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How NBC Sold Out Its Female Viewers with Whitney

Posted on Wednesday, September 28th, 2011 at 12:25 am

Author: Sady Doyle

It’s hard to say exactly when I figured out Whitney. I’d been dreading it since this summer, when I heard that Whitney Cummings — a spectacularly hacky stand-up who trades in tired “women are different from men” jokes, plus “edgy” sex — was getting her own sitcom. My dread level rose when Cummings took to the Internets to defend it. She announced that it was “basically about balls and sex and that sort of dumbness,” and that “all we do is talk about sex and vaginas and vejazzling [sic] about how [sic] the Kardashians are sluts and I’m in a freaking nurse costume trying to have sex with my boyfriend and he’s getting a concussion.” So, you know. Witty stuff. Then there were the promos — endless shots of Cummings leaning forward, mouth agape; kissy faces at the camera; “jokes” like “The Silent Treatment: Punishment Or Reward?” — and the certainty that Whitney was, indeed, going to be awful. But it wasn’t until the pilot episode, and the rape joke — the revelation that, on this show about the quirks of a long-term relationship, one of the “quirks” included Whitney’s lovable-doofus boyfriend having possibly raped her on their anniversary while she was passed out on sleeping pills — that I finally got it.  Whitney is the Outsourced of gender.

Outsourced was a sitcom that premiered last fall on NBC, a glaringly low-brow addition to their otherwise critically beloved Thursday night line-up. It was about a white American who was transferred to India to run a call center. And it was denounced, eloquently and at once, by Das Racist’s Himanshu Suri, who noted that “rather than being offended on the grounds of racial insensitivity, I was more offended by how unfunny the show was.” He still, however, noted the racism: The idea that the Indian call center needed a white American guy to run it, the cultural essentialism (American = white, Indian = Other), all the food jokes. “What 20-something, college-educated American professional who would head to India before looking for a new job hasn’t ever had Indian food? At one point the main character identifies a dish as ‘yellow and green stuff’. You know that’s Saag Paneer dude.” Suri also noted that, prior to Outsourced, NBC had actually been doing well on these grounds. Given Community’s Danny Pudi, Parks and Recreation’s Aziz Ansari, The Office’s Mindy Kaling, and 30 Rock’s Maulik Pancholy, this block of television had actually been fairly reliable when it came to non-stereotypical depictions of South Asian folks. There was no reason for Outsourced to be there, except to screw up a good thing in the hopes of getting ratings from the presumed-to-be-ignorant American public.

Other critics followed Suri’s lead. Outsourced tanked. And NBC was left with a hole in their line-up. So, instead of screwing up on race, they decided to screw up their other reliable strong suit: Women. Thus, Whitney.

For several years, feminists — who routinely see their values dismissed and/or ignored in favor of the regressive mommy-victim-or-whore characterizations of women that still dominate most TV — have had a reliable source of pleasure in NBC’s Thursday night line up. For a time, the network was running a block of shows that all featured vocally feminist protagonists: Community, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock. Even The Office could still coast a bit on the goodwill afforded to the delightful Mindy Kaling. We could pick and choose our favorites. We could debate the pros and cons of cynical, flustered forever-alone feminist Liz Lemon versus optimistic, bubbly forever-alone feminist Leslie Knope. I did, with some enthusiasm, until I met Britta Perry from Community and realized that this goofy sitcom with zombies and Claymation episodes actually had the most fully rounded, human feminist character — principled and shallow, pure of heart and poor of judgment, unrepentant hipster and full-on dork, tough and vulnerable, privileged and struggling, and (what really set her apart from the Lemons and Knopes) in possession of an active, casual sex life, which she controlled — that I’d seen on network TV.

All of these characters are uniquely rewarding to watch, and to identify with. But Lemon’s admirable qualities are too often undercut by the show’s insistence that she’s doomed to die a lonely, sexless sad sack; Knope becomes less and less believable as she steadily ascends towards the Presidency or sainthood or maybe both. Britta — whose politics are as earnest and flawed as she is, whose life is spent with friends who love her but only rarely understand her, who’s awkward and a bit self-destructive but who still has the sexual confidence to bed a guy who looks exactly like Joel McHale and then tell him she doesn’t want to be exclusive — is the most like a real, live girl.

It’s not that Whitney doesn’t fit in with these characters; she actively spits in their faces with her one-note characterization. The beaming, gape-mouthed, kissy-faced billboards announce that straight male viewers will never have to worry that Whitney won’t turn them on. The jokes — “Silent Treatment: Punishment or Reward?” Reward, of course! If there’s one thing straight men hate, it’s having conversations with their girlfriends — similarly assure the boys that Whitney’s on their side. Cummings’s “raunchiness,” her main selling point, is something that can’t be translated to network TV. So, the best we get is an ambiguously implied rape, and that freaking nurse costume. (Really. I, like many women, talk about sex fairly openly with my female friends; I, like many women, have some sense of what people do to amp up the sex when predictability sets in. And Ricky’s Costumes is never your first resort. It’s not just a sitcom cliche; it’s an unfunny one. But it’s also a chance for the pilot episode to grab some ratings by heavily featuring Whitney’s ass.)

All in all, Whitney shows every sign of being that girl that every girl knows, and most can’t stand: The girl that “gets men,” and can be “one of the boys,” mostly by acting exactly like the boys and never standing up for other women. (It helps if she can memorize their definition of “hot,” and fit it; she might be one of the boys, but those boys still expect her to fulfill her female functions.) Of course, girls who decide to fit in “with guys” always choose the worst guys to fit in with; therefore, Whitney gets her rape joke. She’s not one of those stupid girly girls that, like, gets all upset about rape, or anything. Ha ha, that stuff’s for chicks!

There is a widespread desire to see more female comedy, and more raunchy female comedy. The massive success of Bridesmaids proved that much. But Bridesmaids was, you know, good: It was gross, sexual, wildly physical, and firmly rooted in the humanity of its female characters. There are also plenty of great female comedians working with risky material; some people will tell you that Wanda Sykes has the best feminist joke about rape, but Tig Notaro is also in the running, if only for the fact that her joke about rape is actually a joke about having your own jokes explained to you by a man. But when it comes to good, raunchy lady comedy, and good, raunchy female comics, Whitney and/or Whitney is neither. She’s just a sad example of how low network executives will stoop for cash, and how stupid they think the American public really is.

Although, you know, they might be right. Outsourced tanked, but Whitney premiered strong, with 6.84 million viewers. Meanwhile, Community and Parks and Recreation both flounder, with some folks predicting that one of them will not survive the year. That’s one of the best, most reliable feminist-featuring TV shows on the air, killed to make room for more Whitney — or (shudder) Chelsea Handler’s sitcom. To this grim reality, I can only quote the great Britta Perry: “Wow. It really is easy to raise money, when you sell out your gender.”

You said it, lady. At least we still have 8 PM.

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  1. Don’t forget the other Whitney ads:

    The print one which said “Women are like emotional ninjas. ‘I’m fine’ means ‘I’m going to stab you in the neck.’”

    And

    The tv ad where she compared dudes watching the game in jerseys to her watching SVU “dressed like a dead hooker.” DEAD HOOKERS!!! LOLZZZZ!

  2. Very nicely written. I love both Britta and Leslie K.

    Whitney sounds vile; the ads have been so forced and offputting that I can’t imagine ever watching it.

  3. AGREED Sean K. Its called comedy people! I enjoyed watching Whitney and look forward to the next episode. Most importantly I laughed for a good half hour and isn’t that what a sit com is for?

  4. “Ladies, please settle down about the feminism. I’m here to tell you that this is actually not offensive to you.” –A Man

  5. Yeah! Down with all this equality for other humans crap! Enough with the making me think! I don’t have to think about stuff that might upset my applecart — ever! Thinking is stupid. It’s for chicks, man.

    Chicks. Amirite?

    You don’t want to be like a CHICK, do you? Do you, dudebro?

  6. Watt – Whitney sounds vile? Lol. Even Friends and Seinfeld had really racist, prejudiced, and downright rude episodes. Both considered elite sitcoms. Don’t go by what others say, watch it for yourself. Whitney is probably one of the best female comedians out there. How do you feel about Sarah Silverman, lol?

  7. Sady, I have to ask: what do you think of Annie? (She definitely has changed as a character as the show has gone on, much more sexualized and outspoken than before.) I find this fascinating because although I’m a fan of Britta, I’m a much bigger fan of Jeff/Annie than of Jeff/Britta. Maybe that’s because Britta is more interesting when it’s not about back-and-forth with Jeff, and more about her developing as an independent woman. Hmm. Good food for thought.

  8. @heyu300

    Global Comment editor here. New commenters go to automatic mod, and I was away from the keyboard for a couple hours.

    I’m not going to approve the rest of your comments, though, because I don’t approve personal abuse. Especially when it’s directed at me.

  9. Dan –

    That’s a good question! I think that Britta was set up to be the voice of morality, in the first season, and as the Good Woman who was going to Make Jeff Better, and people found the character a little grating as a result. So now they’ve shifted the “voice of morality” Making-Jeff-Better role over to Annie, who was initially set up as sort of an annoying Hermione Granger brown-nosing type. Britta’s kept the politics, but they’ve let the character look foolish sometimes instead of impossibly pure, and the result is the character we have now, which I like.

    I like Annie, too, but sometimes I worry they pander to the audience with her character, because Alison Brie is very beautiful and very good at playing “sweet,” so sometimes she’s just like this sexy-schoolgirl fantasy archetype, impossibly pure yet impossibly hot. I like Annie better when we can see her flaws, too — like how tightly wound she is, or how naive she can be. (Or, you know. Her whole addiction backstory, which they haven’t done a lot with.) Generally, I like good people with serious flaws, as characters. If they can keep Annie grounded instead of having to make her perfect, I agree: It’s fun to watch her come into her own, and become a stronger person as a result.

  10. I’d never heard of Tig Notaro before, but that linked clip is amazing. Is there a list somewhere out there of good feminist standup comics?

  11. heyu300,

    Really? She’s a woman complaining about another woman, so in turn she must be jealous? Let me guess, in your head this should all end in a jello pit?! She isn’t capable of feeling all of these things that she VERY carefully articulated; better than you or myself? Just, “Jealous?” or I KNOW maybe she’s on her period! You know how women get when we’re on our period. . .

  12. Thank god someone finally said it! The fact that Whitney is being shoved down everyone’s throat as the “edgiest” female stand up around is a disgrace. I’ve worked in comedy for 14 years and see more talented women daily. Tig being one of them. Let’s hope the shine wears off of this one quickly!

  13. Beth Ann
    heyu300,

    Really? She’s a woman complaining about another woman, so in turn she must be jealous? Let me guess, in your head this should all end in a jello pit?! She isn’t capable of feeling all of these things that she VERY carefully articulated; better than you or myself? Just, “Jealous?” or I KNOW maybe she’s on her period! You know how women get when we’re on our period. . .

    EXACTLY! LOL
    Whitney = Tall, Hot, Funny.
    Hope shes on for a long time!

  14. I can understand people not being offended by Whitney “because its a comedy it’s supposed to be funny”. The reason I’M offended by Whitney is it did not make me laugh ONCE. Seriously, all the characters are stupid. I can already tell you the divorced lady is going to hook up with the cop and that sickeningly sweet honeymoon couple are going to get pregnant and/or disenchanted with marriage.

    Also, there’s a reason only the Golden-Oldy sitcoms used Whitney’s format. It’s outdated. The laughter is annoying. And one of the biggest laughs was when the bride was wearing the same color as Whitney? What did they make that poor audience smoke before watching?

  15. I like how feminism in TV shows must always = women who have sex with lots of men on their own terms.

    So basically the only way for women to be equal is to be like men and have sex all the time. So a woman who chooses not to have sex with everyone under the sun is being oppressed, even if it’s our choice?

    Why must feminism or anti-feminism ALWAYS be about who you have sex with and why?

  16. what is funny is that anytime a gal wants to write a brilliant, thoughtprovoking statement it becomes every dudes obligation to brush off her sentiments with the age-old “you’re no fun” elbo jerk in the ribs.

    Whitney is dumb and folks who think it’s charming and witty are dumb too. period.

  17. OK. While I was intrigued by this excerpt and agreed with this evaluation of Britta as a character, I really have extreme bones to pick with the rest of this article. I can connect with all of these characters on different levels, but I’m pretty sure unlike Britta’s character, I am not that well rounded. I also exhibit all of these qualities, but unlike Britta who “has the sexual confidence to bed a guy who looks exactly like Joel McHale”, I don’t. I’m the sad-sack Liz Lemon type who turns it all into a comedic flurry. Plus, while I won’t continue to watch “Whitney”, I’d like to point out that a woman who dresses up in a sexy nurses costume in an attempt to amp up her sex life makes her no less of a woman- as much as I don’t agree with the rape joke or find much pleasure in the promos. Does this make me less of a feminist? I find your point of view informative and I’m glad to have read it, but I really don’t agree with you ripping other female characters for some sort of lack of feminist qualities. I agree on the evaluation of this particular character, but I won’t regard the others as any less of a woman, or feminist because of their characterizations.

  18. Now, I haven’t seen “Whitney.” But maybe we’re all forgetting two things:

    1. Humor is subjective. What is genuinely unfunny to one person may be genuinely funny to someone else, whose opinions on the matter are just as valid. You don’t need to be eloquent or articulate to gain the right to laugh and have your laughter count for something.

    2. Appropriateness/offensiveness is also subjective. There there always be something about a character or show that offends some and amuses others. Those amused have no right to say “oh, if you’re offended you’re dumb;” meanwhile, those offended have no right to say “oh, if you’re amused you’re dumb,” either. In a sense, it’s just about different strokes for different folks.

    Most of the time, at least.

  19. I initially came here to check out how “Whitney” was being received by people because, frankly, the ads make it look absolutely horrific.

    I’m leaving a comment though that’s more directed towards the other commenters and why the portrayal of women in media is so damn important. Yes, it’s supposed to be a comedy, yes perhaps people take things too seriously, but…I think maybe we have to be more responsible in how we do things.

    I recently saw a brief video, “Miss Representation,” on how these negative stereotypes (like “Whitney” and so many other shows/newspapers/magazines/etc) can impact us so negatively. Something that I was aware of, but perhaps didn’t really understand how serious it was. (Or truthfully, felt that sometimes I was being too sensitive)

    I’d recommend watching if you’ve got some time to spare. http://vimeo.com/28066212

  20. Yes, Humor and Morality are highly subjective for the most part, but there are a few thing that fit very firmly into the wrong/unfunny category, and rape is one of those things.

    And, no I am not going say any one who is amused by her crass, negative stereotype enforcing humor is stupid, but I will say any one who thinks rape jokes are funny is a sick SOB & completely disgusting. Because lets be honest, laughing about one of the most disgusting crimes a human can commit is just plain not right.

    I don’t think her brand of comedy is remotely funny, I actually find it offensive and infuriating, hell even my boyfriend was offended, and he isn’t especially feminist. No one (especially a man) has a right to tell me what I can and can’t be offended by, & I will not be manslpained to. Cis-men can’t truly understand what being a woman is like, and therefore have no solid ground to stand on when telling us how we should feel about the very present oppression and social stigmas women have to deal with on a daily basis. And people like Whitney are just adding to the social stigmas, and spreading negative stereotypes about both genders, and I quite frankly find that disgusting.

  21. I’ll just say that while this is all a good point, it speaks to a larger observation that probably anyone on this board can somewhat agree with. The use of easy, offensive, slapstick jokes that defame women are in this case an example of poor writing and poor writing ability. I have no desire to stick around after The Office to watch Whitney. I love NBC’s line-up and each of other four shows discussed. But, let’s face it. Each of those shows has a very unique brand of comedy. They are intelligent, witty, edgy and have all at one point or another discussed issues of gender, race, sexuality, religion, etc. The difference is that each of these shows does it eloquently, compellingly and humorously…Whitney does it poorly. In my opinion, it’s one of the many failed products of a sound-stage-type comedy, where only cheap laughs will achieve the desired effect. I expect to see poor humor on tv, but I assume it will mostly be found on CBS, not on NBC’s Thursday line-up. Please replace it with Up All Night or a mid-season replacement and FAST.

  22. First off – Whitney’s little “live audience” spiel at the beginning. Just a little pretentious. Compared with her digs at The Office and Parks & Recreation? Seriously overestimating herself.
    It was painfully unfunny. The “rape” joke didn’t bother me. What bothered me was how absolutely dull the dialogue was. Whitney’s character is so predictable – “I burp and boys love me, but I have sex, too!”
    And the nurse costume – that was completely unnecessary. We understand the concept that Whitney doesn’t want her love life to flounder; it’s ironic that her boyfriend actually needs medical attention, but it’s just not funny. It’s gimmicky; half of the time we just see her ass; and it really took whatever glimpse of depth I saw away from her boyfriend’s character.
    There. I’ll never have to watch it again. I’m done.

  23. heyu300, what a typical man. if you’re getting a boner off it, it must be good, right? who cares if shes not funny or the show sucks, shes hot! XDD
    there’s more to women and comedy then bad sex appeal.

  24. I agree for the most part, but it should be noted that Parks & Rec, Community, and 30 Rock have also made egregious rape jokes more than once. I still hate Whitney though.

  25. Regarding Outsourced, I never found it to be racist or offensive, or that it was making fun of Indian culture. The show was a”fish out of water” situation, and the laughs came from the situation of someone trying to adapt to a different culture he was unfamiliar with. Not a better or worse culture, just different. The American trying to live in India, and the Indian salespeople trying to sell American products. And although it may be safe to assume most 20-somethings from, say New York or California would be familiar with Asian food and culture if they were planning on moving there, this show was about a sheltered mid-westerner all if the sudden sent to India to manage a call-center he originally planned on working in the United States.

  26. LOL. Wow. Where does one start? First of all , I like how you state that ” feminists …. Routinely see their values dismissed/ ignored” as if it were fact! You are either blind or you think readers are stupid and uncritical. The fact is that television and the media are filled with feminist values, if not propaganda. Just taking Wednesday night as an example , Whitney is followed by Harry’s Law and L&O SVU, two shows with strong female leads who are paragons of virtue. Strong, sensible women are all over the place in movies and commercials. So what the hell are you talking about?

    And I wonder if you have ever complained about negative stereotypes about men. I highly doubt it. When was the last time a husband in a comedy was portrayed as strong and smart? I have a hard time thinking of an example. Or how about the double standard when it comes to violence? Violence against women is portrayed as evil , but violence against men is often portrayed as justified or funny. If a woman hits a man on TV , you can bet that he had it coming. Oh, and since he’s a man , he should just shut up and take it.

    People like you make me sick. I don’t think you even know what feminism is about. I thought it was about women having the freedom to do whatever they choose to do. So in Whitney, we have a woman who wants to pursue humor that has traditionally been the domain of guys. And you are going to presume to tell her that she can’t do that ? Get over your freaking self!

  27. Whitney isn’t funny. Humor is kind of subjective, I guess. I guess someone could say that Family Guy is the greatest comedy of all time and be entitled to their opinion, but really, their opinion kind of sucks. Similarly, if I, with my poor artistic skill, draw a picture of a flower should it be considered a great piece of art? I don’t think so.

    I think there is a quality standard to humor as there is a quality standard to other works of art. It’s based on a few things in my eyes, “Have I heard this joke a million times?” “Is it really being edgy just to get a laugh?” “Is it using other things besides humor to keep me watching (i.e. sex)?”

    I’ve noticed a pattern with stand-up comedians having their own show: they almost always suck. I’ve laughed at Whitney’s stand up. It’s not the best I’ve seen, but her show, Whitney, is so terrible in comparison. Demitri Martin is a genius stand up comedian, but his show was meh. Sarah Silverman is an okay stand up comedian, but her show was god awful. Why is this? I guess because you have the network telling you what the audience wants to see, you’re dealing with writers that have their own idea of “funny,” and you still have to remain family friendly (on network anyways and on cable to a lesser extent).

    I like it better when they’re just a side character (i.e. Aziz Ansari on Parks and Donald Glover on Community). It’s funnier because instead of it being a show in which a funny comedian plays a character, it ends up being a character on a show that is funny. When comedians have their own fictional show it’s too “in your face” and they’re constantly striving to be as funny/edgy as their stand up while staying under the censor’s radar.

  28. Even without watching the show, based on the ads alone, I concur. There is a difference between being edgy, pushing boundaries and being stereotypical, crass and bland…based on the ads and your article, I imagine Whitney falls in the latter. I also agree that suggesting she wrote the article because she’s “Jealous” is ludicrous. Jealousy doesn’t spawn thoughtful, analytical writing. You don’t have to agree with her analysis, but to simply write-off her opinion in this way simply demonstrates that: a) you’re probably not a particularly thoughtful person b)you are definitely not a person who understands women…and this sadly applies to both women and men.

  29. Feminism is belittled on TV? Where? TV is a great bastion of male bashing. And Whitney Cummings whole act is as well.

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