On the so-so success of Whitney Cummings
I read this op/ed piece today in The New Yorker that centers on Whitney Cummings and her two shows that have surfaced this year on network television. First, Whitney, which not only did she create, but also in which she stars in as well as writes for on NBC. And then secondly, Two Broke Girls, in which she co-created and writes for which airs on CBS.
The op/ed piece initially stirs with the acknowledgement that Whitney Cummings has done something unheard of in the female sphere of television: she's spearheaded two separate endeavors on primetime television, and done the such with two completely different narratives. Though there is the acknowledgment of what Cummings has achieved, the construction of the article quickly becomes a negative critique on her two endeavors and does so unflatteringly. Whitney itself is viewed in a very negative light, while Two Broke Girls though not perfect, if paired against Whitney, is somewhat better. Not only better, but--and apparently this serves the world better because it ascribes a pugnacious social difference--serves feminism and the climb out of this phallocentric world easier for women because it doesn't depend on phallocentric norms as does Whitney.
Now, in my own opinion, I myself do not like the show itself Whitney. However, my short-lived immersion into the comedic persona of Whitney Cummings has conjured both quite a crush, but more so, quite the amount of respect. She herself is an actor/comedian by profession. Her stand-up is strong and vibrant. It's abrasive in as much as it is self-aware. In her repertoire is the abrasiveness and garish strength of a Lampanelli, yet what makes her punch all the more powerful is that it comes from the physique of a modellesque woman who stunningly (and with a body that kills) towers in at 5'11". She is the ultimate spokesman for both strength, humor, and beauty and the possibility that there can be the synthesis of the three in a what may simply just be a "straight white woman."
Emily Nussbaum's--the journalist behind this New Yorker piece--problem with Whitney is not a new issue. Nussbaum's critique is that the show is not as progressive as would be initially hoped for from the potential observed out of Whitney Cumming's other endeavors. Like said earlier, her stand up is strong and vital, but the character she embodies in Whitney, is at best, mildly affirmative. She has about four minutes an episode where she progressively stands on her own, but even so, it seems like it's only as a product that in the end best serves the character of her boyfriend, which according to progressive feminists really does nothing to change the nature of a supposed storyline where a woman's happiness is only reactionary. It can be easily assumed by this article that the character of Whitney falls short of the potential found in the real Whitney. And since the show centers around this placating woman, and is named after its star, the show and Whitney Cummings herself theoretically adheres to the longstanding social norm of a woman's role in society is at best, secondary.
Gayle Rubin makes a bold theory in her essay "The Traffic of Women": "..if innate male aggression and dominance are at the root of female oppression, then the feminist program would logically require either the extermination of the offending sex, or else a eugenics project to modify its character. If sexism is a by-product of capitalism's relentless appetite for profit, then sexism would wither away in the advent of a successful socialist revolution." Rubin invests in these thoughts to serve as an aggressive lens of polarity to show that the world is better not served in such distinguishing polarities. Rubin goes on to defend this idea by quoting Marx in this same essay: "Marx once asked: 'What is a Negro slave?' A man of the black race. The one explanation is as good as the other. A Negro is a Negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations."
It's the argument against polarizing opposites because in that line of rhetorical thinking, one only validates the other. To vilify one you potentially avail the the other to vilify you. Easy argument. So how does this serve the show of Whitney, or even that of the person Whitney Cummings?
I think it's best understood in the pre-Civil Rights dilemma of the Negro (like Rubin alluded us to) and associating that with the modern locus quality of that of a woman. One best case of this type of an answer in a new dialectic synthesis is found in Ralph Ellison's short story "Batlle Royal" which later became the beginnings to his larger work-The invisible Man. In the beginning of the story, the narrator comes into contact with his grandfather who on his deathbed tells his grandson about his own internal conflict where being subjugated to racism and the severe paralysis of what it meant to be black in a white world was only overcome with "yeses" and "grins." Better said, victory (whatever that means) only occurs with a slow operation of "yeses." His grandfather, though a paid slave at best, knowing that he himself was no less human than his master, was able to win the trust and recognition of his fellow human, still master, all the while according an apparent value that differs from that of an enraged slave. Basically, a self-aware slave or even a self-aware woman (who acts accordingly), can change through time, the values behind the objective terms that are initially created to restrict than they are to free than any aggressive retaliation could ever possibly do.
I think this is what is glanced over in the beginning of the New Yorker piece, but what is then quickly and unfortunately overlooked. What Whitney Cummings is doing is unheard of. She has navigated herself into the forefront of network television, and done it twice and done it simultaneously. Now Nussbaum has every right to take shots at the creation and execution of Whitney, but in so doing, Nussbaum fails to see that there could be this similar possibility of "yeses" and "grins." Cummings standup makes it apparent that she herself knows how the power relations of gender works in the current social makeup of the world. So for her to create a character that placates so easily to the nearby anathema that is the normal network romantic comedy setup doesn't only not seem out of place for Whitney Cummings, but rather it seems tactical. To make a show that is shot on a soundstage, that is filled with audience "oohs" and "aahs," that isn't Happy Endings or even 30 Rock, isn't just Whitney Cummings selling herself and her skill short, but it's serves as a very tactical insubordination of a system that is, whether they know it or not, letting a very strong and very beautiful and very talented woman do things that never before have been done by a straight, white woman (Whether it be gay, black, or even just being an outcast, Ellen, Rosie O'Donnell, Oprah, and even Roseanne had an almost victimized schtick to platform off of. Whitney Cummings is doing something without those vestiges). It is a very similar and slow operation of radical "yeses and grins." This tactical modus operandi will keep propelling Cummings into a place that will not simply invalidate or segregate her, but will rather allow her the ability, like it already has, to be in a place of both power and position that may be the first vibrant challenge to everything we've previously known.
Unless Whitney gets cancelled, and then this in turn is just plain fucked.