Whitney Cummings at the This Means War premiere.
Whitney Cummings isn’t my thing. I’ve watched clips of her stand-up on YouTube, and almost always closed the browser before she was done talking. Jokes about “women are [crazy] like THIS, and men are like THAT!” aren’t my cup of tea, but I still tuned into the first two episodes of Whitney, in the same way I’ll watch the first two episodes of any other TV show I have no personal interest in but whose existence is made into a cultural touchstone. I went in ready to hate it, but it was fine. The show and I could make a détente work - I stopped watching, and Whitney Cummings (presumably) agreed not to care that I did.
Because of the fervor whipped up over her first two shows, it isn’t surprising that Cummings’ new-new show, a late-night talk show on E! titled Love You, Mean It, is inducing similar fits of rage. To some extent, this is a reasonable reaction: nobody enjoys seeing someone they perceive as untalented (or unlikeable) being rewarded for it. Nobody likes seeing a few familiar, disliked faces getting TV shows or film roles over and over again. The presumption, I suppose, is that you and I are flawless judges of humor and talent, and what WE want to see should rule the airwaves. I have no qualms with you on that. I’ve got a pen; let’s write down a list of the actors we DO like and send it off to Hollywood post-haste. I can see this really making waves.
The problem with the reflexive fury directed at Cummings (and her new show, but mostly at the actress herself) is that it is often unapologetically gendered. Critics lamenting her new show are quick to point out that it is essentially Chelsea Lately 2.0 — but what do you call every other talk show on the air? A person behind a desk talks about things s/he thinks are funny, and interviews some guests. When a male comic gets a new talk show, who complains that he’s Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien 2.0? Part of the critique surely comes from Chelsea Handler’s involvement in Cummings’ new show, but male comics and producers work on each other’s shows all the time without facing the nepotism and mimicry charges now faced by Handler and Cummings. They do it without being accused of sleeping their way to the top, too.
Whitney with Kathy Griffin at the People’s Choice Awards in January.
And oh, how people love that theory! Articles about Cummings’ new show are accompanied by dozens of commenters asking, only half-facetiously, who Cummings had to sleep with to get her new show. It’s a claim often thrown at Chelsea Handler, too — often by other women, including Joan Rivers. Whatever the public thinks they might know about how Handler’s dating history impacted her career, or however much they might want some alternate explanation for Cummings’ success, commenters making these accusations are participating in one of the oldest sexist tropes in the book. (What book? The Sexism Book.) They’re saying that women’s sex is transactional and that we use it manipulatively, to get things for ourselves that our femaleness prevents us from getting on our own merits. Actually, it sounds like a joke Whitney Cummings might make, and I thought you said you were better than that.
It’s always a struggle to defend women who willfully participate in sexism against sexism. (See: Sarah Palin.) In that regard, I get the gut-level desire to lift the guardrails when it comes to criticizing women like Whitney Cummings. But does a woman’s apparent bias against her own sex overrule her capacity to be subject to elevated levels of that same bias? I don’t think so. I think women in particular have to be careful about wanting other women off the air, even if they’re bad. Does equality look like a tiny number of really progressive and perfectly feminist TV shows and women comedians alongside an overwhelming majority (and variety) of male-driven shows and comics? What if part of it is just about having MORE female comics and leading actresses, some of whom will be great and some of whom will be terrible? Maybe equality in television means having female-driven TV shows with the freedom to be just as awful as most of the rest of what’s on. If that sounds depressing, meet Hollywood. It’s the place where Two and a Half Men is still on the air.
So Whitney Cummings’ new talk show might not be good. You know what else isn’t good? EVERYTHING ELSE on E! That is the channel you watch when you’re spending your day throwing up in a bucket. Let’s not act like this is the one TV show taking away everything else you’ve ever wanted on your television box, or as if Whitney Cummings is the devil incarnate. Even if her show is bad - even if you hate her and think she’s a talentless hack - it’s important to remember that there are a whole lot of hackneyed male comics and actors out there getting show after show, and gig after gig, with nowhere near the level of opprobrium being hurled at Cummings. How do you try to get a man you don’t like off the air? You just don’t watch his show. How do you try to get a woman you don’t like off the air? You call her an unfunny slut with lip injections. It’s probably not going to work – and if for nothing else, Cummings deserves praise for not letting it work on her – but it sure does seem to feel good.