Network TV Attempts To Figure Out Modern Feminism, Might Just Be on to Something

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Oct. 15 2012 1:03 PM

Network TV Attempts To Figure Out Modern Feminism, Might Just Be on to Something

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Dane Cook, Collette Wolfe, and Jeffrey Tambor at NBC's presentation of their now-canceled Next Caller

Photograph by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Television is a trend-driven business: Bridesmaids does well and suddenly, everyone's looking for funny women, Modern Family is a hit, and suddenly, multicamera comedies are in and single-camera comedies are out. Most of the time, these trends are big, broad attempts to chase increasingly rare success stories. But this year, network TV, in its own halting way, is going after something a little more unusual: network TV is trying to figure out modern feminism.

The first attempt was Next Caller, a sitcom starring Dane Cook that NBC put into production to start airing in the midseason. On the surface, the show's premise is disastrous: Cook was set to play Cam, the host of a shock-jock satellite radio show called Booty Calls, who's paired with a feminist co-host, Stella (Collette Wolfe), promoted from a local NPR station to the big time because, as his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) puts it "Your show sucks and your ratings are garbage." But apparently NBC lost faith in the concept, which many of my fellow critics hated in the first place—the network canceled Next Caller before it even assigned the sitcom a time slot for January.

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I'm actually sorry that Next Caller isn't going to air, in part because it posited an interesting relationship between its vision of modern sexists and modern feminists. In the pilot at least, Stella was was overly sincere and statistics-obsessed, a parody as much of NPR as of feminism itself. "It's so boring!" one caller sobbed on the air as she recited statistics about relationships. Cam treats her as naive when she insists that men can rise above ogling women, and tells her that she's boring when she bombards a virgin with statistics and sex-ed talk after he calls in and anxiously asks her what sex is like. "What's wrong with you?" Cam asks her. "Why can't you just tell the kid something about sex? Something not horrible."

But when Stella heeds his instructions about how to talk to callers—and people in general—she turns out to be absolutely right about modern relationships, and breaks Cam's hyper-aggressive facade, getting him to talk about the fiancee that abandoned him. Feminism is right, the show seems to be arguing, but it's packaged in a way that turns people off. And Stella's a stiff not because feminism is inherently uptight, but because she's hiding herself behind magazine articles and academic studies rather than putting herself forward. It's an almost shockingly interesting argument for network television to attempt, and I'm sorry I don't get to see Next Caller develop it further.

We might get another shot at some of the same ideas, though. Fox, which is investing heavily in female-centric comedies, bought another pitch from Elizabeth Banks and Elizabeth Wright Shapiro about "an Ivy League feminist who comes to L.A to become an assistant professor and ends up moving in with two 'Playboy Bunny' type females. While they seemingly have nothing in common, all three are striving to be modern empowered women but with very different ideas of how to achieve it." It'll be a long time before we see what that looks like, but the pitch sounds some of the same notes that Next Caller attempted, juxtaposing a smart, self-identified feminist with people who are meant to read as less inhibited, but also less capable of watching out for themselves.

It's irritating to see feminists repeatedly portrayed as uptight and unlikable. But it's encouraging to see television, normally terrified of dabbling in politics at all, take a shot at creating explicitly feminist main characters with something important to offer the world around them. I don't know that this is true in real life, but a vision of a world where all that stands between feminism and victory is better marketing and communication is a pretty appealing fantasy.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.