“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is known for its comedy that pushes the limits of normal societal conduct. Many of the characters do things that are so far past questionable that it’s best to not question it at all. Though I don’t believe there is any agenda or message behind this show, it’s surprising what it does for the viewer’s perception of women.
No, this show doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, and it is not taking any sort of a feminist stand, but it is still very important for the feminist movement. This is because of the character of Deandra “Sweet Dee” Reynolds.
It’s not that Dee is particularly “do it herself” or powerful, but almost the exact opposite. The men of the show, which is every other character, relentlessly put her down and ridicule her. She’s not treated as a helpless, frail, little girl. They, the writers, are not afraid to pick on her and mock her because she isn’t the weakest link, as female characters in a show of men usually are portrayed.
One of the things they mock the most is her appearance. They are continuously calling her ugly and saying that she looks like a bird. And one might think that’s horrible to call a woman ugly; she shouldn’t be judged based on her looks. But, that’s where they play a mind game with the viewers. With the characters so irrationally mocking her appearance, the audience sees the ridiculousness, even if in a comedic light (which is often the first front on which we can make change). The audience doesn’t judge Dee based on her appearance, because the other characters have taken care of that. They’ve mocked it so much that it would seem completely superfluous to even question her appearance anymore. So, then, we judge the character on exactly what she should be judged, how funny she is. And she’s hilarious.
A lot of comedies employ the tool of having a character on which they can, for lack of a better term, shit. “Parks and Recreation” has Jerry; “The Office” has Toby. It’s very effective, because people love to laugh at the expense of others. Much of humor derives from making ourselves feel better. We laugh at kids who say silly things because, well, yes, they’re cute, but we feel better about ourselves for not being that stupid anymore. This is why self-deprecating comedians get so many laughs. It’s someone who is actually allowing us to view them as lower than us.
Writers tend to choose a character that isn’t so risky to put down time after time. Jerry and Toby are both straight, white men, the subgroup of people who happen to dominate our culture. By putting a gay person, a black person, or a woman in that place, they would walk the line of seeming homophobic, racist, or sexist. It’s risky, but the writers of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” were willing to take that risk and it was effective.
The key to walking that line was not to put Dee down for stereotypically woman reasons. She’s a well-rounded character and they attack the very core of that character, scraping at the fibers of what holds her together. For example, in the episode, “Chardee MacDennis,” they “berated that bitch for like two strait hours” with “really personal stuff, the kind that cuts you to the core.” They view her as a human being before a stereotype, even if they are destroying the foundation of that human with every insult that they hurl at her.
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