About a week ago, having most improbably exhausted my Tumblr dashboard’s offerings, I made the always regretful jump to Facebook in an effort to waste a few more moments in the numbing embrace of social media procrastination. It was there I stumbled upon an editorial at io9 about The Originals entitled “That Vampire Diaries Spin-Off is Actually a Totally Wonderful Thrillride”. A thought struck me that I had seen editorials like this before. In fact, I’ve written an editorial like this before. And there is something distinctly gendered, and silently sexist about the very fact of their continuing necessity.
Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The 100 all have seen similar treatment, with entertainment press outlets offering endless opinion pieces bemoaning the fact that not enough people watch these great shows and reiterating that they ought to. (Seriously, just Google “You should watch [show name]”. I was going to link some of the results directly into this essay, but there were too many of them to cull, which only further substantiates my point) Often when people write these types of pieces about CW shows, they are typically making either an explicit or implicit plea that you should not let the network’s brand fool you into assuming mediocrity, because X Show is actually really good despite being on The CW.
Of course, the subtext of that subtext is the fact that The CW’s brand is often an albatross because the network has a known history of catering to the young female demographic most predominantly. Many of their most famous and culturally enduring products have been teen soaps like Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl, or just shows harboring a more youthfully feminine bent like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls. (Technically Buffy was produced under The CW’s former brand The WB, as was Gilmore Girls and Dawson’s Creek, but the association persists despite this technicality) Many of the current shows on The CW are fighting an uphill battle to counter the joint sexism and ageism that makes audiences wary of their programming because they assume it is primarily for young women, and obviously young women have uniquely terrible taste. Please note my epic sarcasm.
Stipulated, plenty of shows from other networks have been written up in a similar fashion as well: FX’s The Americans, FXX’s You’re the Worst, WGN’s Manhattan, Sundance’s Rectify, the list goes on. Good shows on many different networks fail to find audiences and get the ratings they deserve for a lot of different reasons. However, often these reasons are tied to problems like the network having little-to-no established reputation for its original programming (as with Rectify and Manhattan), the execution of the premise far exceeding the premise itself (You’re the Worst), impatient audiences being unwilling to sit through a slow build (The Americans), a show’s promotion being non-existent or poorly executed, it debuting in a very competitive time-slot, or it just being “off brand” for a network.
While these are all unfortunate encumbrances, they are of a qualitatively different nature from the stigma that still currently attaches to CW programing because of its gendered legacy. Indeed, Lifetime’s stellar freshman drama UnReal debuted to a similar kind of amazed scrutiny that a network typically devoted to appealing to the lowest common female denominator could produce something of genuine quality and substance.
Most networks have reputations that work for or against them with regard to certain shows, but it is difficult to think of any networks that have been burdened by their reputation of catering specifically to men qua men. I cannot ever recall Spike TV creating original programming that was widely cited as “underrated,” or found itself the repeated subject of critical defense because it could not find the audience it deserved. Perhaps, debatably, you could make the argument that the SyFy channel has endured a particular kind of gendering unfavorable to their ratings potential, in that they are imagined to appeal most predominantly to a particular kind of nerdy guy. But that’s also exactly the point – with the premise that there are ‘wrong’ types of masculine cultural taste, there is also the assumption that there are right kinds. Whereas, it is hard to think of any cultural taste coded specifically as feminine which is imagined to be “right” or inherently of quality.
I am not suggesting that all CW shows are hidden works of art, nor that its association with the young female demographic is necessarily undeserved from a historical standpoint. That is the audience faction I would say they have courted most heavily. But to go from that fairly objective fact to the assumption that most of their programming isn’t even worth the benefit of the doubt is where the sexism comes into it. The mentality that anything ostensibly made for young women is automatically terrible is fairly transparent misogyny, and sadly, it is a cultural mentality CW shows often have to fight uphill battles against in the ever more bloated and competitive TV marketplace. (The one exception to this problem seems to be their fairly well-rated DC comic adaptations, which conveniently by-pass this problem due to having pre-established reputations amongst male audiences)
Here’s the reality of the situation – almost all TV networks create original content on a bell curve. Usually there are a few things that are stellar, a lot of stuff that is mediocre and a few things that are terrible. The CW is no different, regardless of its gendered associations.
And to be clear, I am not attempting to argue that the gendered associations people have with it are necessarily misguided or false, and that’s why many of their offerings are better than they appear. I am attempting to argue that that should not be a relevant calculation when you pick up your remote control. We can debate whether The CW’s reputation of being “for” young women is still deserved, or accurate; but which ever answer you land on is not an indicator of quality either way.