At the beginning of this year, when I looked at the female comedic archetypes the television season had given us in a highly-touted year of funny women, and that it was teeing up to deliver, there seemed to be four clear categories: the Woodland Creature for those wide-eyed innocents like New Girl‘s Jess and Are You There, Chelsea?‘s DeeDee, the Crude Broad for 2 Broke Girls‘ Max and the titular character in Are You There, Chelsea?, the Rueful Blonde, which includes Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23‘s June, GCB‘s Amanda, and House of Lies‘ Jeanie, and the Somewhat-Wise woman, embodied by Veep‘s Selina Meyer. The truth is that, despite their differences, the members of these clubs have more in common than they are different. They’re all conventionally attractive, set-upon—though not precisely in the manner of the screwball heroine—and in a hurry. They, and babes like Whitney Cummings with legs for miles and the quirk slapped on like eyeshadow, don’t pose much of a challenge to our sense of what women can, and should be.
I was thinking about this in the context of the news, presumably leaked by NBC itself, that Sarah Silverman’s untitled comedy pilot and Roseanne Barr’s Downwardly Mobile, about the recession-wracked residents of a trailer park, aren’t testing particularly well and may be in danger of not getting picked up. And I was thinking of that news in the context of our discussion about Girls, and whether we’re ready for female anti-heroes who are anti-heroic because they’re passive, or whiny, or weird, not because they act like decisive, evil men.
Roseanne Barr and Sarah Silverman in real life, and Lena Dunham’s character on Girls, Hannah Hovarth, don’t act like the women who fall into those four categories. Barr isn’t wafer-thin (she never was), and she isn’t one of those Hollywood women who’s aged into Blythe Danner-like pale, imperious elegance. She’s outspoken about gender and class, attractive traits in an industry bound by iron bands of sexism and wealth. But her Twitter feed can be weirdly combative, her run for the Green Party presidential nomination an odd distraction in a year when she also was supposed to be serious about getting a follow-up to Roseanne off the ground. Some days, Roseanne feels more like Amy Jellicoe, the naive corporate drone who constantly runs up against her own limitations and self-created obstacles in HBO’s Enlightened: it would be nice to root for her, but she’s making it awfully hard.
Silverman’s less hard to reckon with, but she’s just as challenging. Though she’s attractive, she often dresses as if to consternate fashion commentators (a trait I find somewhat endearing). She’s 41, an in-between age when actresses are often no longer treated as if they could sexually appeal to anyone, but before they’re old enough to be grand dames, liberated from their attractiveness and freed to be spymasters or schemers. On-screen, she tends to play either tightly-wound parodies of hard-charging women, whether as producer Alexi Darling in the movie adaptation of Rent, or Patti, Mike White’s horrible, careerist girlfriend in School of Rock, or unsettling naifs like her self-absorbed character in The Sarah Silverman program, who makes Hannah Hovarth look like a model of charity and selfelessness.
And though the debate over Girls has died down somewhat, there are clearly a lot of people who remain very angry with Hannah, who are appalled by her poor choices, insist that Dunham shouldn’t get credit for displaying a body that’s so far from the Hollywood norm, angrily reject the idea that people could have sex that bad or make decisions that emotionally awkward. This discomfort can get ugly, but it’s also very interesting in a world where we’re supposed to sympathize with characters who fret about invisible imperfections, who are allowed, even expected to be humiliated before they can be resurrected for our enjoyment and moral satisfaction. You can make terrible, naive life choices, whether you’re a drunk like Chelsea or blind to your husband’s massive embezzlement scheme like Amanda, but as long as you’re gorgeous and fairly conventional, your wounds will be cooed over, rather than publicly sowed with salt. It’s like how Hollywood likes female geeks as long as the only signifier of their geekdom is a pair of glasses. We’re not conditioned to emotionally attach to women who are genuinely weird.
In addition to the relative genericness of their presentation and general demeanor, the ladies of network television comedy may have gotten a lot of screen time, but they didn’t do much original with it. The closest Jess came to transgressive on New Girl was dating her students’ father. Chelsea’s Female Chauvinist Pig on the show that bears her name is enough of a trope to have a book dissecting the phenomenon she represents. Max’s sour diner waitress on 2 Broke Girls could be the granddaughter of cranky counter gals who have been slinging hash since time immemorial. Talking about her lady bits and their needs doesn’t actually mean she’s treading new territory. GCB‘s Amanda may fight her battles with barbecues and church solos, but they’re the same old wars between mean girls who can’t let go. On Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23, June is one of an infinite number of eager strivers in New York. Her roommate Chloe may be the closest thing to a truly original, transgressive character in the crop, a fiancee-seducing, lesbian-faking psycho who sets her father and her roommate up to help them rebound, a Bizarro-world version of the cult of self-help. But while Chloe is a manic, evil delight as played by Krysten Ritter, she’s not precisely convincingly real. Whitney, which seems doomed given Whitney Cummings’ commitment to a new talk show, posed the most believable challenges to the standard sitcom arc for women: two couples on the show entered and broke off engagements, and rather than being shattered by those decisions, seemed fine. The weddings, it turned out, were eclipsing the work of building their actual relationships. It’s sad that this counts as a major departure from the script, but in this field, I have to give it high marks.
My hope is that as we assess this year of television ladies, the relative success of some of these shows serves as a thin edge of the wedge to get some women on television who are genuinely weird or unusual, rather than just performing slight deviations from the norm. Silverman and Barr may not make it on to NBC this year. But Girls will be back on HBO, keeping the hope for women on television who are awkward, and angry, and not conventionally attractive, and entitled—and in other words more like some of television’s most profitable men—alive. If the only kind of women who can be funny on television can all wear the same size dress and hit the same comedic beats, this year of sitcom women hasn’t won us very much at all.