Imagine all the bad little girls in America staging a mass prison break from every time-out zone and wall-facing chair in which they were being held. Now imagine, using the age progression technology of your mind, those same naughty tykettes all grown up, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what constitutes a sizable slice of TV programming today.
2012 seems poised to go down as the year of the “bad girl.” That statement could have been fairly made about any number of the most recent seasons of television, but it seems that TV bad girls’ day in the sun somehow ran into day two, and then three, and so on.
At different ages and in all her numerous incarnations — the unhinged housewife, the catty Christian, the boozy barmaid, the salacious socialite — the bad girl has found favor among viewing audiences. She wouldn’t be nearly as ubiquitous if she weren’t drawing in ratings.
The success of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise can be safely chalked up to the appeal of messes in dresses, and the runaway popularity of MTV’s Jersey Shore almost certainly stems from audiences’ morbid fascinations with the train wrecks populating the storied coastline. VH1 was unabashed in its exploitation of the trend, airing such instant classics as Flavor of Love and the timeless Tiffany Pollard star vehicle I Love New York. Even NBC got in on the action with Are You There, Chelsea?, based on crass female comic Chelsea Handler’s heavy-drinking ’20s.
But no network — broadcast, cable or otherwise — is showcasing girls behaving badly more prominently than ABC. The legacy network is currently in the middle of the debut season of Suburgatory, which makes repeated reference to every high school girl’s perennial fount of agony — other high school girls. It’s also preparing for an April launch of Don’t Trust The B-tch in Apt. 23, starring Kristen Ritter as the titular b-word.
Most notable for ABC, however, are the network’s high profile lineup additions that happened last Sunday and the high profile exit that is planned for approximately seven weeks down the line.
As ABC’s flagship Sunday night program Desperate Housewives prepares to let the curtain fall on its eighth and final season, the network already has another show — the enigmatically titled and decidedly familiar-feeling GCB — waiting in the wings to hopefully draft off Desperate Housewives’ overlapping fan base. GCB, which is hinted at standing for “Good Christian B-tches,” centers on a cutthroat clique of spurned religious women in Dallas who are out to make life hell for the newly returned queen bee of their high school years.
This latest batch of backstabbers might have Texas twangs, cowboy hats and rhinestone rosaries, but with respect to their wealth, surgically achieved looks and overwhelming cattiness, there’s little to distinguish GCB’s Dallas women from the ladies of Wisteria Lane.
Considering a recent profusion of TV spots shamelessly playing up the similarities between the two shows, coupled with the fact that Desperate Housewives is currently serving as GCB’s 9 o’clock lead-in, ABC’s clear goal is for a 100 percent migration of Desperate Housewives’ audience to GCB, once the former takes its well-deserved bow later this spring.
Again, viewers wouldn’t be bombarded with these representations of women if the arrows were consistently missing their mark. The abundance of bad girls on the air suggests there’s almost a built-in audience for this type of character. But trying to pin down the cause of the fascination is an exercise in speculation.
Intuitively, it seems that at least part of the attraction to the bad girl character is the appeal of the familiar. Everyone has had a “frenemy” at some point in school or the professional world.
And the independent woman has to be at least as common as the frenemy, if not more so. In a social environment where self-righteous talking heads are too quick to appoint themselves as the moral compasses of society in general, notions of independence and autonomy — specifically as applied to women — are inextricably bound to ideas of free-wheeling, binge-drinking, sexually uninhibited chasers of gratification.
Though the likes of Rush Limbaugh might feel qualified to pass public judgment on others’ personal decisions, it’s likely that a significant portion of the appeal of the “bad behavior,” so frequently exhibited by female characters on television, has to do with viewers craving at least a vicarious taste of the thrill of the unbridled autonomy they see every week on the small screen.
Despite describing them as bad girls, it’s obvious these characters engage in just as many behaviors that are nothing to be ashamed of. Shameless’ Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum) dabbles in streetwise hustling to provide for her brood of younger siblings. Cricket Caruth-Reilly (Miriam Shor) on GCB is a successful businesswoman and CEO. Even Laura Prepon, as young Chelsea Handler, should be applauded for asserting herself sexually and prioritizing her own wants and needs.
As long as there are strong women in the world, there need to be strong women on the screen. It might be easier to reduce them as ruthlessly ambitious or loosely principled, but the recent spate of caricatures instead of characters strongly suggests that TV needs to update its idea of what an independent woman really looks and acts like.
Louis Lucero II is a senior majoring in environmental studies. His column “Small Screen, Big Picture” runs Tuesdays.