I was reading today’s paper and noticed an article from the Associated Press about a couple of ABC’s new shows this season, GCB, and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 (the dashes are actually a part of the official title.) The article was discussing the implied use of the word “Bitch” in both titles (GCB is based off a book entitled Good Christian Bitches, though the show’s producers insist the “B” in “GCB” now magically stands for “Belles”) and whether it’s appropriate, especially in light of the way the word is used derogatorily towards women in every day culture. They had a representative from the Alliance for Women in Media discuss the use of the word, and the overall tone of the article was that, due to its emotionally charged tone, it is a word that should not be used in the title of a network television series. They argued that the word is not exactly used for female empowerment (the shared jokes and images on my Facebook feed would disagree, as would one-hit-wonder Meredith Brooks, but I’ll concede that it’s hardly universal.) Overall, they made a decent, if thin and emotional, argument that is a bad choice for a title.
I agree with them, but I’m not coming at it from quite the same angle. Whether the term is insulting to women in general or not, the specific use of the word in these titles is insulting to the audience, female and male.
Now, I’m not someone to go coming down on someone for strong language, as a rule. I may try to avoid using it much on this blog (this entry aside), simply to keep it accessible and appreciable for everyone, but I don’t have a big problem with it, personally. Hell, I just blasted TNT a few days ago for their censorship of Total Recall, and I’ve defended the heavy use of swearing in Good Will Hunting to co-workers before. When the shit hit the fan over E/R using the phrase “shit happens”, I supported that as well as an appropriate use of the phrase. Swearing and vulgarity are a normal, natural part of the way people talk, and realistic dialogue should be permitted in a show. I would feel differently if we were talking about children’s shows, but we’re not. These are shows made for, marketed to, and aired in a time slot for adults.
So what’s the problem? It’s that second attribute there… “marketed to”. The title is not part of the show, not really. It’s not dialogue, it’s not characterization or plot or anything else. It’s marketing. It is, in a way, the piece of marketing most connected to the show itself, but it’s still marketing. More than the commercials, or promotional materials, or anything else, the title of your book, or film, or television show tells people what to expect out of your show. That’s why it’s important to put your best foot forward in the title. It’s your first chance to tell people what your show is like… and since it comes on right before the show, it then becomes your last chance as well.
So what does the use of the word “bitch” in these titles tell us? What message are they sending in the marketing? Well… their intent is to shock the audience a bit. They may claim otherwise, but there isn’t really an alternative. Swear words are dialogue words. They are inherently out of context in a non-dialogue usage, such as a title. And the purpose of deliberately using something out of context is to surprise people, or shock them. Now, it’s a debatable question as to whether it’s more insulting that they think we’d be shocked by the word “bitch” or that we would then tune in to a show because of that, but either way, it’s not a very flattering implication.
It gets worse, of course. Because, much like CBS’s one-season failure $#*! My Dad Says, neither of these shows actually come out and use the word they’re attempting to shock people with. Here’s a thought: If you can’t, or won’t, say your title on television… maybe it shouldn’t be the title of your television show. Using the word sounds crass. Using the word and simultaneously censoring yourself sounds crass, cowardly, disingenuous, and downright silly. It’s trying to have the best of both worlds — the “daring, edgy” title and the “clean” marketing campaign — and winds up having the worst of both. “We’re so daring… we almost used a bad word!” Yeah. Even if I were the type to be impressed by swear words (age group: 7-14), that would strike me as being pretty pathetic.
Networks… the title of your show is part of how you sell your show to me. So sell it. It doesn’t have to be complicated. The Cosby Show tells you who the star is, 24 gives a pretty good hint to the format. Even something simple like Chuck at least tells you the character’s name (and the fact that he’s informal enough to not go by Charles). GCB tells me nothing until I learn what the initials stand for… and then it falls into the whole “hidden swear word” silliness above. If I’m rolling my eyes at you… and I am… your marketing department has failed. Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 does a pretty good job of getting its theme across, but does it really gain anything from the bleeped “Bitch”, or from “Bitch” at all? No, it really doesn’t. If anything, it falls into the trap of being too explicit that way; if it were Don’t Trust the Girl in Apartment 23, this would at least leave open some question as to why for new viewers instead of tipping its hand that it’s her personality specifically that’s the problem. Of course, it’s a bit of a long title either way — the odds of this not getting truncated at some point are next to nothing — but it had a chance of being a pretty good title. They just blew it by trying to be crass and coy at the same time, which never works.
None of this, of course, should be taken as a reflection on the shows themselves. GCB and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 might be perfectly fine, funny shows. Maybe $#*! My Dad Says was a good show, cancelled before its time. I don’t know. They haven’t convinced me to watch them. And that’s a failure of the marketing that is largely attributable to the complete inability to avoid rolling my eyes at them whenever they bring up the title of their show.