I am not a TV critic but I am hyperaware of the gross sexism in our culture and, even more so, when the subject is a wedding, when mass commercialism throws its head around like a fighting Lochness monster.
Usually I like the TV show Whitney. It’s a bit bawdy for the prime time hour, and more often than not, it tries too hard, but it tends to amuse me. Last night’s episode, “Something Black, Something Blue” didn’t amuse me at all. In fact, as sexist joke after cliché joke played out to the laugh track, I found my blood boiling. I was a bit charmed by the last two minutes though. I almost didn’t make it that far for wanting to throw a brick into my TV screen.
First point: the last name issue. I could write a whole post on this topic, probably actually a book, but basically I don’t think women should be expected to take men’s last names at marriage. We haven’t reached equality in this country on this topic. If we really had, then just as many men would be clamoring to take women’s names and … well, we all see that’s definitely not happening. In true Whitney fashion, this issue is addressed with perverted jokes and jabs about her given last name of Cummings. She says something along the lines of, “This is so exciting. For the first time in my life, people can Google me without porn coming up.”
Two things are at play here. 1. Since when does discarding your name have anything to do with your Google-ability? 2. If that really was a problem, a real problem that irritated you every day, why didn’t you change your name sooner? The best answer to question number 2 is summed up in a succinct blog called Keep Your Surname. The author uses this post to refute the common reasons that people use to justifying changing their names. To the argument that people change their name simply because they weren’t fond of their given name, he says,
An excellent reason to change it. But, why wait until you get married? You are perfectly entitled to change your name at any time. If it was so hateful, why didn’t you change it before? Besides, by the laws of averages, there must be as many men with silly or unpleasant surnames as women, yet I don’t hear men saying they want to get married so they can shed their surname. Odd that.”
This fact is completely glossed over in this episode. Once again a woman is going to change her name because of cultural expectations and no one on the show has anything to say to the contrary. If anything, the character’s opportunity to change her name is a god-send because, you know, a long life with the last name Cummings was so frustrating and sad. If it bothered you that much Whitney, why did you have to wait for a big strong man to swoop down with a ring to finally make you realize that?
As soon as the name change conversation came up in the show, my husband looked at me and said “Oh boy! This is gonna be a good one.” He knows few things set me reeling like this topic. Thankfully my husband is a supportive equal and still had the cajones to marry me, since you know I must be such an abusive, demanding, unsympathetic wench. Right? Isn’t that the stigma with women who keep their names? Shit, only if you live in the backwoods. I like to believe that “men of quality aren’t threatened by women of equality.” (Disclaimer. I’m not saying you must lack an equitable marriage if your wife kept her last name, I’m just pointing out that we rarely show this viable and fair position in pop culture.)
The second punch to my gut dealt with the woman-as-property issue. Whitney and her fiance needed to obtain her birth certificate from her dad. When the dad realized they needed this paperwork to get married, he basically says, “Now jsut wait one hot-dog-gone minute. If you wanna marry my daughter, you’re gonna have to ask me properly for permission.” Permission?? Are you kidding me? Permission is what you need when you’re 17 and want to stay out past curfew. It’s what you need to get a ride to the mall or go on a field trip. It’s not what you need when you’re a modern woman. This is 2012 people! Here’s a newsflash: Women don’t need anyone’s permission to have sex, get a credit card, go to a therapist, take medicine, or become a life partner!
I couldn’t believe Whitney didn’t even flinch at this obvious nod to the Middle Ages. She sort of shrugged, mumbled something about old times, and left the two big men alone to, you know, scratch their balls, make fart jokes, and negotiate the trade of one woman to another man. Fiance: Umm may I have your daughter’s hand in marriage? Father: Yes. (pause) For a price. Fiance (looking puzzled): What? Father: Ha! I’m just joking. Aggressive shoulder punches and laughs of “gotcha” follow the uproarious laughter. At last, the father hands over the birth certificate and says, “Here it is. You are now the proud owner of one Whitney Cummings.”
As my sister pointed out to me, would people laugh if the subject was not paying a black man for his wages because you know white men can own them? That would be outrageous. It is outrageous. There’s nothing funny about owning another human being or trading them to someone else for a few slimy words and a shallow bargain. It’s not funny when it’s black people, nor is it funny when it’s women. Again, the show just breezed through this disgusting commentary as if the callous jokes could make up for the ignorant nature of this “hand in marriage” shit.
Some people might think its endearing when this happens in their life. “Oh Joey really loves me because he had a heart to heart with my Pops who just wants the best for his little princess.” Well here’s what’s wrong with that. Why is Joey not asking your mom? If we’re going with awkward stereotypes, won’t your mom have put more effort into raising you, since of course child rearing is woman’s work? Why doesn’t your mother get a say in the handing over? Is it because she has no property rights on you since she’s your father’s property too? And if the sentiment is so endearing for a woman to be fussed over, why doesn’t the bride-to-be have to ask permission of the groom-to-be’s
parents father? Why is it cute to ask permission to take a wife but not to take a husband? This exchange makes the parties look like they are operating under a sales transaction. That’s exactly what this “tradition” is rooted in. The reason the man “asks” is because there’s a price and the two parties have to negotiate the woman’s value. Hence the price “joke” at city hall when they approach the clerk: “Hello. I am tired of getting free milk and I’d like to purchase this cow.”
My third and final criticism of this episode is how it completely sold out to the Wedding Industrial Complex (WIC). Whitney said she didn’t want him to get her a ring, but he oh-so-delightfully suprises her with one and she oh-so-delightedly accepts with the commercialized jewelry face.
Why would he get her a ring if they discussed they didn’t want them? Because deep down inside of each rational woman is a sparkly pink princess wanting to shine and sparkle, to look all bridey—at least that’s what the WIC wants us to believe. She was born with a vagina so, duh, of course she needs a sparkly bauble! True to form, this traditional gesture is glossed over without any critical thinkng by lame humor. This couple is so off beat, he doesn’t even get down on one knee or make some grand gesture. They do it their way with obvious jabs about each other’s shortcomings, “It’s hard, and pretty, and flawed, just like you.” The message here is that they weren’t too traditional with posing and language (you know, they are soo unique) but yet the fancy ring rolls them right back into the traditionalist trap.
Whitney loves it but not enough to “post 500 pictures of it on Facebook.” That would be too predictable of them, but of course accepting the ring isn’t seen that way. Then she talks about showing it off to a couple girls she hates. Really? So that’s what this jewelry is about? “Ha ha. Look at me. Look at how I’m better than you?” Is that what the ring is about?
The characters make their wisecracks, traditional gesutres continue unquestioned, and pathetically the Whitney TV show becomes one more show baldly laying out predictable cultural examples of consumerism and sexism. I am hoping it doesn’t end on such a puketastic note. The fiance jokes that “I know we said we wouldn’t have sex until the wedding but I did give you that ring.” Where’s the gag track for moments like this on staid TV shows? Of course the female will offer her body to you! Of course the holy vagina will be unveiled. Why would it not, dear sir? You handed the maiden the precious diamond. Go with your property and carry on!
After all the high jinks that ensue and the obstacles that come up with the two of them getting married, they actually decide not to go through with it. He thought fate was telling him something because of the various problems they encountered, and she points out she’s been saying all along that they don’t need to get married to to hold on to what they have: a solid, satisfying, occasionally odd relationship where they both already accept and treat each other as equals.
I had hoped this would be the conclusion. I had hoped two characters in a sitcom in 2012 could get past some of the more damming stereotypes of our age. And they did! They didn’t have to change last names, plan a party, wear a certain color, exchange jewelry or sign any paperwork to prove that they are commmitted to their relationship. Hallelujah! These producers teased me for about 27 minutes and then *bam* they got it right.