The Hidden Sexism That's Still Rampant On TV

Photo: Courtesy of TV Land.
On January 13, Teachers will premiere on TV Land. The show is a sitcom adaptation of the web series of the same name from The Katydids, an all-female comedy group. It follows a group of six elementary school teachers who, try as they might, just aren’t doing the best job educating the youth of America. When I watched the pilot with my mom over the holidays, she really wasn’t into it. It was interesting to observe her reaction to the teachers, who she thought were “unsympathetic all across.” My mother adds that she found the “writing pedestrian” and “not as good as Playing House,” but I suspected there was something deeper going on.

“Do you think you had this reaction because mothers want to believe their kids’ teachers are more focused on their children during the school day?” I asked.

“I think people suspend belief with these shows’ premises," she said. Her problem isn't the fact that the teachers are way too self-centered. Instead, she couldn't get on board with Teachers because, "You have to have some sympathy with characters before they can be allowed to behave badly and keep your sympathy, I believe. Otherwise, you end up hating them at the outset."

Interesting point, and touché, Mom. Let’s rewind a little, though.

In the '90s, an extremely popular British show called Men Behaving Badly ran for six seasons. It was based on creator and writer Simon Nye’s 1989 book of the same name. The series was so successful that it was adapted for American television, where it ran for two seasons. We’re so inured to accepting slovenly, disobedient, wayward males being celebrated in all their glory that no one batted an eye when it became the premise of an entire freaking sitcom. Meanwhile, series such as Bad Teacher, Bad Judge, Are You There, Chelsea?, and I Hate My Teenage Daughter, which all focus on female characters behaving badly, came and went in the blink of an eye.

Did these shows also fail because, as my mom posits, they didn’t create sympathy with their characters? Did Men Behaving Badly get multiple seasons because it did? Having regrettably watched an episode of Men Behaving Badly, I have trouble believing that. And so — to get all Carrie Bradshaw about it — I couldn’t help but wonder if we’re dealing with a gender issue here.

Now, for the purpose of this article, I’m only talking about comedies (so, no Breaking Bad or Mad Men, although I could ramble for days about how readily we accept male antiheroes like Walter White and Don Draper into our hearts). Think about it, though: Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm; Al Bundy on Married With Children; Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld; Adam, Blake, and Ders on Workaholics. They can be self-centered, boorish, and uncouth, yet viewers tune in every week to watch them indulge their rude, crude, and sometimes lewd ways. The whole world is their playground in which to act like jerks, and it is ratings gold.

Yet, when it comes to female characters on sitcoms, are we still running up against the ol’ likability problem? Do they have to earn our sympathy before they can break bad?

Short answer for 2016: Hell no.

The problem with Bad Teacher, Bad Judge, Are You There, Chelsea?, and other short-lived comedies about “bad” females is that they aren’t very good. It’s easy to pinpoint why. When writers try too hard to create badass characters — as in, people you just know they imagine go through life with “Bad to the Bone” as a constant soundtrack — it just comes across as fake. The innate badness of a character can’t come from that person trying or wanting to be bad. From these characters' point of view, their motivations have to be what’s right and in their best interest. They can’t think of themselves and their own actions in moral absolutes. That’s where the disconnect occurs, and the show fails.

On a recent episode of The Nerdist podcast, actor Domhnall Gleeson, who plays the evil General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, said it perfectly. “Your job as an actor is to fight for your guy. My guy, I don’t care what he does, I’m fighting for him.” That’s exactly it. Well, an extreme version of it, because Gleeson was talking about playing someone who’s basically an intergalactic Nazi.
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Photo: Courtesy of TV 2.
For a less-extreme version, let's look at a Danish dramedy called Rita. It’s on Netflix, and I recently spent an entire weekend watching it — it’s that binge-worthy. Rita (Mille Dinesen) is an elementary and middle school teacher. She smokes in the school bathroom and in front of her students. She has sex with the principal in his office during the school day. When Rita’s son introduces her to his future in-laws, she realizes that she used to date his father-in-law. They immediately begin having an affair, which results in Rita getting an abortion.

Based on the above description, you might be wondering what makes Rita so watchable and what is so compelling about her. Well, despite her many flaws, Rita is a wonderful mother and teacher. She's a nonconformist, yes, but from her perspective, she’s doing what’s best for herself, her children, and her students. She doesn’t telegraph her thoughts or emotions, but she does fight for what she believes is right. In the end, Rita's unconventional way of thinking and acting usually wins the day. The show is a hit in Denmark and on Netflix.

I asked Katy Colloton, a member of The Katydids and one of the creators/writers/stars of Teachers, what she thinks of my theory about characters standing by their motivations. She agrees that no one on Teachers is written as "bad." "We like the idea that all of them want to be good teachers. They’re just flawed — each in a completely different way.”

Her character, Miss Snap, can’t help but get in her own way. “[She] wants to be a good teacher, but she also wants to be liked, and that doesn’t always mean the same thing,” Colloton told me. “She’s not going to be able to discipline because she doesn't want someone to be mad at her. She cares so much about her appearance that it’s sending a horribly wrong message to the young women in her class. She’s just too insecure to be able to execute what a teacher should do to be an authority figure.”

Colloton is glad we’re past the whole conversation about female characters being likable. We've moved into the more subtle nuances of how their personality traits can wreak havoc on their motivations, because that’s where humor comes from. “There’s so much more freedom for people to be able to be crazy, weird, ugly, mean, and unlikable on TV, because that’s what’s funny. Comedy is not funny if you’re perfect. There’s nothing funny about being a great person,” she says.

I also ask Colloton why so many shows where women let their freak flag fly seem to take place in traditionally gendered spaces or professions. On Weeds, she's a mother. On Nurse Jackie, a nurse. On Desperate Housewives, they're in the domestic space. On Two Broke Girls, they're waitresses. Here, they’re teachers at an elementary school.

She told me that Matt Miller, who conceived and directed the Teachers web series, had heard on a podcast that according to a study, teachers are the most admired of all professions, but are also perceived to be the most devious and adulterous. "That kind of duality was fun to explore,” she said.

That's fascinating, but really not at all surprising. It’s weird how we still uphold this ideal of a teacher as a pure, selfless being who appears every morning to teach our children and then disappears when the school day ends. Or, she’s Miss Honey from Matilda, living alone in a cottage, just waiting to adopt the perfect, precocious student one day. Are teachers “devious" when they dare to have personal lives outside school, or just, you know, act like real people? And by “teachers,” I mean women, because that’s probably who most people imagine when asked to picture an elementary school teacher.

I’ll admit that Teachers isn’t my favorite new show of the season, but I do like this road it sent me down, thinking about comedies where women behave badly. It’s only in recent years that we’ve gotten over this whole likeability and relatability hump, and viewers have tuned in to watch female characters go against the grain in unexpected places, such as the Oval Office (Veep), prison (Orange Is the New Black) and even the world at large (Broad City).

The most important thing to remember about a character breaking bad, however, is that it has to be organic. From their perspective, they’re fighting for what they want out of life. Whether it’s good or bad doesn’t matter. If that happens to mean you’re on the wrong side of drug laws in the United States, so be it. Nancy Botwin didn’t give a fuck, and audiences smoked that shit for eight seasons.

Image: Courtesy of Showtime.
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