Girls On Film: A Short History Of Female Whorishness In T.V. Comedy
2:30 pm, May 3rd | by Amy Tennery
With all the debate over privilege, race, nepotism, hipsterism and feminism in HBO’s “Girls,” it’s easy to forget there’s a sizable coalition of pearl-clutchers who are also icked out about the new HBO comu-drama. And it’s not because Lena Dunham has a famous mom or Lena Dunham’s character has a leg up in life. It’s because the girls on Girls are having the s-e-x.
The Washington Times described it as a “sexual wasteland” that shows how my generation has been “tutored by a popular culture that doesn’t much care” about romance and love. Sex is leading to the downfall of women! Now why do I feel like I’ve heard this before…
I know I’m not blowing any minds by mentioning just how repetitive the women’s slut panic on T.V. has been. But just for fun, let’s revisit some of the more hilarious — and cringeworthy — controversies over women, sex and television.
How, exactly, has popular culture been tutoring me?
1953 — Lucille Ball “has a baby” on I Love Lucy
Until 1953, pregnancy didn’t exist on television. Nuclear families with 2.5 children appeared like Venus from the sea foam (although clothed, of course) with no hint to their offsprings’ in uteri origins.
That is until Lucille Ball came around and “had a baby” on I Love Lucy. I say she “had a baby” because Ball wasn’t “pregnant” — she was having a baby, per the lexiconic mores of the time. In that sense, Ball invented T.V. pregnancy without ever really saying the word “pregnant” — that’s because she wasn’t allowed to:
And yet her pregnancy was delightful, funny and wry. As the clip above shows, pregnant Lucy was treated in an almost progressive kind of way. Here, she’s not hysterical or helpless; if anything, the people around her (in particular, her spastic husband) are.
That’s not to say there wasn’t controversy when it came to developing the episodes. CBS execs and big-time sponsor Philip Morris Cigarettes initially opposed the idea of showing Ball pregnant on T.V., according to a Library of Congress history on the episodes; and it was only after “a priest, a minister, and a rabbi would approve each of the ‘baby show’ scripts did the executives concede,” that the storyline air. Thankfully, no one felt it necessary to call in the Pope.
I Love Lucy‘s childbirth episode went on to earn more viewers than the Eisenhower inauguration, which aired the next day. People were obviously too busy trying to cope with the mental and emotional shock.
1992 — Murphy Brown births a controversy
Oh, Dan Quayle.
During at the dawn of the ’90s, Murphy Brown decided to do something kind of radical — well, at least on T.V. it was treated as such. The single working woman had a baby.
And Quayle (famously) lost it. During a speech in San Francisco, shortly after the season of Murph-Birth wrapped, he accused the show of denigrating fatherhood and contributing to a “poverty of values.” He also implied that the show contributed to the Los Angeles riots, which really feels like a stretch:
Of course, show producer Diane English dished out an all-time epic comeback, noting that if Quayle’s so uncomfortable with single motherhood he’d “better make sure abortion remains safe and legal.” And then, of course, there was the retaliatory episode titled, “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato.” And really, doesn’t that say it all?
1994 — Monica Geller: “Whore,” “trollop,” “slut”
Looking back on it, the sex talk on NBC’s Friends feels almost quaint — at least by today’s television standards. Sure, the characters talked about “it.” There was The One In Which Rachel And Monica Fought Over The Last Condom (otherwise known as the winning episode, The One Where Dr. Ramoray Dies). And, sure, the ex-boyfriend seance got a little wacky.
But as far as one NBC exec was concerned, one character was downright whorish: Monica Geller.
In an excerpt from a new book about NBC’s erstwhile “must-see T.V.” dominance, published in this month’s Vanity Fair, show co-creator Marta Kauffman recalled how NBC West Coast President (at the time) Don Ohlmeyer reacted to the pilot episode, in which Monica Geller has sex with a guy on the first date:
We were doing the network run-through with an audience, and Don said that when Monica slept with Paul the wine guy she got what she deserved [he used a line to dupe her into bed] — that’s how he rationalized it. Fire began to come out of my nose.
They handed out a questionnaire to the audience: Do you think Monica sleeping with wine guy makes her (a) a slut, (b) a whore, (c) a trollop. And even with the deck stacked that way, the audience didn’t care [about the sex].
The questionnaire was written by Ohlmeyer, former NBC VP Jamie Tarses confirmed in the book. I’m not sure whether there was write-in space for an alternate vote but… one would hope Ohlmeyer got some more colorful responses than he’d bargained for.
Friends, as you may have heard, became a modest success, despite its characters’ whorishness.
2012 — “Fat chick” sex reigns on “Girls”
From the New York Post‘s Andrea Peyser. I’ll just leave this here:
“Last night, HBO premiered its depraved comedy about life in New York’s outer boroughs, Girls — a show as insidious and hotly anticipated as a sexually transmitted disease.
Insidious. Depraved. Watch out, ladies.