Whitney, The New Girl, Two Broke Girls: How do the women of fall TV fare?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 8 2011 3:43 PM

The New Girls

Fall TV is full of emasculated men. Does that mean it's also full of empowered women?

Whitney Cummings as Whitney Cummings, Chris D’Elia as Alex Miller in "Whitney." Click image to expand.
Whitney Cummings and Chris D'Elia in Whitney

For a while, it seemed as though this fall was going to be the season of the young-lady sitcom. 29-year-old comedian Whitney Cummings—the foulmouthed ingénue of many Friars Club Roasts —has two pilots about twentysomething women: Two Broke Girls (CBS) and Whitney (NBC). She stars in the latter. Elizabeth Meriwether, who is about the same age as Cummings, is behind a pilot for Fox called The New Girl, starring the terminally adorable Zooey Deschanel.

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

Clearing the way for these young women to have their moment is a parallel phenomenon, one that TV Guide calls "the emasculation of men." It's a theme picked up by several new series. In Tim Allen's Last Man Standing, the Home Improvement star plays a Tea Party-loving dad who rages impotently against a changing country and a house full of women. In Man Up!, stunted dudes play video games and hide from their wives. And then there's Work It, a Bosom Buddies rehash in which men dress up like women in order to get jobs in the "mancession." According to the Wall Street Journal, Work It was explicitly inspired by Hanna Rosin's Atlantic magazine essay "The End of Men," and the other two seem at least implicitly influenced (here's Rosin's take on these shows at the Atlantic's website). All have the same premise: Male economic dominance is over and it's the women's turn now.

You might think that this one-two punch of promising-sounding sitcoms about young women and fairly repugnant shows about middle-aged men (Man Up thinks that using "vagina" as an insult is the height of hilarity), would mean that this is the moment for young, female creators to really say something bold about the women of their generation women who dreamed of being Claire Huxtable, not June Cleaver.

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Unfortunately that's not the case. Instead, the slew of new lady comedies rehash old stereotypes about long-term relationships between men and women, the elaborateness of female grooming rituals, and using feminine wiles to get what you want. As Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker puts it in his preview of The New Girl and Two Broke Girls, "These two shows aren't so much about girl power as girl strategy."

The New Girl is about a school teacher named Jess (Zooey Deschanel), who has just been dumped by her long-term boyfriend in profoundly humiliating fashion—she shows up at his apartment wearing a trench coat and nothing underneath and begins to do a strip-tease when another woman emerges from her beau's bedroom. Jess is deeply vulnerable and tells her three new roommates (all dudes) that she's going to be spending a lot of time crying and watching Dirty Dancing while she recuperates. (They agree to let the sad sack move in only because her best friend is a model.) She sings to herself and says things like, "Pink wine makes me slutty!" Jess is entertaining and original and her relationship with her three roommates is sweet, but her character might be the least transgressive woman in primetime. Her teaching job is traditionally female and she spends an entire scene ineptly using a curling iron. Though the show is really promising, we're not exactly breaking new ground here.

Another strong entry in this fall's new girl order is Two Broke Girls. Here we find Kat Dennings playing a sassy waitress named Max, who works at a seedy Brooklyn diner with the disgraced yet cheerful daughter of a Madoff-esque Ponzi schemer. The fact that the show bothers to take on class differences feels fresh, and the funniest bits of the show play on the disparity between working-class Max and spoiled Caroline. (She went to Wharton, has a horse, has been to Switzerland.) But the two broke girls of the title plan on making their fortune through an uberfemme cupcake business. (What is it about comedy heroines and their cupcake businesses?) Again, when it comes to gender commentary—plainspoken waitresses are stock TV characters—this is not a revelation.

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