Broke Girls and Rich Bitches: The Strange Economy of Women on TV

I’ve watched more television in the past three or four years than I watched in the previous 27 or 28. This is mostly because I was limited, as a kid, to occasional and closely monitored rendezvous with basic cable — 90210, Melrose Place, and My So-Called Life were covertly viewed at friends’ houses, or on VHS and the lowest volume while my parents slept — and then I was way too cool for TV for about a decade and a half. But then, then there was 30 Rock, and a subsequent and growing cohort of shows that were about and often created by women, overwhelmingly without the usual tropes of Hollywood-y girl-lives, in which supporting a man’s pursuit of something is the entirety of what’s up. Obviously, I had to see all of it.

Television in general has gotten good, great, or amazing in the last decade, but women had and are having a particular subrenaissance across absurdist comedies like 30 Rock (which finished its run early this year just perfectly); legal-and-family procedurals like The Good Wife; hot soaps like Single Ladies and Mistresses; smart dramedies like the canceled Enlightened and the maybe-canceled Bunheads; and Bravo’s reality oeuvre about mostly older women. (The cosmetic-surgery circuses aside, when else have we seen multiple posses of aging women rumbling around together, causing trouble?) Collectively, this extended, welcome emphasis on female creators, showrunners, writers, and stars has been encouraging conversations about basically everything: race (The Mindy Project), racism (Girls), actually sexual sex (Girls, Inside Amy Schumer), creative ambition (Girls, Nashville), antifeminist feminism (30 Rock), maturity (New Girl), adult friendship (New Girl, Parks and Recreation), work and family (Up All Night, The Good Wife, Veep), work families (Parks and Recreation, Bunheads), illness and death (The Big C), addiction (Nurse Jackie), recovery (Enlightened), age (Nashville), professional identity (Bunheads, Hart of Dixie, Nashville), and, in all of them, the sexism that marks the lives of women, even the able-bodied, heterosexual, and cisgendered, mostly slim and mostly white and almost uniformly rich — rich — women who populate these shows.

With the exception of Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation’s government employee with meth-puppy energy; wide-eyed sweetheart Jessica Day of New Girl, a teacher who briefly worked a fast-food job after being laid off; and Edie Falco’s titular antihero on Nurse Jackie, who are solidly middle class, the women on these shows are somehow all doing especially well for themselves, even the ones who, in real life, probably wouldn’t be. So despite an apparent commitment to the dynamics, weirdnesses, and complications of women’s lives, there is little economic variety (or, let’s be real, verisimilitude) throughout this suite of shows. (There are outliers and economic transitions among them: Laura Linney’s The Big C character was a teacher who worried about medical bills but somehow bought her son a sports car and a storage locker full of presents; Laura Dern’s Enlightened character was an executive before racking up rehab debt and, like Polly from How to Live With Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life, moves back in with her mother; the Girls girls exist in a pre-economic status of their own.) 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon had (and, in the imaginary 30 Rock future, still has) a show on NBC, two apartments on Riverside Drive, and because she doesn’t know how to invest, “like 12 grand in checking.” Mindy Kaling’s character on The Mindy Project, a newer addition to the TV-girl canon, is a gynecologist who supports her brother and lives in a giant, Jonathan Adler–y apartment in the Village. Up All Night’s Reagan, played by Christina Applegate, was an executive producer turned stay-at-home mom, and Ava, played by Maya Rudolph, was a spendy Oprah proxy. (Following Applegate’s departure, the show spiraled into network-revamped outer space and then crashed, hard.) Rachel Bilson’s Zoe on Hart of Dixie is a Chanel-wearing surgeon, and Jaime King’s Lemon (“Lemon”!) is, or was, a cossetted Southern belle. Bunheads’ Fanny and Michelle are cash-poor but coastal-Californian-land-rich; every woman on Nashville is a multimillionaire, or is about to be; Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character on Veep is vice-president of the United States and “independently wealthy.” So.

It’s both confusing and inevitable that shows so comfortable with and honest about sex — insofar as their various networks allow them to be — friendship, family, relationships, and even work and ambition, sometimes, are removed from economic realness and financial detail. There is so much available “status life” on these extra-good shows — “the entire pattern of behavior and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be,” as per Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism — and so many lost opportunities to use it.

This easily extends to noncompetitive reality TV; the socioeconomics of shows starring and intended mostly for women are almost always inflammatory, skewing one of three ways: poverty-and-pain voyeurism, on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Teen Mom, and other shows specifically about the dull agonies, real or perceived, of an average or difficult life; “extreme shopping” for hoardable groceries, wedding dresses, and accoutrements for Long Island princesses; or, toward the aspirational come-hithers of shining excess, on the rich-and-richer Kardashian shows and the many “wives” series, Real or Basketball or less explicitly titled. What all of these shows have in common is that everyone spends too much money on garbage: Rich or poor, women be shoppin’.

Class is tricky, sometimes invisible; it mutates. On television shows that are oriented toward women, it’s always everywhere and rarely mentioned. Lena Dunham’s Girls is by far the most open about the machinations of money — needing it and getting it and having it and not knowing anything about it — but most of the media criticism (and the all-of-my-friends criticism) about the show was about the overprivilege of the postcollege characters, without trust funds but with moms and dads kicking in iPhone money. Most of what was said about Dunham and her show’s socioeconomics happened to be indisputably, plainly sexist, in the same way that women’s economic behavior is often criticized through a prism of traditionally male values. Consider Bored to Death, another all-white HBO show about slackish Brooklyn creatives with a lot of disposable income, which was less smart and insightful than Girls; somehow, Jonathan Ames never endured a similar reactionary fury. In the Girls pilot alone, there are references to student Shoshanna’s $2,100 Nolita rent; a friend’s $50,000 student loans; the $800 that Adam gets every month from his grandmother; and $1,100 a month for two years, which is what Hannah, high on opium, asks her parents to give her so she can write a book. Whether that feels mostly appropriate or mostly obscene isn’t the point, the point is that money is included as one of many daily concerns, by no means separate, in meaning or function, from the rest of them.

Historically, TV sitcoms especially have offered a breadth of economic representation: All in the Family, Roseanne, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Office were about working-class or middle-class life, while Will & Grace, then-as-now Arrested Development, and even Seinfeld were often about painful aspirationalism and the overt class anxieties of the rich or rich-ish. Friends and similar shows about young, middle-class New York life were sometimes about work, but their fantastical plastic-y tableaux of what that life looks like — purple lofts! $200 T-shirts in 1998! All-day cappuccino hangs! — undermined those moments, in the same way that 2 Broke Girls jacks my whole argument.

Even the essential precursors to the current shows were more likely to include the problems and particularities around money: Critics and casual viewers of Sex and the City rarely understood or related to the show’s high-end retail and couture (or saw the definitely related rise of acquisitive shoe-shopping culture as some new sociocultural low, without considering the machinations of “women” and “power” that were inherent to it), and the class privilege enjoyed by every character was never addressed (never!). But throughout Sex and the City’s tenure, money was discussed with emotionality, and in actual dollars: Carrie’s stolen Manolo Blahniks cost $485 (cheap, by now); she calculates at one point that she had spent $40,000 on shoes; her fee at Vogue is $4 a word; she almost borrows $30,000 from Mr. Big; Charlotte’s divorce nets her a million dollars and a Classic Six. It’s true that Carrie’s wardrobe never made any kind of sense — I have been a similar kind of columnist; I have no such bounty of Marni and Manolos — but within its metaverse, money acted as definitively as it would in real life, between real friends. So too on the twee classic Gilmore Girls, which was largely about the ways in which having little or a lot of money colors experience, creates demands, and maintains traditions. (Bunheads, created by Gilmore’s Amy Sherman-Palladino, might be an even better show, but is not nearly as savvy about the subject.)

Representing the intricacies of class and its differences seems to be more difficult and less appealing after an economic disaster and the subsequent, 1-percent-related ire; but, doyyyyviously, on many currently airing genre and male-oriented TV shows, money and its moves remain central to theme and plot. Even shittier, the way that characters on newer female-driven shows perform their class is when most of these shows lose some fairy dust. The middle-class characters of Leslie, Jess, and Jackie are primarily good. Their professions are public service, teaching, and nursing; their values are integrity, community, and doing what they know is right, even if they get there differently. Every one of the upper-middle-class and upper-class characters, though — and there are so many more of them — are motivated by something else, something personal, something less righteous: Liz Lemon by a cynical sense of justice; The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick by a duty to her firm, her family, and her social position; Nashville’s Rayna and Juliette by selling records, or an image. Up All Night’s Reagan eye-rolled her way through encounters with too-earnest neighbors and her best friend, and seemed to want to be left alone more than anything else. Girls’ Hannah wants creative fulfillment and recognition, and started to get it deep into the second season; Veep’s Selina wants political power. (And seeeeeeex, which is a better and way more interesting through line on that show.) Mindy is smart and fun and funny, but selfish and frequently mean. Mindy-as-Mindy’s motivation seems to be getting what she believes she is owed; like my Twitter associate @david_j_roth tweet-posited, “There’s something ineffably Republican about The Mindy Project.” Whether Mindy is just ambitious in a normal way we’re not used to seeing or is actually kind of a jag (or just both) remains to be seen; fortunately, the show got even better throughout the first season, and was picked up for a second.

It’s much more important that any character, a female lead or otherwise, is of their era and somehow relatable or interesting before they’re just “likable.” Otherwise, when the rare unrich characters (minus the legit poor ones on reality TV who are there, mostly, to be laughed at) are consistently, demonstrably “better” and more golden-hearted than their icier, richer counterparts, it all contributes to boring and stereotypical standards about what women of any economic status are like, or should be like. Worst of all, this happens in the medium that has otherwise become the best pop-cultural place for us. These shows, so inclusive about everything else, and finally approaching differences of race and sexuality and maaaybe even body type, still sort of blithely ignore the most compelling and determining factor in any one of the characters’ lives. Like, what if Leslie Knope figured out how much money she could make in the private sector? Could she still be that nice? I don’t know, and I don’t think TV knows either.

Female-driven, female-made, female-starring shows could get as specific and fearless about contending with money and class as they are with everything else — smart shows about working-class women who have lives and love and aren’t “trash”; middle-class women who strategize rent and bills and when to text a dude; super-rich women whose complexity goes beyond drunken afternoon shopping. I’d like to see some thirtyish girls who are as conflicted as I am about how to reconcile a morass of economic influences and interests and limitations and possibilities that implicate literally every area of my life. (Obviously I am obsessed with Girls and will repeat-watch the next season like I did the first and second, but no Girls-girl who I know lets their financial privilege and probabilities go unchecked for this long.) There is pathos outside of the sweet-and-humble or rich-bitch binary, and I want to watch it.

Kate Carraway (@KateCarraway) is a writer and columnist with Vice magazine and the Globe and Mail.

Filed Under: Girls, Nashville, New Girl, Parks and Recreation, Television

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