Friday, March 14, 2014

On "Trophy Wife's" Reprehensible Slut-Shaming Storyline

Some brief thoughts—of the angry and disappointed variety—on a recent episode of Trophy Wife (with spoilers) after the jump:


I've been mourning the likely cancellation of ABC's Trophy Wife for months now. It's one of three shows—the other two being Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Enlisted—that have combined to form one of the strongest groups of freshman sitcoms I can recall. It's nothing too original: simply an exceedingly well-done example of the family sitcom that is both charming and laugh out loud funny, and populated with a amusingly quirky cast of characters. Stock sitcom plots involving this extended family are its bread and butter most weeks, which hasn't been a problem for most of the season, due to the sharpness with which they've been executed. But a recent episode of the show ("Happy Bert Day") introduced another pretty standard sitcom staple—a character attempting to fit in with a group that doesn't really want anything to do with her or him—whose execution was not only decidedly not sharp, but in fact downright anger-inducing. And while I mentioned it on Twitter, I thought it merited a slightly longer blog post/rant, because it's really that bad. So here goes.

The storyline in question in "Happy Bert Day" involves Kate's desire to be accepted by a group of moms who initially want nothing to do with her. On the surface, it follows a pretty formulaic trajectory: Kate tries to fit in and eventually does, the group turns on someone she knows and likes, and she finally rejects them. Predictable? Yes. But it's also seemingly the kind of innocuous fare that the show has been able to make into comedy gold time and time again this year. The big difference between those earlier episodes and this one, of course, is that they didn't actively take part in the cultural stigmatization of people who happen to make their living taking their clothes off. Or, to put it more concisely: this episode of Trophy Wife engages in slut-shaming

See, the whole reason Kate's being ostracized is because someone has been spreading a rumor that she used to be a stripper. This in and of itself is not the problem with this storyline, but rather with society as a whole. It's an accurate reflection of the way many people view people who strip for a living: as people less worthy of respect and friendship . . . hell, less worthy of humanity, simply because of their profession. This of course is reprehensible, and Trophy Wife had a chance to call attention to that, by showing how downright horrible these people are being. Instead, "Happy Bert Day" not only ignores this aspect of their behavior by transforming the issue into a simple one of truth vs. falsehood (Kate has never been a stripper), but in fact reinforces this attitude through Kate's horrified reaction to the lie. Her indignation and mortification imply that there's something inherently shameful about stripping, instead of placing the shame where it belongs: on the people expressing these hateful puritanical values, and dehumanizing their fellow human beings in the process.

Then there's the matter of Jackie's line later on, in which she expresses the belief that all strippers are prostitutes. On one level, this is a joke on Jackie, and that's probably all that Trophy Wife intended it to be. But intention is of course not the be all and end all. I don't think the writers of the show actively intended to cause harm with any of the storytelling decisions they made here, but in crafting this storyline, they nonetheless showed a callous, unthinking disregard for its implications: both in terms of the overall narrative and the jokes contained therein. So as if the initial basis for the story wasn't horrid enough (and it's plenty horrid), we then get this absolutely atrocious joke, simply tossed off as a brief throwaway line. Just as troubling is the way Kate corrects Jackie's misconception moments earlier: an action that suggests there is some sort of messed-up tier system in place here. Being a stripper is bad enough, but being a prostitute . . . now there's something to be even more horrified by. Hilarious, right? Except it's probably not amusing to all the people in these two lines of work, who have to face this kind of societal derision and judgment because of it. They're probably not laughing.

I kept waiting for the episode to prove me wrong for my initial reaction of disgust: to turn things around and make this storyline about what it should have been about in the first place. As you can probably tell by the fact that I'm writing this, that is sadly not what happened. Kate does arrive at an epiphany regarding this awful group of people, but it comes about only when they start making fun of Jackie. Not once (not one single time) does the episode ever suggest that there's something fundamentally wrong with slut-shaming; it's only presented as wrong in this case because Kate's never been a stripper. And that's absolutely appalling. Pop culture can't work miracles; while I believe it can help effect social change, its impact is tiny compared to other progressive forces. But that doesn't mean TV shows, movies, music, etc. shouldn't try to be better than the society which consumes them. This show failed at that with this episode. You can do better than this, Trophy Wife. I hope you will for the remainder of your lifespan, however long or short that may be.

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