Sexist Sitcoms: An Institutional Problem

Daniel Leigh 7 February 2014

The Bechdel Test has drawn attention to the institutional sexism of the film industry, but TV shows have not received the same level of scrutiny for the same offence. This may be because sexism has generally manifested in a different way on the small screen. Rather than simply not having enough female characters, TV shows, and especially sitcoms, characterise women in a horrible way: the comic stereotype of the uptight, bitchy, party-pooper.

Her main role is to complain about the fun the men around her are creating and having. She is rarely funny herself and spends most of her screen-time nagging the men about some whacky scheme that the audience is enjoying but in real life would not be a sensible idea. And this role is never performed by a male character.

Many bad sitcoms feature this stereotype (Lois in Family Guy), but I have also made the sorry discovery that some of the very best are also heavy offenders (Marge, and indeed most of the female characters in The Simpsons– how many female characters are actively funny in Springfield?). This caricature is not limited to sitcoms: much of the vitriolic Skyler-hatred from the viewers of Breaking Bad stemmed from a frustration at her attempts to prevent Walt from being a 'badass’. Perhaps it is symptomatic of this model that many people still rooted for Walt in spite of his despicable behaviour.

Having said this, several recent shows have not only fought against this stereotype, but drawn attention to it before its deconstruction. Two that I would like to focus on in order to illustrate the stereotype and how it can be counteracted are the peerless American shows Community and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

When Community started, the character of Britta Perry (played by Gillian Jacobs), perfectly fit this caricature, but as the show progressed, this became a running gag in itself. The other characters would refer to Britta as a ‘buzzkill’ or ‘the worst’, culminating in an episode where Britta’s attempt to shake the stereotype results in an innocent prank going horribly wrong. She then gives a rather powerful speech bemoaning the fact that ‘you guys create fun and then I destroy it!’ Perhaps in sympathy with Britta, the writers then decided to change her personality to make it funnier in itself (she becomes as obviously ridiculous as the rest of them).

Whilst Community knowingly presented and took down the caricature, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia unwittingly fell into the trap and then rescued themselves in triumphant style. In season one, Dee Reynolds (Kaitlin Olson) was perhaps the best embodiment of the stereotype that I have ever seen. She nags the other guys for not doing any work, she shoots down all their ridiculous ideas, she clings to her unattainable dream of being an actor, and most importantly, she isn’t funny. Indeed when she auditioned for the part, Olson was made to read a scene that was meant to be played by Dennis (Glenn Howerton), as the writers (Howerton, Charlie Day and creator Rob McElhenney) admitted that they had not worked out how to make their one female lead funny yet. Thankfully they worked it out by season two: just make Dee as awful and ridiculous as the other central characters. And what a winning formula that has proven to be (nine seasons and still going strong).

I would argue therefore that shows have noticed this sexist characterisation, and others simply have good female comic characters (Jess in New Girl, Elaine in Seinfeld, Phoebe in Friends) but it is still inherent in the industry and needs to be addressed further.