Whitney Cummings and the Maligned Female Showrunner

strong female characters

Lately I’ve been catching Whitney Cummings’ new late-night talk show “Love You, Mean It” because it airs on E! right after “The Soup” starring my alternate-universe husband Joel McHale. I’ve long been hesitant to embrace Whitney’s brand of comedy, which feels---particularly with the premise and set of her new talk show---derivative of Chelsea Handler’s blasé, sexually liberated cynicism, which, while fun, doesn’t need to be duplicated. Plus her NBC sitcom “Whitney”? Not great.

But the more I watch Whitney at her most comfortable, doing stand-up comedy and riffing on talk show round tables, the more I like her in spite of myself. She’s funny, self-deprecating, and even touches occasionally on social consciousness. In the first episode of “Love You, Mean It,” she hammered the trend amongst young females to ironically address each other as “hooker,” “whore,” or “slut.” And in last week’s episode, she called out Esquire magazine journalist Stephen Marche for his ridiculous assertion, in a cover story on Megan Fox, that women like Amy Adams and Lady Gaga and Adele are “perfectly plain.”

Of course, there are still moments---just like with Chelsea’s show---that are cringeworthy. Whitney herself doesn’t approach Chelsea’s flagrant disdain for PC-ism, but her round table guests certainly do. And both shows are on the E! network, so they’re not exactly “60 Minutes.” Or “The Daily Show.” They talk about celebrities and silly videos and Instagram.

It’s also worth noting that Whitney is, as guy friends of mine have phrased it, “really hot.” Every episode she comes out with a new blow-dry hairstyle and a cute outfit. Her promos feature her mugging in a bunch of self-conscious poses, poses that showcase her attractiveness, yet also wink at the camera---for instance when she leans all the way back in her chair with her legs apart like a dude and flashes a peace sign.

It’s that mix of self-awareness and self-deprecation on the one hand, insecurity and vapidity on the other, that seems to characterize not just Whitney but a whole neo movement of young modern feminists. Whitney’s simultaneous embrace of fluff, femininity, and super-competence calls to mind Zooey, Mindy, Chelsea, women showrunners who are out there, you know, running the show.

In spite or, more likely, because of this, there seems to be more than your average TV hate for Whitney, and to a lesser extent Mindy and Zooey. Why is this? What is it about Whitney, in particular, that makes her a lightning rod for criticism? It's true that "Whitney," "The Mindy Project" fall short of shows like "30 Rock" and "Parks & Recreation" and "Girls" (though these female showrunners, even universal favorite Tina Fey, can face their own gender-based criticisms---Lena Dunham was another target of that nonsensical Megan Fox article). But would there be such an onslaught if the shows were run by men? Why don't comedians like Jeff Ross and his schlubby, lowbrow, mean-spirited Comedy Central show "The Burn" get as torn apart? I say, more power to the women who take charge of TV. You can find fault with their comedy, but you might also recognize that, even in this day and age, being a female showrunner is still a pretty pioneering thing.