Whitney is notably modern in one aspect: The title character lives with her long-term boyfriend and the show argues that co-habitating couples should be treated as seriously as married ones. (The majority of couples now live together before they're married.) Unfortunately, according to Whitney, living together for years just means you stop having sex, just like those boring old marrieds the show disdains.
Furthermore, the financial disparities in Whitney lean toward the old-school. Whitney's boyfriend just sold a tech company, so he likely out-earns Whitney, who is a photographer. Her boyfriend says things like, "I have a girlfriend so I can't engage in any kind of merriment"—it's that old saw about wives and girlfriends being killjoys. The one nod to lady independence is Whitney's friend, Roxanne, who notably wears pants to a wedding. When their other friend, Lily, tells Roxanne it's inappropriate, Roxanne says, "Get off my balls. I pay alimony to an ex-husband who does spoken word for a living." Alas, this scene precedes one in which Whitney dresses up like a naughty nurse to spice up her sex life.
Why don't these shows have anything more inventive to say about young women at a time when they're dominating both the workplace and the domestic sphere after eons of subordination? Part of the issue is that men ages 18-49 are still the most coveted ad demographic, and that segment of viewers doesn't traditionally want to watch shows about unconventional female protagonists. As Jill Soloway, who wrote for The United States of Tara among other shows, points out in an AOL article about the declining number of women TV writers:
Sometimes I watch 'Louie,' which, for my money, is one of the best shows I have ever seen on television, and wonder if ... a network would air a show where a woman was talking about masturbating and farting (in an awesomely deep way, mind you). The answer is no—not because networks hate women, not because studios refuse to hire women creators—but because there is no brand that would be willing to be associated with the idea of such an anti-heroic woman.
Another problem is the network sitcom medium. As we're constantly being told, the women of cable and even some network hour-long dramas are strong, strange, dramatic anti-heroines. From troubled emergency-room nurse Jackie Peyton on Nurse Jackie to oddball detective Brenda Leigh Johnson on The Closer to cold-blooded lawyer Patty Hewes on Damages, cable drama allows the space and the creativity for unconventional female characters to thrive. When you're trying to squeeze juice from a live studio audience and attract 10 million viewers per episode rather than 1 million, there's less space for the unexpected.
Which is why, like New York's Emily Nussbaum, I have such high hopes for the final entry in this fall's crop of girl shows—Lena Dunham's forthcoming HBO series Girls, which is set to premiere in early 2012. Since it will be on premium TV, there will be less pressure to appeal to the masses, and Dunham has already proven that she has a fearless voice with her indie hit Tiny Furniture. Her portrayal of imperfect female bodies and awkward, honest sexual searching in that film felt revolutionary. Ideally, she will bring some of that authentic sensibility to her new show. At the very least, I'll bet there won't be any cupcakes.