Thinking Through “Cougar Town”

Original Facebook post from April 19, 2020; plus comments written April 19-22, 2020.

maybe i’ll use this time to finally write that 10,000 word essay about the racial dynamics of white millennials in ‘cougar town’ like how travis (the youngest and most progressive character on the show) only has non-white dudes as his named friends but yet only hooks up with non-white women when they are unnamed hookups and by “non-white women” i mean exclusively “women of east asian heritage who are unbothered by his nerdiness after white women reject him for it” while his three named girlfriends are all thin white non-nerdy blondes, including laurie, the elder millennial for whom he has long pined and who spends most of the series fetishizing black men as sex objects before finally being ‘tamed’ by her relationship with travis

wait

where are you all going

i have 9,950 more words to go

Comment 1:

definitely the most egregious example of the poc-as-props-for-white-narrative is the episode where Laurie Is Sad (because her perfect-human boyfriend (a black man) is too perfect for her!) so she tries to get travis to make her feel better but he is distracted helping his roommate sig learn to step-dance to rush omega beta theta, the “black frat,” which sig — who is south asian — wants to join because he has always considered himself “black adjacent,” like HI LETS PAUSE HERE FOR A THOUSAND WORD DIGRESSION ABOUT THE WAYS THAT NON-BLACK POC APPROPRIATE BLACK CULTURE WHILE ALSO ENGAGING IN ANTI-BLACK OPPRESSION — but then when laurie goes to see sig perform it turns out this was all a *trick* and *actually* the real star of the step performance is none other than TRAVIS because of course he has so many BLACK FRIENDS that they would even let him take over their frat initiation performance in a gesture for his white lady love because, like, what, did you think any of this was actually about SIG or any of the black friends?!?!

(also later in the show when travis decides that he’s done with hookup culture — which he explains immediately after rejecting the advances of one of the (nameless) east asian women that are so eager to have casual sex with him — he describes it as “sport-humping randos” and like…. what)

(also travis spends the majority of the series characterized as a nerd who struggles with women but he has a high school girlfriend whose characterization is basically “hot girl” and a college girlfriend whose characterization is basically “hot girl” and then he ends up with laurie, played by busy goddamn phillips, and in between he hooks up with a string of very attractive women who don’t even get the cursory tv-uglification of glasses or baggy clothes but who i guess are not satisfactory status objects because they’re not blonde???)

ok maybe the most egregious thing about all this is that i’m not re-watching the series or anything this is all just off the top of my head because i’ve seen the whole thing like a dozen damn times (in my defense ian gomez is charming as HELLLLLLLL and the show became a depression buddy of mine which is why i re-watched it over and over but like goddamn it is so problematic that to think of it when non-depressed i am… less than pleased with it?)

Comment 2:

i mean sure but this wasn’t that long ago and there were contemporaneous shows that did a much better job on these fronts. ‘cougar town’ just operated from a really, really white perspective, and was not interested in interrogating that, despite having at least a couple poc writer/producers involved at various points (tho never as showrunners or as a majority). i mean the show doesn’t even seem to know whether andy was born in the us or not — there’s just a deep incuriosity about any bigger questions. which is a very jules cobb perspective, of course…

Comment 3:

both ‘parks & rec’ and ‘community’ did a much better job — simply by having more diverse casts and not engaging in occasional hipster racism. like, i’m not comparing ‘cougar town’ to the next wave of shows like fotb, blackish, brooklyn 99, superstore, or odaat, which all explicitly engage social justice topics from the perspective of poc — but ‘cougar town’ was definitely part of that obama-era sentiment that it was ok to reproduce certain problematic tropes if you acknowledged the problem, because somehow that is satire?

like, the best example of this within the show is the episode where bobby makes a couple racist assumptions (that a black person is good at basketball, that an asian person is a tourist) and when this is brought up in the group, andy tries to speak as the lone poc — only to have all his friends laugh at the idea that represents any kind of latinx identity. so then laurie convenes a “race panel” of andy, travis’s friend sig, and her boyfriend wade, who endure a few more of bobby’s stereotypes before his confusion compels andy to give a speech about how the fact that bobby is worrying about this at all makes him “a better person than most,” as both sig and wade — who know bobby not at all! — nod along to this validation of white ego. and then laurie compares herself to michelle pfeiffer and sandra bullock, as if nodding at the white saviorism absolves them of the same, even the show has done nothing within the storyline to subvert or interrupt that trope in any way!

like, simply by not doing stuff like *that*, and by including non-white characters as series regulars, there were contemporaneous sitcoms that were less problematic about race — they might not have been *good* at interrogating some of this stuff, but they did better than ‘cougar town’.

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