If the fall TV season is any guide, the sexual revolution that was supposed to liberate men and women from traditional sex roles seems to have resulted instead in a straight-up role reversal. The male characters are messes — insecure, jobless, barely able to dress themselves without a wife or girlfriend and/or living in mom’s proverbial basement. Their female counterparts, meanwhile, are flaunting the same selfish, boorish ways that once got men called “chauvinist pigs.” The only difference today is that when these female characters act like jerks, we are expected to cheer them on as “empowered.”
Mindful of changing social mores, let’s take the men first.
As many critics have noted, 2011 is the season of emasculation with a bevy of new shows about the purportedly dire state of American manhood. For example, “Man Up” (which premiered Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on ABC) features a Judd Apatow-ish bunch of latte-sipping best friends in their 40s who go on a quest for their inner “Iron Johns.”
“Man Up’s” Tuesday night lead-in, “Last Man Standing” (Oct. 11 at 8), returns Tim Allen to series television in a sort of Bizarro-world version of “Home Improvement.” Mr. Allen plays an unemployed stay-at-home dad of three girls who sees himself as the last bastion of masculinity in a world gone estrogen-mad.
On “How to Be a Gentleman” (CBS, Sept. 29, 8:30 p.m.), Kevin Dillon plays a street-wise personal trainer in New York City who sounds a lot like Johnny Drama and teaches a bunch of metrosexual Manhattanites how to belch and take a punch.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There is no shortage of traditional sexism in the season’s new shows - be it unadorned cheesecake such as the “Charlie’s Angels” reboot, or the cheesecake with a “Mad Men” topping, such as “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am.” The more striking theme of the season, though, is a post-feminist kind of sexism personified by female protagonists in a cluster of new series.
“Whitney,” an eponymous sitcom starring comic Whitney Cummings, premieres this week in NBC’s sanctified Thursday-night slot, at 9:30. Fetching, lanky and nasal, Miss Cummings is also the co-creator of “2 Broke Girls.” That mega-hyped sitcom premiered Monday night on CBS, after the even more hyped debut of the recast “Two and a Half Men” with Ashton Kutcher, and before Maria Bello’s well-reviewed new cop show, “Prime Suspect.”
Fox’s “I Hate My Teenage Daughter,” starring Jamie Pressly and an actress you’ve never heard of, Tony winner Katie Finneran, is a low-rent version of “Cougar Town” that shows up Nov. 23. The midseason replacement shows are just as heavy on leading ladies. Laura Prepon stars in “Are You There Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea?” based on Chelsea Handler’s best-seller, while ABC has the pre-redacted sitcom “Don’t Trust the B- in Apartment 23.”
Unlike their broke, wimpy male counterparts, the women on these shows are mostly strong and self-sufficient, and critics describe them with glowing words such as “assertive,” “edgy” and, heaven help us, “sassy.” However, what these women actually are, generally speaking, are utterly awful human beings. They may be inspired by “Sex and the City’s” Carrie Bradshaw, but they act like Samantha, openly bragging about how badly they treat men. They make the sorts of crude jokes that are rightly decried when men make them on prime-time network TV, yet are celebrated for women as signs of emancipation. “Whitney,” “Are You There Vodka?” and “2 Broke Girls,” for instance, all have one-line zingers where the punch line is “vagina.”
The male characters are largely relegated to being ornaments, comic foils or villains. Those that aren’t wimps or fools are dashing rakes - embodiments, in a way, of the old virgin/whore dichotomy turned upside down. In Fox’s “New Girl,” which premiered Tuesday at 9 p.m., post-“Glee,” star Zooey Deschanel’s character has to find a new apartment because she catches her boyfriend cheating. Similarly, the titular “2 Broke Girls” become roommates only because one catches her “sleeps until 4:00” boyfriend cheating on her, and the other has a father who goes to jail for his Bernie Madoff-like crime.
TV’s women of fall, on the network sitcoms especially, are vain, selfish, shallow and controlling — a generation of “Mean Girls” grown, not surprisingly, into mean women.