John Cho and Karen Gillan tea up in a new sitcom.
Last Tuesday, I watched two hyped ABC sitcom premieres, Selfie and Manhattan Love Story. Both, as far as sitcoms go, are treading some fairly well-worn territory: Selfie is a My Fair Lady update for the digital age, so faithful that its two leads (Doctor Who’s beloved Karen Gillan and Harold and Kumar’s equally beloved John Cho) go by the names “Eliza Dooley” and “Henry Higgs.” Manhattan Love Story mixes the New York-centricity and neurotic internal monologues of Annie Hall with the New York-centricity and meet-cute antagonism of You’ve Got Mail in telling the story of naive young new-to-NYC gal Dana (Annaleigh Tipton), whose friends’ initial attempt to set her up with cocksure lothario Peter (Jake McDorman) initially go south but then start looking kind of promising. (Alternate title: More White People Who Will Eventually Register at Crate and Barrel.)
Through a feminist lens, both new efforts suffer from a host of shopworn assumptions and offensive characterizations. Eliza, the social media-obsessed sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, has her success at work credited to what the disapproving Higgs calls her “slutty” clothing. The opening scene of Manhattan Love Story finds Peter strolling down an NYC street, casting his eye over all the women who pass and considering whether he’d sex them up; Dana, on a nearby street, is lady-watching too—but she’s objectifying their handbags. Later in the episode, Peter’s brother talks him into a date by revealing that Dana and his wife, her friend from college, may have had an “experimental phase”—and further reveals that said phase enticed him into marrying her.
But what’s most troubling about both shows is their dual extremes of judgment when it comes to women and technology.
Selfie, of course, is about technology—more specifically, the Big Question of what we’re losing in humanity when we trade personal connection for digital thumbs-ups and online validation. But I’m not alone in finding it troubling that of course the narcissistic phony whose worldview doesn’t extend beyond her touchscreen is a woman. Digital addiction, or what’s been called Internet Use Disorder, is a unisex phenomenon and the showrunner, Suburgatory creator Emily Kapnek, knows a thing or two about flipping the script on stereotypes. A truly new take on Pygmalion/My Fair Lady would be one in which the woman isn’t the one who’s in need of fixing. But as it is, Selfie reifies a deeply problematic belief about women and, well, selfies, that’s been espoused everywhere from Jezebel to Psychology Today: That there’s a particular kind of woman who does it, and that that we’re supposed to either shame her, or feel sorry for her, or—as in the case of Eliza—do a little of both. As for Henry Higgs, we’re meant to see him as an uptight prig, what with his clipped grammar and formal full sentences… but we’re simultaneously supposed to nod in approval when he equates Eliza’s robust digital presence with promiscuity, making her “loose sexual morals” one of the many flaws he’s required to fix.
Meanwhile, Manhattan Love Story’s female protagonist has the opposite problem: She’s comically bad at technology, and her ineptitude at everything from Facebook (she accidentally enters Peter’s name as her status while trying to creep his profile) to texting (she accidentally calls instead of SMSing) starts a cycle of public embarrassment that defines her character in the pilot. Let’s leave aside the highly unlikely chance that someone who has just been hired at a big publishing company would have such a shaky grasp of communications media. If the central premise of the show is supposed to be the fact that we hear exactly what these two characters are thinking as their courtship progresses (not exactly groundbreaking TV, but okay), having Dana be all thumbs with her phone doesn’t do anything to add to that. All it does—especially when paired with that whole ladies-be-shopping introduction—is suggest that creator Jeff Lowell is content to lean on the most lazy of gender stereotypes in creating his characters.
The fact that Dana is ultimately rewarded for her incompetence with love (or something like it, at least: the rest of the series follows the new couple as they navigate each other—and, apparently, New York itself) can be read alongside Selfie’s condemnation of digital life as a warning that women who are too consumed with technology aren’t sufficiently feminine. After all, it’s only once Eliza is explicitly instructed to keep her digital extremities in check that Henry sees her as beautiful; as soon as her phone reappears (at an inopportune moment in the middle of a wedding), he’s disgusted again. Likewise, it’s worth wondering if Jeff Lowell worried that portraying Dana as technologically competent would suggest that she’s—gasp!—competent and thus doesn’t have sufficient need for a love interest.
It’s true that these are only two out of a raft of fall TV premieres, but it’s more than a little depressing that this is what women on sitcoms still look like. Still, pilots have been known to be deeply underwhelming—remember how lukewarm many of us were on Parks and Recreation at the very beginning?—and I’ll be giving both shows a second chance. (Though I’m not sure something MLS is worth one—seriously, writers, we’re still going with “Uh-oh, a dude is crying, he must be gay”?) I’m genuinely interested to see where a not-necessarily-romantic relationship between Henry and Eliza could go; and, despite the requisite Sassy Black Officemate (in this case, a receptionist named Charmonique), the side characters seem intriguing enough to locate the show’s strength in its ensemble, rather than just the two leads. But I also hope to see both shows figure out that women’s relationship to technology doesn’t need to be either pathological or ham-handed to be worthy of interest, appreciation, and love.
Related Reading: How to Get Away With Murder Gives Us a Female Antihero We Can Root For.
Andi Zeisler is Bitch’s co-founder and current editorial and creative director.