Ripley’s Rebuke: ‘Whitney’ versus Whitney

Even the promo shots for Whitney attempt retro, but come off as regressive.

After the season premiere of Parks and Recreation (Knope 2012!) and The Office last Thursday night, I left the TV on and caught the series premiere of Whitney, the new sitcom created by and starring comic Whitney Cummings.
I was first taken aback by the retro format of Whitney: it had a laugh track. To be more accurate, the show is taped in front of a live studio audience, but the frequency and monotonous tone of the laughter reminded me of nothing but a LAUGH sign flashing in front of the audience, and everyone there dutifully following the director’s cue.
What was far worse than the studio audience laugh track was the actual content of the show. Before I start sounding like a hater–a comedy created by and starring a woman is progress, right?!–let me say that I do sincerely hope the show gets better. Much, much better, and quick, or else I fear it may be canceled. Which may or may not be a good thing.
Warning: there are spoilers here if you haven’t seen the pilot yet, but I’m not going to ruin anything good, I promise.
Here’s the basic premise of the pilot: Whitney and her long-term boyfriend live together, and we see that familiarity in their relationship (she shaves her upper lip in front of him) has put a damper on their sex life. She tries “Spicing Things Up” (the title of the episode) with a little role playing. She finds a naughty nurse costume and, when the intended ravaging doesn’t take place, spends the rest of the episode still wearing the costume. Some other things happen, physical comedy, conversations between women in which other women are bashed, blah blah blah.
The show is a run of cliches. The episode kicks off with a wedding. The romance is gone between Whitney and her man, and it’s up to her to excite him (lest he run out and get it somewhere else, which is immediately presented as an option for him). A black woman appears as an emergency room nurse and is deemed “scary” by the star. A racist mother is played for laughs and deemed “eccentric.” There’s a joke about online stalking. And blackface.
The race fail cannot be ignored and is, unfortunately, par for the course on network television. Whitney is another show focusing on privileged white people, with a minority character or two thrown in for ‘flavor,’ but not featuring a person of color as a major character. The repetition of this scenario in show after show reminds us that institutional racism is far from a thing of the past.
There’s a lot more I could say on the previous point, but I want to focus on the contradictions of a show created by and starring a woman that participates in misogyny and sexism. Romance fades in relationships and people try to bring it back, and there’s ample room for comedy in that scenario. What bothers me most about the pilot of Whitney is that she wears the nurse costume for the entire second half of the episode, after taking her boyfriend to the hospital (I won’t tell you why he goes–it was the only thing that made me laugh). Was it to keep men watching the show? “Oh, we’ll trick MEN into watching by keeping the star in a humiliating skimpy costume! Brilliant! Hahahaha!” Was is supposed to be funny, showing us how silly and hapless Whitney is? It wasn’t funny, it was distracting. All I kept thinking was how I’d at least throw some sweatpants on before leaving the house. 
This self-objectification (assuming Cummings has creative power in her show and chose to wear the costume) is nothing but enlightened sexism and does not, as the episode would likely have us believe, show that we’re post-feminist. Self-objectification is still objectification. Even if Whitney took the lead in going out to find a costume for role-playing, her body is on display–even if it’s part of a joke–for viewers to consume.
But here’s the kicker. The content of the pilot directly comes from Cummings’ standup–except it reverses her comedy. Here’s a clip of her bit on role playing, and how ridiculous it is for women to wear costumes to please men (warning: not safe for work):

Here, Cummings makes fun of the concept of role playing, whereas her character in the show willingly participates in it. I wonder if this reversal  is supposed to show us how clueless the character Whitney is, how unenlightened she is, how willing to demean herself. This kind reading (giving the show the benefit of the doubt, hoping that it’s not THAT blatantly misogynist) doesn’t do the show any favors, either. Sure, take a cliche as the premise–but turn it on its head. Make us want to watch. Do something different.

I can’t say I have high hopes for the show to improve. Visit the show’s official website, and you’re greeted with a large picture of Cummings, with an open-mouthed smile, and if you click to another page, you’re greeted with more open-mouthed pictures. You can watch the full pilot here,  if you’re interested in seeing a scantily-clad skinny white woman be objectified/objectify herself while failing to be funny. 

Isn’t it time to move beyond this type of depiction of women? It’s not funny, and I won’t watch again.


  • Anonymous
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Yep, I hate it when two consenting adults are presented engaging in the type of sexuality they find pleasing or experimenting in any way.

  • Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Seriously? That’s what you took from this review?

    I’d love for you to explain to me how a woman walking around in a nurse costume for an entire episode isn’t quite obviously being objectified.

    If sexual objectification of women–you know, a woman parading around half-nude in front of an audience of thousands–is now considered “sexual experimentation,” then I completely fucking GIVE UP.

  • Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    I had very low expectations for this show and will not be watching again either. I have no familiarity with WC’s stand-up so it’s extra disturbing to see this juxtaposition. Thanks for posting it!

    I think the show didn’t know what to do with sub-themes of commitment/marriage/age. Very odd. The depiction of W’s anxiety over her relationship seemed forced to me…forced, of course, as a way to get her to take off her clothes.

    Without gender cliches the show doesn’t know how to be funny, which is a major failure of creativity (esp when a professional comedian is the star). Whitney’s two female friends were really disturbing and fit the man-hating/doting girlfriend binaries in perfect cliche. Some of the jokes just didn’t make sense and they couldn’t decide what “kind” of woman Whitney should be…you know, since there are only 2 or 3 kinds. The pedophilia joke (about the man wondering if having sex with a pregnant woman was a three some) was one of many laugh track moments that were so wrong. I realize the joke was supposed to be on the man in question, but still. Anyway. I could go on.

    Knope 2012!

  • katie
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    I am actually partially with Anonymous on this one. I don’t think the role playing thing is inherently objectifying. It certainly can be and often is (!), but I don’t think seeing a character want to do something new to spice up her partner’s and her sex life is automatically offensive to women. Especially because we see the characters have an open dialogue about their sex life (or the network sitcom equivalent of one, anyway). And I think what is supposed to be funny about the whole thing is that the character is not playing out the fantasy in the traditional, fetishized way. In her attempt to play the role of the sexy, objectified girl for the sake of exciting her boyfriend, she misunderstands the fantasy (by taking it too literally), and thus reveals how far her character actually is from that. What’s more, her boyfriend all along is skeptical and reluctant (as opposed to pushing her to dress up as the sexy nurse–it was her idea), and the show ends with them discussing why they don’t want to get married.

    To clarify, I had many issues with the pilot. Some were racial issues, some gender issues, and some not-funny issues. It really wasn’t great. However, I don’t think the role playing thing was as horrifying as the post’s author did.

    I have not seen her stand-up either, and I think it’s interesting to compare them. I don’t think the sitcom version is a “reversal” of the material, though. They are drawing on similar humor in two different contexts. But importantly, in her stand-up she is making the joke to avoid sex with a hypothetical man (who is described as “making” women dress up to have sex), and the situation in the sitcom is a couple trying to reinvigorate their sex life (and again, she initiates it). Part of this might just be the nature of moving from stand-up to sitcom–many comedians adapt successful material to fit the premise that gets set up on the show. Furthermore, the stand-up bit is drawing on gender stereotypes as well, just in a different way. In the stand-up bit she sets up the largely assumed situation in which men want sex and women consent or (usually) withhold it. She is playing the frigid woman who won’t fuck her boyfriend when he wants. And how does she scare him? The wedding dress. Because men hate commitment, hate weddings, and think all women want to trick them into getting married.

  • Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    Katie: I think you make a good point when you analyze Cummings’ standup bit and the way it draws on gender stereotypes. (And let me thank you for disagreeing with me in a respectful way, which is why I assume you’re “partially” with the anonymous commenter above.) The bit shows that role playing is something Cummings has thought critically about, and presents a subversion of the expectation that women participate uncritically in an act that is promoted in the likes of (as the show says) Cosmopolitan magazine. So maybe it’s not a perfect reversal, but a resistance to this notion that women need to perform for men. What Whitney does by wearing that outfit–not for her boyfriend in the show, but for the viewing audience–is uncritically perform her sexuality for a male gaze. Yes, part of the comedy is that Whitney takes role playing too seriously, but what upsets me is not that she’s engaging in role playing in the first place (which, as I said in the post, provides ample potential for comedy), but that the character appears in her skimpy costume for literally half of the episode. I’m upset that a female comic, who created her own show, couldn’t star in the series premiere without exploiting herself. I find it unacceptable, actually.

    Abby: I could go on, too. I kept thinking of other elements to discuss (her friends!) but tried to keep it short and to the point.

  • kaite
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I can definitely see why you say that. I guess I didn’t see it that way. Maybe I am too willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for the sake of comedy–and again, I don’t think it’s a good show. On the whole nurse costume thing though, I don’t think if a male lead had a similar situation–where for the sake of the character’s embarrassment he was scantily clad in public, revealing what should have been a private moment gone horribly awry–it would be read in any way as sexual or objectifying. I realize this isn’t really a useful comparison given how men and women are treated and used in popular culture and how women’s bodies are used and the show isn’t existing in a vacuum, I just think the fact that we read women’s bodies culturally as always sexual is assigning value to it that it doesn’t have to have. So that leaves us with the question of can a woman be “caught with her pants down,” so to speak, for the sake of the joke in a way that doesn’t mean sexually objectifying? Does a woman’s body signifying sex mean that a woman can’t do a joke that involves a slutty costume–ever–and have it be only the joke? Can we find humor in her character’s embarrassment that isn’t just an excuse for her to spend an episode in a slutty nurse costume? I would like to hope so, but you might be right.

  • Posted October 2, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    I actually watched the whole episode, something I previously had no particular interest in doing, just so I could judge for myself how sexist it is, or isn’t. And honestly, I didn’t think that “Whitney” was sexist at all. I really didn’t see it. In fact, that clip from Cummings’ standup routine is FAR more sexist and based in gender stereotypes than anything I saw in the show.

    The implication that Whitney’s boyfriend might leave her for another woman if she didn’t spice up their sex life (or that she perceived this to be the case) was barely there, if it was there at all. The scene at the wedding where an attractive woman approaches W’s boyfriend and flirts with him appeared to exist specifically to show how devoted to Whitney he is. He shows no interest in the other woman, and Whitney doesn’t appear bothered or threatened. The whole purpose of the scene, it seemed to me, was to showcase how solid their relationship really is. And that sets up Whitney’s folly in believing she has to change things in order to enliven a relationship which is just fine as it is.

    The “sexy nurse” role play thing was played almost entirely for laughs. It was, in fact, the only part of the show I found funny. It tied directly back to the part of the standup that was also funny, essentially pointing out that there’s nothing sexy about visiting the doctor’s office. The joke is that Whitney is so unaccustomed to sexual role-play, that she takes it literally and makes him fill out insurance and medical history forms. That’s pretty funny.

    The whole joke of the episode is that their relationship is fine. Whitney’s character becomes unnecessary worried because they don’t have sex every day — not because she’s afraid someone else will steal her man, but just because couples are supposed to have lots of sex. So she tries to be something she’s not, something that the culture insists all men want, and in the end the boyfriend reassures her that he prefers her the way she is. How is that sexist? In fact I think it’s quite the opposite. Society is telling the character that she should be a certain way, and she ultimately realizes it’s better to be herself.

    As for her continuing to wear the nurse outfit, based on this review I was expecting to see her parading around next-to-naked for 15 minutes or more. Instead, she’s wearing a coat over the nurse outfit! The effect is no more or less revealing than anything any other character is wearing. She only takes off the coat in the last few seconds of the show. I’ll grant that the tush-shot at the end could have been approached from a different angle. But it is flat-out inaccurate to suggest that she spends the last portion of the show objectifying herself.

    Now, all that said, I did find the friends hugely problematic and annoying. The two female friends are the flattest of stereotypes and showcased no character traits whatsoever besides being happily in a relationship or being bitter about being single. So cliche. And the sexist male friend? Aren’t we done with that tired stereotype yet? It’s just a whisper-thin excuse for the show to make risque and sexist jokes.

    But in my opinion, the only real glaring problem with this show is that it wasn’t particularly funny. I won’t watch it because of that. There are enough clever, fresh and genuinely funny shows on TV that I don’t need to spend my time on boring, hackneyed shows like this.

  • Posted October 22, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I agree that the show lacked real humor and with some of the work of Tina Fey and many of the SNL folks out there, actually, I hoped for more.
    As for the nurse thing, (and I know it’s been played here already and doesn’t require my cliched two cents) the problem is, in part, that symbolically women’s bodies and the ways they are revealed are very different than those of men’s(as mentioned earlier). They have stood for different things in their nudity. To get around that, many of the more effective examples of women/bodies/comedy are effective because the writing and/or the comic herself as taken more care to develop a character that isn’t (say) just trying to spice up her own love life and then get caught in an embarrassing public moment, but really, using the concept of an attractive women with her clothes off or minimized (oops!) to sex us up: the new viewers whom, if not their for the humor should stay on for cute shots of Whitney’s cute butt. Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon takes pains to make her female body real and imperfect. If we are viewing the show for a glimpse of Liz Lemon’s legendary feet, well, it’s for a different sort of pay-off than simple titillation. For feminist themes we could bash on other things in 30 Rock, but most of them are more evenly-distributed so that each character (male and female) often plays through a lot of well-crafted irony that casts the dubious light on what would be dubious moments of sexism or race and classisms. I could go on to list how that was accomplished in the silliness of the Jenna character or the ver public liberal politics of Alec Baldwin informing the tongue-in-cheek critique of conservatism that Jack D.ends up illustrating while his character believes himself to be a true conservative, the writing and sharp character development have given us the lens through Jack, the character, by which to view 30 Rock’s own politics. Tina/Liz herself, is constantly interrogating her intentions not to be sexist/self-loathing, racist whereas Whitney’s shows has set down none of this groundwork.

One Trackback