‘Work It,’ ‘Up All Night,’ And Class And Gender On Television

Thank goodness ABC’s humiliating Work It premiered to ratings worse than the now-canceled show it replaced. It still doesn’t restore my faith in humanity that the so-called comedy beat Parenthood, but I’m narrowly relieved that it’s not an instant hit. Work It made me sadder than anything I’ve watched in a long time, sad enough that it’s proved difficult for me to muster up the same level of outrage as some of my colleagues.

It makes me sad that anyone would feel so vulnerable that they’d start darkly speculating bars, as a friend of main characters Lee and Angel, that “It’s not a recession, it’s a mancession. Women are taking over the workforce. Soon, they’ll start getting rid of men. They’ll just keep a few of us around as sex slaves…Not the kind of sex you like, Angel. Just kissing, and cuddling, and listening.” It’s not just that the mancession has been manifestly debunked, and men are doing better in the recovery of women. It’s the idea that people feel that lost and angry, that the idea that for women to succeed men have to lose, and lose badly, still has currency. It makes me sad to think that there are women anywhere who are waiting for men to buy them things but are doing for self because “none of them have any money.” It makes me sad to think that men and women know so little about each other that women find car maintenance mysterious and men think that the essence of femininity is nibbling on lettuce. And while I don’t normally like to complain about television networks being out of touch, because it’s not like market research doesn’t exist, it makes me profoundly sad that anyone, anywhere, would look at this show and think that audiences would see themselves in it.

Work It‘s approach to revelation via gender-switching is particularly grating given that Up All Night is doing the same thing, with vastly more tenderness and perceptiveness. It’s particularly ugly to see Lee pretend to have been sexually harassed at his old job, telling his new potential boss at the pharmaceutical sales company where he goes to work that “The guys were always sassing me, or patting my fanny, or ogling my teats.” In pretending to understand female experience, he’s demonstrating his ignorance of it in a way that minimizes sexual harassment, making it cutesy and adorable. The same thing happens when he goes to the taco shop where Angel works to try to convince him to join the masquerade. His complaint that “My eyes are up here” is glib, rather than revealing new understanding of how uncomfortable it can be to be ogled.

Chris, the stay-at-home dad on Up All Night may be vastly more privileged than Lee, who concocts his ruse after his unemployment checks run out, his insurance lapses leaving him with a $900 bill for a physical, and he’s forced to cancel his daughter’s cell phone bill. Chris can afford to stay home (interestingly, Work It doesn’t address why, if the recession only affects men, Lee’s wife hasn’t gone out and got a job) because his wife is a television producer. But he’s actively struggling up with walking away from his career as a lawyer, which was rewarding, and which he was very good at. When Reagan criticizes his management of their home, he explains to her how humiliating it is for her to criticize the thing that he does now — she’s saying that he’s not good at something that he made real sacrifices to do, even if it’s just the arrangement of their living room furniture or their junk drawer. It’s a perfect illustration of the invisibility of the second shift.

There are a lot of other problems with Work It. The leads are the world’s least plausible broads. The show’s supporting characters are continuing the trend of poisonously unlikable friends and family that appears to have infected all of this season’s sitcoms, from the mancession-citing friend; to Lee’s passive-aggressive wife, to his daughter; who says things like “A land line? Don’t those give you brain cancer? You know what? I’m just going to have to find myself a rich older boyfriend.” His new office is full of awful stereotypes, giving Lee and Angel and excuse to not really engage with the women they work with or find anything valuable in their company (though I did appreciate one coworker who invited Lee to her book club by telling him the read of the month is “about a girl who comes of age during a spelling bee in Rwanda. Spoiler: she dies.”). And even if you could forgive all of these things, Work It is guilty of bringing back “My Humps” and “Bootylicious.” I weep for the republic.