30 September, 2010

My Day of Misogyny

A little backstory - after returning from a lengthy stint abroad, I haven't yet fallen into a regular work pattern. So I've been at home a lot with only daytime TV to entertain me (there's only so much time one can spend on Facebook). Having cable at my disposal that shouldn't be so bad (although Diagnosis Murder on BBC1 remains unmatched so far as shows involving crime-fighting physicians go) but I discovered a large part of what's on offer is a veritable visual feast of sexism.

I like comedy, so these last few days I settled on Comedy Central to soundtrack my post-morning paper day:

9am - 10am Frasier

I like Frasier. I used to watch it when it was originally shown in the nineties/noughties. However, revisiting it with more mature, feminist eyes, does diminish its legend somewhat.

The main female characters are Daphne, a live-in carer come housemaid, and Roz, Fraiser's radio show producer. Daphne is a Benny Hill type female cliche (ironically the actress, Jane Leeves, made her name as a Benny Hill girl, so that's possibly why she didn't flinch at taking on such a sexist role) - dizzy and distinctly unintelligent, she is continually mocked for being too talkative and her supposedly terrible cooking - not generally in a physical therapist's remit, so far as I'm aware - is a running joke. Her main part in the show is to serve as the love interest for Frasier's brother. Unrelatedly, her Mancunian accent is the worst I've heard this side Peru.

Roz is a more impressive character in that she has a successful career in radio. There the feminist glories end. The running gag with Roz is that she's promiscuous. Needless to say this is not presented as a liberated, modern choice, but rather makes her the subject of regular lewd jokes about her sex life. This is, somewhat confusingly, paired with the decision to gradually turn her into a Bridget Jones type. She is also desperate to find a husband and often frets about her age (she has passed that golden threshold of 30). She eventually finds redemption in motherhood.

The more peripheral female characters come in the form of girlfriends for our protagonist, Frasier, and his father, Martin. Frasier in his mid forties, is also on the lookout for romance; I have a theory that his failure to find a long term partner is based on the fact that he rarely dates women out of their late twenties to early thirties. Confusingly there are lots of women in their forties around - they are the love interests of his 60-something-year-old father. In the course of the series he is engaged twice to women two decades his junior. Only Niles, the younger brother, ends up with a woman closeish to his own age when he eventually marries Daphne.

Special mention also to Lillith, Frasier's ex-wife. She is the typical bitch ex wife, and stereotypical frigid "ice queen" type. Niles' estranged first wife, Maris is never seen on camera, but jokes are made about her obsession with food and her weight; she is constantly on the most ridiculous of diets and is so insecure about her appearance that she often refuses to be seen in public. As a psychiatrist you'd think her husband would recognise probable body dismorphic disorder and a large dose of agoraphobia, but instead the character is just written off a high maintenance, nagging harridan.

10-am - 11am Everybody Loves Raymond

I've also been aware of this long-running American sitcom for quite some time; I remember watching it in the mornings when I was at university.

It's a family set-up, our protagonist Raymond, along with his wife and children, parents and brother. His wife, Deborah, is again stereotype wife. Her terrible cooking is again a running gag, her housekeeping is poor, she denies her hapless husband sex and not an episode goes past where she isn't shown nagging him (not surprising when they have three children and he makes no contribution to the chores). The other main female character is Raymond's mother, a shrill harpy who constantly nags her husband (to be fair, he is also portrayed as a fairly unpleasant character) and exists mainly to fill the snooty mother in law cliche and make her daughter in law's life hell. The only other recurring character is Amy, Raymond's brother Robert's on-off girlfriend. A wet dishcloth of a girl, her main goal in life is to get married and her main function in the show is to quietly wait for Robert to propose, despite him cheating on her more than one and dumping her several times before eventually committing.

11am-12pm King of Queens:

King of Queens employs a device beloved of US comedy - pairing an overweight, under-achieving, slobby, "loveable rogue" character with a somewhat unrealistically beautiful, slim, successful and intelligent wife (see also Family Guy and any film involving Seth Rowland). Not so much of a problem in itself, you may say, but imagine the scenario the other way around - doesn't happen, does it?

Carrie, and I feel wearied typing the same words again, is a stereotype wife - she constantly nags her husband, doesn't like him spending time with his friends, doesn't want sex as often as he feels is appropriate. There are mercifully no jokes about her cooking, though needless to say she does all of it, along with the shopping; but there was an extra dose of misogyny in one episode I saw where the husband, Doug, bullied the beautiful, slim Carrie into going on a diet because he thought she was getting plump, all the while making no reference to the fact that he himself is grossly obese, despite the fact that the disparity between he and his wife's weights and general physical attractiveness is something he is shown to be aware of.

12pm-1pm Scrubs:

A shining light in my day. Maybe it's because it doesn't revolve around a traditional family/household set up, but there's no sexism that I can see in this programme. And it's very funny. YAY.

1pm-3pm Frasier and King of Queens repeated.

3pm - 4pm Two and a Half Men:

The misogyny of this inexplicably popular contemporary US sitcom is so legendary I barely need to revisit it. The set up sees two middle aged brothers living together, one having occasional custody of his young son. The elder brother, Charlie (played by Charlie Sheen - not himself known for showing a great deal of respect for women) is a notorious womaniser. the male equivalent of Roz in Fraiser, if you like, but instead of censure, his almost heroic promiscuity is rewarded with praise, luckless younger brother Alan referring to him once as an episode as a "lucky, lucky bastard" as he's seen ascending the stairs accompanied by two giggling pneumatic blondes.

Charlie is in his forties but shamelessly dates women two decades his junior. He has rules about not dating women over the age of 25 and devotes a large portion of one episode I saw this week to explaining why he could never date a woman of 40 (still significantly younger than him, by this point) - because they all have big ears, apparently. He treats the women he briefly knows with nothing short of contempt - the running "joke" in this series is that he pretends to be romantically interested in women to convince them to sleep with him, then sends them away with a fake phone number. Women who attempt to pursue a relationship with him are portrayed as pathetic, clingy, boderline stalkers. One early recurring character who disappears in later series, Rose, actually IS a stalker.

Younger brother Alan is a loser in love, and clearly supposed to be a sympathetic character, with more open minded views on women than his brother. He dates women in his own age group, and generally more bookish types than the stereotyped "bimbos" his brother brings home, but his ultimate goal is also casual sex, and through his eyes women are shown as little more than receptacles to fit this purpose. One episode focussed on the absolutely "hilarious" consequences of both brothers openly lusting after a 17-year-old child. It's ok though, it is made known several times, that she is, in fact "asking for it". From two paunchy middle-aged men. Obviously.

Alan is also the link to one of the shows female leads - his ex-wife Judith. Judith is clearly modelled on Lillith from Frasier; a frigid "ice queen", who never wanted sex with her husband when they were married, continues to nag him despite their divorce, and is a "ball breaker" who continually harasses and emasculates her ex-husband. She "screwed" him in their divorce settlement and Alan always being broke because he has to pay Judith alimony - presumably to finance raising their child - is a regular joke. Alan also has a second ex-wife after a brief failed married to a 22-year-old woman so deficient in intelligence that in real life sleeping with her would probably be regarded as abuse. She also somehow "made" him pay for everything during their courtship and marriage, including her cosmetic surgery and car (despite being so thick that realistically she would have choked to death brushing her teeth before the age of 16) and he has to pay her alimony after their divorce; she too is subsequently shown as a millstone around Alan's neck.

The other recurring female character is the mens' mother. She is - wait for it - a shrill, nagging harridan who the pair do their best to avoid at all costs. They make jokes about the number of sexual partners she had in their youth (their own mother!).

Berta, Charlie's housekeeper, is butch, bullish and rude.

One storyline saw Charlie break the habit of a lifetime and fall for one of his throwaway dates. They become engaged, but when she, eminently sensibly, has misgivings about marrying him, she becomes the evil bitch who ruined his life.

There is literally not one, single female character on that show, whoever brief her appearance, who comes out of it looking good.

And so concludes my day of sexist "comedy". The evening gives way to more highbrow legal dramas such as Law and Order; even this franchise, one of my favourites, is guilty of sticking to the senior partner = male, junior partner = female set up. If I didn't watch anything that was sexist I'd probably spend a lot more time doing things more constructive than watching television. Like writing blogs about television, for example.

Thank goodness I'm working tomorrow.


  1. "there was an extra dose of misogyny in one episode I saw where the husband, Doug, bullied the beautiful, slim Carrie into going on a diet because he thought she was getting plump, all the while making no reference to the fact that he himself is grossly obese"
    Can't say for sure as I didn't see the episode, but might that not actually be the gag? It's definitely the joke in Family Guy - there's even an episode where the newsreaders mention "A fat man inexplicably married to an attractive redhead".

    But good article. Suddenly realised how icky those programmes are.

  2. I generally didn't mind the woman on Fraser- Daphne is a bit dizzy and can't cook, but also extremely confident and never questions her right to be there and to do her job (and why should she be able to cook?). I also see her as a central comic figure which is quite unusual in American comedy, where women usually pay the straight guy to the funny man (as you can see in ELR and KoQ). Similarly, Roz may be promiscuous but she doesn't stop because she is mercilessly abused about it by Fraser- she rarely shows any shame over her behaviour- and she has a killer, dry sarcasm that is a bit more typical of women in American comedy, but she doesn't fall into the stereotypical Ice-Queen mould that usually gets to play those lines. And, it's not like any of the men are particularly balanced human beings that would show up these women as neurotic- they are all neurotic together. That's the joke.

    On the other hand, I think the women in ELR, KoQ, TaTM are problematic in that they tend to play the straight guys, which reinforces 'women not funny' or they are extremely one-dimensional, such as the Ice-Queen or ditzy blond (who have no humanity). This is also one of the reasons Scrubs is problematic. The men are silly and funny and light-hearted, while the women are super-competent and neurotic. Why does the woman never get to play the funny guy? Why is her humour always in her naval-gazing neuroses? Why is it when Carla makes a mistake it is a huge deal- well, it's because she is otherwise perfect, but no man is asked to be perfect all the time. I think Scrubs fails to challenge the gendered construction of women in comic roles.

    In defence of Judith in TaHM, she is just an Ice-Queen and so one-dimensional, but part of the joke with her is that she sleeps with lots of people after her husband- so her lack of sex is about HIM, not her. (Also a bit tedious when you think about it as it continues her role as 'support' to the male character, rather than as a character in her own right). In later seasons, we will also get a serious love interest for Charlie, who is his age and intelligent, although still stunningly gorgeous- which is trying to change the dynamic of an increasingly dull show.

    I think though that it is worth considering a female characters comic role as well as her gendered identity in assessing whether they are feminist characters- because comic characters tend to imperfection but that is the humour, and we need women to be the comic characters if we want to have feminist tv.

  3. Not to rain on your parade (which is excellent and accurate) but do you not find Scrubs quite stereotyped too? Neurotic ditzy blonde Elliot always with her hair and make-up done, and fiesty hispanic Carla who nags Turk and eventually gives up the career she loves to be a housewife and mother? As much as this was the best show on your schedule I don't think that gives it an automatic pass.

  4. Yes, thinking about it, I do see the problems with the way women are presented on Scrubs. Damn it, it was the one programme I liked! Although in my defence I didn't know Carla ended up giving up her career. At least the men are kind of pathetic as well - JD is useless with relationships, Doctor Cox has huge anger issues and Doug accidentally killed half his patients before he moved to the morgue - or am I just reaching now?


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