Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

A comparison of all of the women’s television networks.

Girl Meets Cowboy

The winds of change are mussing everyone’s hair over at Oxygen, the network co-founded by Oprah to compete with Lifetime and WE for the hearts and minds of America’s female cable subscribers. Last month, NBC Universal completed its purchase of Oxygen Media and named Lauren Zalaznick—the executive who turned Bravo from a tepid arts channel into a simmering pool of high-gloss reality shows—as its new head. Last week, pink slips went out to one-quarter of its employees. It is, of course, far too soon to divine what direction the network is heading, but it obviously cannot go down market, having already discovered the limit of what the outer limits of decorum allow.

That would be The Bad Girls Club, just returned for its second season, determined to fashion light entertainment from the binge-drinking, weave-pulling antics of seven undersocialized hoochies picked to live under 24-hour surveillance. Things got off to a rousing start when Cordelia reported to Tanisha that Darlen had insulted her weight and her temperament. Tanisha made a very good show of getting all up in Darlen’s face. (She was held back by Lyric, whose biography notes that she “has been arrested, stolen from her friends and fired from many jobs”). Darlen later defended herself to the audience by invoking linguistic relativism of a sort that might impress Stanley Fish: “If I said it, I didn’t mean it, like, ‘She’s a fat bitch,’ like I don’t like the girl. No! She’s fat, and she’s a bitch, OK?”

The Bad Girls Club’s one structural contribution to the boozing-and-brawling subgenre of reality TV is that such interpersonal explosions lead to a numbing volume of chatter and confession as the dust settles. Insofar as these girls have adopted morally reprehensible personae, they are indeed bad, but they’ve still got feelings, and those need to be talked about, preferably in the hot tub. Thus, Darlen and Tanisha made up at length, and Cordelia was allowed the epiphany of recognizing how Darlen had hit upon her own insecurities, and then Cordelia—theretofore merely identified as a stripper and aspiring law student—revealed to the gang her experience as a hard-core pornographer, proceeding to fellate a beer bottle in the back of a limo. Thus, Darlen discovered a new sense of respect for her. It was as touching as it sounds.

Though The Bad Girls Club is the seediest of Oxygen’s offerings, it’s hardly anomalous. There’s a fine coat of sleaze on the network’s current shows and recent hits. You can see it in the tabloid stylings of both Snapped (about women committing lurid crimes) and Captured (about women solving lurid crimes); in the cruddy production values of The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency; in the simple, voyeuristic fact of Tori & Dean: Inn Love, concerning Tori Spelling’s attempt to run a B&B. When Oxygen turns to fiction, it reveals the bright side of its rudeness (the reruns of Roseanne and Absolutely Fabulous), and it’s also capable of jolting viewers by, perhaps accidentally, airing a reality show worth taking seriously (the recent and excellent Fight Girls, about boxing and self-improvement). But I’d be interested to see how the ratings for Fight Girls stack up against those for the hair-cutting competition Tease.

Meanwhile, more sunnily—and yet more depressingly—there is WE: Women’s Entertainment, which has taken the success of Bridezillas as a sign that it ought to go all-matrimony, all the time, devoting itself to wedding-planning shows with a spinster aunt’s fervor. Platinum Weddings, about hugely expensive and marginally tasteful nuptials, has now led to My Big, Fat, Fabulous Wedding, where the ceremonies are twice as expensive and not half so easy to stomach, and the brides pout one order of magnitude more annoyingly. Rich Bride, Poor Bride—despite a title that entices with a promise of class warfare—instead develops, with obsessive viewing, into a kind of guessing game, with the home viewer making a stab at figuring what a couple’s wedding budget is and how far they’ve blown by it. WE’s latest innovation is to cruise forward with the formula while cutting brides out of the picture. The new reality show Party Mama$ captures grown women behaving with a gleaming sense of entitlement previously seen only on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16. Its first episode concerns the plotting of a bar mitzvah. “Yes, it’s for my son Mitchell, but really it’s all about me,” Mitchell’s mother says, still somehow able to move her mouth despite the weight of her lip liner.

Such are the two reflections offered to distaff TV addicts: the belligerent tramp and the spoiled princess. If there is a third way, then that’s whatever is on Lifetime, once most notable for original films concerning terminal diseases and/or children in peril. The channel has now mellowed into something quaint and mildly daffy—Denise Austin’s 7 a.m. workout show, lots of Will & Grace reruns, a handful of gently spooky guilty pleasures involving psychics. Lifetime will be serving up a couple of made-for-TV movies a day through Dec. 25—keep an eye out for The Christmas Shoes, wherein Rob Lowe learns the meaning of the holiday from a kid whose mom has congestive heart failure—and then, in January, it will debut How To Look Good Naked, a makeover show promising to teach “women of all shapes and sizes how to go from self-loathing to self-loving.” This has the look of a novel idea: depicting women as they are.