“Free Agents,” the TV show, proves itself dumb in the first three minutes through the “slut” debate

Free Agents, the TV show, begins with two characters in bed, and one opens a full condom drawer. The guy sees and says something like, “What are you—a slut?” The woman replies, and they have an excruciating discussion whose underlying content is a typical rehash of an ancient calumny about female sexuality. The scene is neither funny nor genuine, and the two problems are related.

If your characters are old enough to have a B.A., they’re old enough not to care about the idea of the “slut.” Younger characters, especially ones in high school, might still be interested in whether someone is a “slut,” but that’s mostly because a) teenagers are projecting uncertainty and fear regarding their own sexuality on others, b) many have parents who engage in various forms of daughter-guarding and other forms of shame internalization, and c) girls, especially, will use social approbation and shaming as a form of mate guarding behavior. If older characters like those in Free Agents are still concerned about the same problems as high school students, they’ve not matured enough to even be interesting. Even a show like Californication, whatever its other flaws, has moved beyond the “slut” question.

Like Free Agents, it’s also about someone with a stunted emotional life, but at least Californication is intellectually honest enough not to go for the “slut” question. Rather, it assumes that people who want to do it, do it, and people who don’t, don’t, which seems like the way the world is heading. Besides, by college graduation or thereabouts, most people will never really know about their partners’ past, and, again, by the time one graduates from college or reaches the age at which college graduation occurs, everyone is someone’s sloppy seconds. The median age for first sex in the United Sates is somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 (see Google for more); by the time a person hits their 30s, asking number questions becomes pointless if potentially amusing.

I’m not annoyed only because the concept behind word “slut” does, as Mark Liberman put it, “project bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don’t endorse.” Even if you do do endorse that framework, endorsing it with someone you’re about to have sex with probably isn’t the optimal place to engage the issue. It only makes you look like a hypocrite and a fool, but, from what I can tell, that wasn’t what Free Agents was going for. It played the issue straight. To go back to Liberman—who is himself also writing about a TV show, albeit Sex and the City—”The word slut itself clearly retains strong negative connotations, quite apart from one’s opinions about sexual morality, but such things can change if enough people want them to.” TV shows aren’t necessarily a medium that promotes social and intellectual

I can see why TV show writers might go for the “slut”: they think it can create dramatic tension. But it’s a false dramatic tension, which is why I said the issue isn’t “genuine,” and false dramatic tension leads to jokes that aren’t funny either, because such jokes don’t engage any substantive ideas; really funny jokes often or usually do. Pretty much every single person with the proverbial half a brain has condoms around. Their presence doesn’t mean anything more than, “I’m prepared for the best,” which is a refreshing change compared to people who are prepared for the worst. It would be stranger if the woman in the show was single and didn’t have condoms.

So the “slut” problem reduces to one of two issues: the writers are lazy, so they introduce being a “slut” or not to create artificial tension; or the writers are dumb because they deal with a dead issue. Neither bodes well for the show. But it does hold an important lesson for narrative writers, whether visual or written: don’t focus on dead or dying issues. Focus on live ones. Feminists have been arguing against the “slut” framework of ideas since at least the 1960s if not earlier; Leora Tanenbaum wrote whole book on the subject, subtitled “Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation.” People’s behavior, if not their rhetoric, shows the issue to be dead. So instead of using it, why not skate to where the puck is going, instead of where it’s been?

The question is supposed to be rhetorical, but I’m going to answer it anyway: knowing the puck’s present location is easy. Knowing where it’s going is much, much harder, and a lot of the big media businesses, including TV, are too big and too expensive to take major risks on the unknown. Better to leave those big risks to dingy writers living in their parents’ basements or hiding from the real world in graduate school. That solution probably worked pretty well in a pre-Internet era. By now, however, people who want to take intellectual, social, and artistic risks can coalesce on the Internet. While Hollywood dithers and debates about sluts, the innovators are moving or have moved online. Don’t be surprised if the audience follows. And if you’re the kind of person who wants to be in the vanguard, don’t watch so much TV. Check out the bookstores and libraries instead. You’ll find it there. TV used to be the medium of the future, but in some ways it feels like the medium of the past.


EDIT: It appears Free Agents is heading towards cancellation. I’m tempted to say something like puerile like “good riddance,” but the problems described above transcend this show and will no doubt be repeated by successors, in more or less subtle guises.

"Free Agents," the TV show, proves itself dumb in the first three minutes through the "slut" debate

Free Agents, the TV show, begins with two characters in bed, and one opens a full condom drawer. The guy sees and says something like, “What are you—a slut?” The woman replies, and they have an excruciating discussion whose underlying content is a typical rehash of an ancient calumny about female sexuality. The scene is neither funny nor genuine, and the two problems are related.

If your characters are old enough to have a B.A., they’re old enough not to care about the idea of the “slut.” Younger characters, especially ones in high school, might still be interested in whether someone is a “slut,” but that’s mostly because a) teenagers are projecting uncertainty and fear regarding their own sexuality on others, b) many have parents who engage in various forms of daughter-guarding and other forms of shame internalization, and c) girls, especially, will use social approbation and shaming as a form of mate guarding behavior. If older characters like those in Free Agents are still concerned about the same problems as high school students, they’ve not matured enough to even be interesting. Even a show like Californication, whatever its other flaws, has moved beyond the “slut” question.

Like Free Agents, it’s also about someone with a stunted emotional life, but at least Californication is intellectually honest enough not to go for the “slut” question. Rather, it assumes that people who want to do it, do it, and people who don’t, don’t, which seems like the way the world is heading. Besides, by college graduation or thereabouts, most people will never really know about their partners’ past, and, again, by the time one graduates from college or reaches the age at which college graduation occurs, everyone is someone’s sloppy seconds. The median age for first sex in the United Sates is somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 (see Google for more); by the time a person hits their 30s, asking number questions becomes pointless if potentially amusing.

I’m not annoyed only because the concept behind word “slut” does, as Mark Liberman put it, “project bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don’t endorse.” Even if you do do endorse that framework, endorsing it with someone you’re about to have sex with probably isn’t the optimal place to engage the issue. It only makes you look like a hypocrite and a fool, but, from what I can tell, that wasn’t what Free Agents was going for. It played the issue straight. To go back to Liberman—who is himself also writing about a TV show, albeit Sex and the City—”The word slut itself clearly retains strong negative connotations, quite apart from one’s opinions about sexual morality, but such things can change if enough people want them to.” TV shows aren’t necessarily a medium that promotes social and intellectual

I can see why TV show writers might go for the “slut”: they think it can create dramatic tension. But it’s a false dramatic tension, which is why I said the issue isn’t “genuine,” and false dramatic tension leads to jokes that aren’t funny either, because such jokes don’t engage any substantive ideas; really funny jokes often or usually do. Pretty much every single person with the proverbial half a brain has condoms around. Their presence doesn’t mean anything more than, “I’m prepared for the best,” which is a refreshing change compared to people who are prepared for the worst. It would be stranger if the woman in the show was single and didn’t have condoms.

So the “slut” problem reduces to one of two issues: the writers are lazy, so they introduce being a “slut” or not to create artificial tension; or the writers are dumb because they deal with a dead issue. Neither bodes well for the show. But it does hold an important lesson for narrative writers, whether visual or written: don’t focus on dead or dying issues. Focus on live ones. Feminists have been arguing against the “slut” framework of ideas since at least the 1960s if not earlier; Leora Tanenbaum wrote whole book on the subject, subtitled “Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation.” People’s behavior, if not their rhetoric, shows the issue to be dead. So instead of using it, why not skate to where the puck is going, instead of where it’s been?

The question is supposed to be rhetorical, but I’m going to answer it anyway: knowing the puck’s present location is easy. Knowing where it’s going is much, much harder, and a lot of the big media businesses, including TV, are too big and too expensive to take major risks on the unknown. Better to leave those big risks to dingy writers living in their parents’ basements or hiding from the real world in graduate school. That solution probably worked pretty well in a pre-Internet era. By now, however, people who want to take intellectual, social, and artistic risks can coalesce on the Internet. While Hollywood dithers and debates about sluts, the innovators are moving or have moved online. Don’t be surprised if the audience follows. And if you’re the kind of person who wants to be in the vanguard, don’t watch so much TV. Check out the bookstores and libraries instead. You’ll find it there. TV used to be the medium of the future, but in some ways it feels like the medium of the past.


EDIT: It appears Free Agents is heading towards cancellation. I’m tempted to say something like puerile like “good riddance,” but the problems described above transcend this show and will no doubt be repeated by successors, in more or less subtle guises.

Economists in love

* Perhaps my favorite search engine query that brought someone to this site: “”robert frank” schelling infatuation”. Economists in love!

* In other query news, a reader sent me this link to a Language Log post about taboo avoidance. I’d forgotten about it, but am still delighted by the hilarious Wall Street Journal quote:

2. Circumlocution, paraphrase, and allusion.

The Wall Street Journal (like the New York Times) generally avoids asterisks and the like, in favor of work-arounds, sometimes elaborate and coy ones, as in this article (of 8/18/06) about the movie Snakes on a Plane:

Also, the filmmakers added new scenes to the film, including one where Mr. [Samuel L.] Jackson’s character delivers an exclamation similar to one a sound-alike had uttered in a fan trailer. In it, Mr. Jackson repeatedly uses an Oedipal expletive to describe both the snakes and the plane.

(Thanks to Jake Seliger. More Snakes on a Plane material from Ben Zimmer here.)

A better press corps?

Two days ago I posted about CEOs’ libraries, which included one quote apparently made up by the reporter, Harriet Rubin: “Ken Lopez, a bookseller in Hadley, Mass., says it is impossible to put together a serious library on almost any subject for less than several hundred thousand dollars.” Mr. Lopez quickly responded to an e-mail query about the subject, and I’m copying his note in full:

That was a very controversial statement in that article and it’s only somewhat incidental that I never actually said it. What I said went more or less along the lines of this:

She: [After we had talked for a half an hour or so about books, book collecting, and book collectors…] So how much does it cost to put together a book collection, anyway?

Me: That’s an impossible question to answer. There are too many variables.

She: Right. I understand. So how much does it cost to put a book collection together?

Me: [sigh] There’s no way to say. All collections are different. [Now thinking of a bone I can throw her, even though it’s a stupid question…] Well, in a lot of collections, if the field is not too narrow, you find the following characteristics: there are a large number of books that pertain to the field that are relatively easy to acquire and therefore not very expensive. But there are a lot of them. Then there is also a much smaller number of books that are very scarce, very important or desirable, and very expensive. If you try to assemble a collection in a field where there are a lot of books, and you try to get all or almost all of the relatively accessible and not-very-expensive books, and you also try to get all or most of the not-easily-accessible and much-more-expensive books, you could very easily end up spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars or more.

She: Thank you. [Hangs up.]

I wouldn’t swear that that’s a verbatim transcript, but that’s pretty much how it went.

By the time the quote appeared (and I was in the boondocks of northwestern Argentina when article was printed and the controversy about that supposed statement erupted), I barely remembered talking to her. The giveaway, though, was “my” use of the word “impossible”: I doubt I’ve used that word once in the last 40 years. I just don’t talk, write, or think that way. So I took a lot of grief for having supposedly said that, but it was just another case of a writer getting what she (thought she) needed to make her story “work.” Joan Didion said it in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” that writers are always selling somebody out. She may not have been talking about misquoting per se, but it certainly fits this case.

A very reasonable response! The situation Mr. Lopez describes makes sense, and I apologize for my snarky comment yesterday: “How does Mr. Lopez define ‘serious?’ The answer might in part be ‘expensive,’ judging from his line of business: ‘We deal in rare books, specializing in modern literary first editions.'” That was undeserved, and I’m doubly impressed for the allusion to Joan Didion.

This incident relates to the bad- and wrong-press phenomenon I’ve seen covered elsewhere. Language Log has been finding misquotes and misstatements since I began reading it a few years ago, and they’re particularly keen on misused studies. Econoblogger and Economics Professor Brad DeLong has long (sorry, I couldn’t resist) been asking, “Why Oh Why Can’t We Have A Better Press Corps?” It’s a good if rhetorical question, and he’s compiled too many examples of professional journalist foolishness. The misquotes and bad science are particularly strange these days, because an army of interconnected bloggers can now point out examples of press speciousness or outright mendacity. When something doesn’t smell right, as happened with the fake quote attributed to Mr. Lopez, it’s relatively easy to find the truth.

To be sure, newspapers and magazines do an admirable job of getting most stories right most of the time, but it makes obviously ludicrous statements like the one attributed to Mr. Lopez all the more galling because I want to trust the media. When I can’t, I’m disappointed, and more likely to be skeptical next time.

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