Can’t Turn it Off: Retro-Sexism in TV Sitcoms

by | January 6, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

This article was originally posted at the WAM! (Women, Action, & the Media) blog. Cross-posted with the permission of WAM! and author Jessica Critcher.

I should start this off by saying that I don’t watch a lot of TV.  But, with a nod to Pulp Fiction, I am aware that there is an invention called television and on this invention they show shows. There is good TV out there, but it doesn’t outweigh the bad. In order to save money and cut down on the number of ridiculous advertisements I am forced to watch, I pulled the plug. Another item on my pros vs. cons list was the sad fact that many popular shows, especially sitcoms, are becoming increasingly saturated with retro-sexism.

One new show starting this month, Work It!, has me particularly concerned about TV tropes currently accepted on our airwaves. The plot centers on two men who lost their jobs in the recent recession and are struggling to provide for their families. Since men and women are equal now, women have all of the jobs (just like the feminists wanted, right?). So in order to earn a living, they are forced to dress as women. No, seriously.  Check out the trailer.

Not only is this show perpetuating dangerous myths about the recession and women’s advancement, but it mocks queer and transgender identities and repeats the same ridiculous stereotypes about men and women we’ve been hearing for decades.

I recently had it pointed out to me that Work It! is similar to a show from the 80’s called Bosom Buddies. I’m not old enough to remember watching it, but this raises two interesting points. One, the plot of Bosom Buddies does not seem to revolve around women taking all of the jobs, so these shows seem to have gotten more sexist (or at least more aggressively anti-feminist) over time. Two, networks apparently do think we’ll laugh at jokes from twenty (or fifty) years ago. Home Improvement was funny… let’s see if we can do it again. This line of thinking isn’t quite what I would call “high-concept comedy.”

People have told me that these shows aren’t that bad. It’s just a joke, and seriously, why can’t you ever take a joke?  But I like to counter with the idea that these shows aren’t very good either. The comedy, and that’s a term I use loosely, relies on viewers accepting various ideas about gender as facts of life. We know that’s not the way life really is. We know all women aren’t really humorless spoil-sports—we know all guys aren’t really thick-headed macho men. It’s just a show, and we’re all supposed to laugh at the irony.

But if they aren’t using those stereotypes to say anything constructive, they’re just repeating them. The fact that we know they’re not true is irrelevant, because we still have to see them everywhere we look. We have to take homophobia, sexism, racism, and the general idea that middle class white people are the only people worth watching as a given, or we don’t have a sense of humor.

While I would love to think that ignoring these shows would make them go away, I know that’s not actually the case. Whether or not I pay attention, shows like this are still being pitched, written, shot and watched. We can hope for specific shows to get cancelled, but the general themes don’t seem to be going anywhere.

For crying out loud, though, it’s 2012 already. I want flying cars, I want a cure for cancer and I want to be able to watch television without seeing tired stereotypes repackaged in shiny new boxes. Why do all of these things feel equally impossible and far away? TV is shutting me out, and I want a more productive solution than shutting it off.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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