The New Girls

Fall TV is full of emasculated men. Does that mean it’s also full of empowered women?

Whitney Cummings and Chris D’Elia in Whitney

For a while, it seemed as though this fall was going to be the season of the young-lady sitcom. 29-year-old comedian Whitney Cummings—the foulmouthed ingénue of many Friars Club Roasts —has two pilots about twentysomething women: Two Broke Girls (CBS) and Whitney (NBC). She stars in the latter. Elizabeth Meriwether, who is about the same age as Cummings, is behind a pilot for Fox called The New Girl, starring the terminally adorable Zooey Deschanel.

Clearing the way for these young women to have their moment is a parallel phenomenon, one that TV Guide calls “the emasculation of men.” It’s a theme picked up by several new series. In Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, the Home Improvement star plays a Tea Party-loving dad who rages impotently against a changing country and a house full of women. In Man Up!, stunted dudes play video games and hide from their wives. And then there’s Work It, a Bosom Buddies rehash in which men dress up like women in order to get jobs in the “mancession.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Work It was explicitly inspired by Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic magazine essay “The End of Men,” and the other two seem at least implicitly influenced (here’s Rosin’s take on these shows at the Atlantic’s website). All have the same premise: Male economic dominance is over and it’s the women’s turn now.

You might think that this one-two punch of promising-sounding sitcoms about young women and fairly repugnant shows about middle-aged men (Man Up thinks that using “vagina” as an insult is the height of hilarity), would mean that this is the moment for young, female creators to really say something bold about the women of their generation women who dreamed of being Claire Huxtable, not June Cleaver.

Unfortunately that’s not the case. Instead, the slew of new lady comedies rehash old stereotypes about long-term relationships between men and women, the elaborateness of female grooming rituals, and using feminine wiles to get what you want. As Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker puts it in his preview of The New Girl and Two Broke Girls, “These two shows aren’t so much about girl power as girl strategy.”

The New Girl is about a school teacher named Jess (Zooey Deschanel), who has just been dumped by her long-term boyfriend in profoundly humiliating fashion—she shows up at his apartment wearing a trench coat and nothing underneath and begins to do a strip-tease when another woman emerges from her beau’s bedroom. Jess is deeply vulnerable and tells her three new roommates (all dudes) that she’s going to be spending a lot of time crying and watching Dirty Dancing while she recuperates. (They agree to let the sad sack move in only because her best friend is a model.) She sings to herself and says things like, “Pink wine makes me slutty!” Jess is entertaining and original and her relationship with her three roommates is sweet, but her character might be the least transgressive woman in primetime. Her teaching job is traditionally female and she spends an entire scene ineptly using a curling iron. Though the show is really promising, we’re not exactly breaking new ground here.

Another strong entry in this fall’s new girl order is Two Broke Girls. Here we find Kat Dennings playing a sassy waitress named Max, who works at a seedy Brooklyn diner with the disgraced yet cheerful daughter of a Madoff-esque Ponzi schemer. The fact that the show bothers to take on class differences feels fresh, and the funniest bits of the show play on the disparity between working-class Max and spoiled Caroline. (She went to Wharton, has a horse, has been to Switzerland.) But the two broke girls of the title plan on making their fortune through an uberfemme cupcake business. (What is it about comedy heroines and their cupcake businesses?) Again, when it comes to gender commentary—plainspoken waitresses are stock TV characters—this is not a revelation.

Whitney is notably modern in one aspect: The title character lives with her long-term boyfriend and the show argues that co-habitating couples should be treated as seriously as married ones. (The majority of couples now live together before they’re married.) Unfortunately, according to Whitney, living together for years just means you stop having sex, just like those boring old marrieds the show disdains.

Furthermore, the financial disparities in Whitney lean toward the old-school. Whitney’s boyfriend just sold a tech company, so he likely out-earns Whitney, who is a photographer. Her boyfriend says things like, “I have a girlfriend so I can’t engage in any kind of merriment”—it’s that old saw about wives and girlfriends being killjoys. The one nod to lady independence is Whitney’s friend, Roxanne, who notably wears pants to a wedding. When their other friend, Lily, tells Roxanne it’s inappropriate, Roxanne says, “Get off my balls. I pay alimony to an ex-husband who does spoken word for a living.” Alas, this scene precedes one in which Whitney dresses up like a naughty nurse to spice up her sex life.

Why don’t these shows have anything more inventive to say about young women at a time when they’re dominating both the workplace and the domestic sphere after eons of subordination? Part of the issue is that men ages 18-49 are still the most coveted ad demographic, and that segment of viewers doesn’t traditionally want to watch shows about unconventional female protagonists. As Jill Soloway, who wrote for The United States of Tara among other shows, points out in an AOL article about the declining number of women TV writers:

Sometimes I watch ‘Louie,’ which, for my money, is one of the best shows I have ever seen on television, and wonder if … a network would air a show where a woman was talking about masturbating and farting (in an awesomely deep way, mind you). The answer is no—not because networks hate women, not because studios refuse to hire women creators—but because there is no brand that would be willing to be associated with the idea of such an anti-heroic woman.

Another problem is the network sitcom medium. As we’re constantly being told, the women of cable and even some network hour-long dramas are strong, strange, dramatic anti-heroines. From troubled emergency-room nurse Jackie Peyton on Nurse Jackie to oddball detective Brenda Leigh Johnson on The Closer to cold-blooded lawyer Patty Hewes on Damages, cable drama allows the space and the creativity for unconventional female characters to thrive. When you’re trying to squeeze juice from a live studio audience and attract 10 million viewers per episode rather than 1 million, there’s less space for the unexpected.

Which is why, like New York’s Emily Nussbaum, I have such high hopes for the final entry in this fall’s crop of girl shows—Lena Dunham’s forthcoming HBO series Girls, which is set to premiere in early 2012. Since it will be on premium TV, there will be less pressure to appeal to the masses, and Dunham has already proven that she has a fearless voice with her indie hit Tiny Furniture. Her portrayal of imperfect female bodies and awkward, honest sexual searching in that film felt revolutionary. Ideally, she will bring some of that authentic sensibility to her new show. At the very least, I’ll bet there won’t be any cupcakes.