say I have high hopes for the show to improve. Visit the show’s official website, and you’re greeted with a large picture of Cummings, with an open-mouthed smile, and if you click to another page, you’re greeted with more open-mouthed pictures. You can watch the full pilot here, if you’re interested in seeing a scantily-clad skinny white woman be objectified/objectify herself while failing to be funny.
Isn’t it time to move beyond this type of depiction of women? It’s not funny, and I won’t watch again.
Amber Leab holds a Master’s degree in English & Comparative Literature from the University of Cincinnati and a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature & Creative Writing from Miami University. In 2008, she and Stephanie Rogers co-founded Bitch Flicks, the feminist film review site that advances “the radical notion that women like good movies.” In addition to her film analyses, her fiction has appeared in The Georgetown Review, and in other places soon, she hopes.