8 Obnoxious Cliches about Men, Women and Sex in Otherwise Good TV Shows
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Throughout most of its history, the general trend of television has been sexist, with lots of hysterical women driving dramas and lots of eye-rolling jokes about women being nags and prudes filling up sitcoms. The past decade, however, has seen a rise in high-quality television that strives to engage creatively with interesting, socially relevant ideas. This has meant much better, more complex female characters on TV, as well as feminist themes interwoven into the plots of the show. It’s a good time to be a thoughtful feminist watching TV.
But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Despite an overall improvement in the quality of television, even the best shows sometimes fall back on tired clichés about gender and sexuality. The reasons vary dramatically, but at the end of the day, these moments of tired sexism are most jarring not because they’re “politically incorrect,” but because they come across as false and push the audience away from maintaining their suspension of disbelief. So here’s a list of eight WTF sexist moments that hurt--or in some cases, permanently destroyed--otherwise good television shows.
1. Britta Perry declares her love for Jeff Winger on “Community.” Britta Perry is the token leftist feminist of an eclectic group of friends in this show about the comical goings-on of a California community college. Most feminists don’t mind the constant potshots taken at Britta for her often-childish and self-centered take on feminist and liberal politics. The show leaves no sacred cow untipped, and feminists are certainly not off-limits for ribbing. But Britta has also been consistently characterized as breezily assured of her sexuality and her right to indulge in casual sex, in contrast to tedious sitcom stereotypes that would have you believe all women mistake sex for love.
So why then did the writers have her humiliate herself in the finale of the first season with a public declaration of love for Jeff simply because they had a one-night stand? Until that moment, there had been no indication that Britta felt anything for Jeff besides naked lust combined with a bit of fraternal camaraderie. Why would the audience think she would turn to a simpering romantic just because she touched his penis once?
Luckily, the writers seemed to grasp just as quickly as the audience how out of character this behavior was for Britta, and simply dropped the romance storyline, replacing it with indications that Britta and Jeff have nothing more than a friends-with-benefits relationship.
2. Joan Holloway on “Mad Men” doesn’t get an abortion. “Mad Men,” a drama about a 1960s-era advertising firm, is renowned for its thoughtful, pro-feminist view, so this failure is especially disappointing. When Joan got pregnant, the pro-choicers in the audience collectively grew anxious. Already, “Mad Men” had engaged in the cliché of having a character, Betty, consider and then abandon the idea of an abortion, even though it seemed like the smartest choice. With Joan, the possibility of keeping a pregnancy seemed even stranger. Not only were the stakes higher in her situation, as she’s married to a violent rapist who is likely to react poorly if he finds out she’s pregnant with another man’s baby, but the show had already established that Joan had prior abortions and no moral qualms about the procedure.
After leading the audience to believe for several episodes that Joan did, in fact, get an abortion, the show’s writers punked out in the series finale, putting her in a scene where she’s chatting about her pregnancy with her husband while he’s stationed in Vietnam. While there were prior efforts to show how much Joan wanted a baby with her new husband, the moment still felt false in an otherwise great episode. Joan Holloway has always been portrayed as a survivor and an eminently pragmatic person; it’s hard to imagine she’d be this eager to put herself in danger just to have a baby right now.