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.