Many people (including Newt Gingrich) have complained about the anti-Christian bias displayed in GCB, ABC’s church-going, booze-addled, big-haired transposition of Desperate Housewives to Dallas, Texas. But what about its bias against Southern women? Despite the show’s attempt to remain gloriously campy (which serves as its only forgiving fake-lash-laden winking eye), GCB’s unimaginative characterization of Southern women feels perilously old and retrograde. By comparison, the 1986 debut of another female-driven ensemble comedy about ambitious wealthy women in the South, Designing Women, feels like an anomalous and unrepeatable phenomenon.
GCB would have you believe that even in the 21st century, single, career-driven Texan women—like high-dollar real-estate agent Heather Cruz (Marisol Nichols)—are wholly marriage-obsessed and self-loathing enough to maintain abusive friendships with wed women who constantly flaunt their matrimonial success in front of them. The only character approaching the status of role model on the show is the socialite-cum-matriarch Gigi, portrayed perhaps unsurprisingly by Annie Potts, who established her career as the wise-cracking Mary Jo back on Designing. Sure, this time around she’s sporting a bouffant hairdo and a never-ending glass of white wine, but eight episodes in, her character arc is the only one, well, arcing. When any other female lead gains some depth, she retreats just as quickly to convention, greed, jealousy, or the readiest protection—her husband.
But GCB’s perpetuation of stereotypes about the steadfast superficiality and tendencies of Southern female cattiness (especially between society-oriented women, as captured in the show), is baffling and counterproductive, especially arriving as it does on the heels of another beloved television depiction of a Texas community, Friday Night Lights. Remember how the women on that program, even if they were the rich, pretty Christian girl, possessed impulses other than man and status acquisition? Tami Taylor, whose life inarguably revolved around her marriage to the football coach, still managed to embody a spirited (and even beautiful and Christian) Southern woman who followed her convictions, ascended in her occupation, and remained a supportive spouse, all while clad in cowboy boots. A character like Tami, who’s capable of navigating internal scuffles while sporting a few embellishments like flamboyance and raconteuring, could easily be the stuff of comic fodder.
And more importantly, it would be a more accurate reflection of what being a modern-day Southern woman actually means for those of us who fit that description—Tami, and the Sugarbakers before her, should have more influence on media representations of Southern womanhood these days. It’s a formidable challenge to love your region but recognize the need to change things—doffing some of those embarrassing, pervasive characterizations would certainly help.
It’s understandable that GCB attempts to traffic in fantasy rather than accuracy, but even high-gloss camp is only successful when it’s something viewers can relate to. In 2012, is it too much to hope that an audience could handle a comedy about foolhardy, realistic, relatable Southern women who are interested in striding the thin line between proud tradition and progressive female societal roles? If GCB is any measure, that’s still too much of a fantasy.
For more on GCB, check out Troy Patterson’s original review.