There are more female-led shows than ever in today's TV landscape. But a lot of those main characters get called raunchy — even though they're just acting like regular people. The headline-blaring "raunchy" boom can be traced at least in part to You're the Worst and Broad City, both of which debuted in 2014. In reality, though, the trend goes back much further than that, even if it's not always labeled as such. As current Refinery29 editor Yael Kohen pointed out in her 2012 book, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, Elaine May and Phyllis Diller, along with Lucille Ball, consistently pushed the boundaries of what was "acceptable" women's behavior, a topic Ariel Levy tackled in 2005's Female Chauvinist Pigs as well. And, of course, Sex and the City's "difficult women," as The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum dubbed them in 2013, loom large in the cohort.
Still, You're the Worst and Broad City both broke new ground when their pilots aired, paving the way for normalizing aspects of women's lives not often seen on TV. Broad City features women who enjoy smoking weed and having casual sex — two activities that are fairly standard for millennials. You're the Worst released a steamy red-band trailer for its first season — but it's hardly raunchy for two people to have a lot of sex. (Take a quick scroll through the trailer's YouTube comments, and you'll find plenty of fans criticizing the trailer for making the show seem more sexual than it actually is.)
The two shows were quickly called raunchy at the time, despite the fact that their characters' actions aren't really that shocking. And it's telling that both shows feature women on screen, front and center. It's not the fact that Jimmy (Chris Geere) is "the worst" that's so shocking to audiences — we've been watching men break bawdy on TV for decades. But the fact that Jimmy has a female counterpart who's also the worst (Gretchen, played expertly by Aya Cash) felt new when the show debuted. As of late, you're much more likely to find headlines discussing raunchy female characters than to see male characters called raunchy.
Behaving badly on TV isn't totally new for people of any gender — there have been shows literally titled Girls Behaving Badly and Men Behaving Badly, and let's not forget the game-changing Sex and the City. Still, today's shows are taking things to new levels — yes, these characters are flawed, but they're also incredibly relatable. We're not watching them as a form of escape, the way we would see Peggy Bundy's (Katey Sagal) antics on Married With Children; we're watching them because, like Gretchen, we've all been "the worst" at some point.
When I spoke with Carla Jimenez, who stars as Alba in Fox's The Mick, along with You're the Worst writer Philippe Iujvidin, relatability came up in both discussions. Jimenez says she's never heard negative feedback about The Mick on social media; Iujvidin says he frequently hears how much audiences relate to characters like Gretchen.
"I've seen so many comments online, like, 'I am Gretchen. This is me. I know Gretchen,'" Iujvidin said on a recent phone call with Refinery29. "We try to tell real stories with real people. And sometimes real people are unlikeable, or they do unlikeable things."
By its technical definition, "raunchy" refers to topics or people that are overtly sexual. And some raunchy TV shows and movies are sexual in nature — but a lot of projects that get tagged "raunchy" aren't sexual at all.
The Mick — and its lead character, Kaitlin Olson's Mickey — have been described as raunchy by various outlets, though Mickey is, in most respects, a pretty harmless, and often relatable, character. The show's humor is in a similar vein as star Olson's other series, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, with a "badly behaved" woman at the center of the story. (That's in quotes because Mickey is actually an incredibly caring person, despite her apparent flaws.)
"I think 'raunchy,' and I think more sexual than I do slapstick-y," Jimenez tells Refinery29. "The first thing that comes to my mind when I think 'raunchy' is the movie Porky's, or any of those '80s sex-like slapstick comedies... and that's not what we are."
Semantics aside, a lot of the things Mickey and Alba, along with You're the Worst's Gretchen and Lindsay (Kether Donohue), have done aren't outside the realm of possibility. Most You're the Worst viewers probably haven't done cocaine off their own chest, like Lindsay has, but a lot of them have likely tried drugs. Falling off the side of a yacht is a uniquely Mickey problem, but plenty of us have awkward first-date stories. It might be slightly jarring to see those things on screen, but that's not such a bad thing — and it's not something we should shy away from.
Seeing flawed women on screen may raise eyebrows — just title your project Bad Teacher or Bad Moms, and you'll get people talking — but it shouldn't. There's a reason people identify with these imperfect characters, and it's often a relief to see characters on screen who don't have everything figured out.
Even with all this progress, though, it seems to be mostly women who are engaging with these so-called raunchy characters. It's not clear what percentage of You're The Worst's audience is female (Refinery29 has reached out to the network for comment), but Deadline noted last fall that the show's season 3 premiere brought in "series highs" among female viewers aged 18 to 54. Plus, during Bad Moms' opening weekend, the movie's audience was 82% female, which hints that male viewers might still be hesitant to engage with projects that feature "misbehaving" women. Girls Trip, similarly, opened to a 79% female audience its first weekend in theaters. It would appear that men don't want to see women acting out of stereotypical turn in fare that doesn't please their fragile pop-culture palates.
And yet, when Rough Night director Lucia Aniello spoke with Bustle about the film earlier this summer, she said that she doesn't consider the film particularly "raunchy."
"That's interesting the word 'raunch,' what does that mean to you?" Aniello said to Bustle's Kelsea Stahler. "The girls do swear conversationally, the way I just do in my normal life, but there's not a lot of like gross-out humor in it, really. Not that I'm saying it isn't raunchy, but it's just interesting, that word in general, because what does that mean?"
Aniello's point applies to TV comedies, too. No, most of us haven't killed a stripper à la Rough Night or stabbed our partners like You're the Worst's Lindsay. But we can all cop to things like swearing or farting. So it shouldn't be surprising to see that on screen — and it shouldn't need to be labeled "raunchy" to do things so many people can relate to. There's a reason these characters are so deeply relatable, and if that makes people uncomfortable, that might not be such a bad thing.
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