Ellen Gray: You can say 'vagina' on TV

Jane Krakowski referred to "vaginal mesh" early in "30 Rock's" new season.
Jane Krakowski referred to "vaginal mesh" early in "30 Rock's" new season.
Posted: February 01, 2012

WARNING: THIS story will almost certainly set a Daily News record for the most instances of the word "vagina."

That's because, as you may have heard, television lately has been as focused on the vagina (and surrounding territory) as a 1970s teen clutching her first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

And I think it's possible Philly helped get this party started, even if we're not totally responsible for the recent surge in the use of an anatomically correct word on broadcast television. (On cable, believe me, there are much worse terms for it.) Why us?

Because we (or at least Upper Darby) gave the world Tina Fey, one of the funniest women on the planet and the creator and star of NBC's "30 Rock," a show that's proven you can so say that on television. Whatever that happens to be this week.

Oh, when "30 Rock" returned for its sixth season a couple of weeks ago with new episodes that included penis mentions, the allegation that the Phillie Phanatic has "a menstrual cycle" and a reference - by Jane Krakowski's Jenna Maroney - to "vaginal mesh," the show might have seemed a little late to the party, the 2011-12 season having started off months ago with a rash (sorry) of vagina shout-outs.

Fey, though, had been ahead of her peers all along, having written an episode way back in 2007 in which Jenna uttered the memorable line, "My vagina is a convenience store: clean and reliable. And closed on Christmas."

It was two locally grown writers, Bala Cynwyd's David Crane and Broomall's Marta Kauffman, who co-created "Friends" and wrote the show's 100th episode in 1998, in which Lisa Kudrow's Phoebe, in labor with triplets, tells Ross (David Schwimmer), "I don't see three kids coming out of your vagina."

(Kudrow, interestingly, remembered recently that on "Friends" "we could say penis a certain number of times, but we could not say vagina.")

Philadelphia also helped educate Whitney Cummings, the Penn grad and comedian behind two of the fall's more in-your-face pilots, CBS' "2 Broke Girls" (which she co-created with "Sex and the City's" Michael Patrick King) and NBC's "Whitney," in which Cummings also stars.

Maybe you laughed, maybe you didn't, when Max, the waitress played by Bryn Mawr's Kat Dennings, snapped her fingers under the nose of a finger-snapping would-be hipster in the first episode of "2 Broke Girls," telling him, "This is the sound that dries up my vagina." But to Cummings, that wasn't really a joke about a body part.

"Any joke that has the word 'vagina' in it, at least that I try to do, is not relying on the word vagina. There's something bigger," she said in an interview in Pasadena, Calif. "She's putting a guy in his place, she's standing up for herself, she's being demeaned by a man who is treating her terribly and like basically sexually harassing her and she's broke and she's 23 . . . I think the more shocking thing about that is that she's being ballsy and standing up to someone," she said.

I laughed at that joke, so maybe I'm not the best judge of where the line on taste should be drawn these days.

As producer Chuck Lorre noted at a recent press conference for CBS' "Mike & Molly," "one of the great things about broadcast television is nobody really knows what's appropriate anymore. It's a floating target."

Lorre should know that, at least: As the creator of CBS' still No. 1-rated sitcom, "Two and a Half Men," he's been getting away with male-oriented sexual humor for years, years in which, honestly, I've heard fewer complaints from viewers than I did this fall in my own newsroom about the jokes in some of the new sitcoms, in which women are telling (and in many cases, writing) the same kinds of gags from a female perspective.

Maybe "2 Broke Girls'" King was thinking of "Two and a Half Men," the show that follows his on Monday nights, when he responded to a questioner who pointed out that his show aired at 8:30, not 9:30, on CBS.

"It's 8:30 on Monday on CBS in 2012. It's a very different world than 8:30 on Monday on CBS in 1994," said King, describing the show's humor as "really classy dirty" jokes.

"It is ballsy. It is right in your face and hopefully funny. I did 'Sex in the City' for many, many years. That was a completely different vibration of comedy, and the one thing that they have in common, to me as the writer-creator of the show, is people pull away from something if it's not in good taste. People lean into something if it's OK, and week after week, more and more people are leaning into '2 Broke Girls,' " he said of the show that, with an average 13 million viewers, is the season's most-watched new sitcom.

Those 13 million might just agree with CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler, who denied that network standards had been relaxed.

"Vagina's not indecent. It's a part of the body," Tassler told me, adding (I think) jokingly, "The note we give is we actually want to use it more . . . I said, 'I'm a woman in my job, I have no problem hearing it, saying it. It's part of my physical body.' "

And as Cummings pointed out, there are less amusing ways for TV to deal with sex.

"Look at cop shows, it's all hookers and raped hookers, killing hookers. I mean, all these 'CSIs' and stuff like that, they don't say 'vagina' and make vagina jokes, but it's all dead hookers and strippers and people getting raped. It's so much worse," she said.

To Cummings, the fact that most of the current jokes about female parts that used to be cloaked in cutesy euphemisms - or, as in a famous 2001 episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Marie's Sculpture," never spoken aloud - are now being told by women makes it "more harmless and sort of charming."

Plus, "that's just how young people talk now," said Cummings, 29, sounding for a moment like someone much older.

"You know, like girls who are 20 years old talk like 40-year-old guys now," Cummings said, laughing. "They're smarter, they're more sexually active, it's just a fact, it's not an opinion."

This season, women characters in their teens and 20s, whether or not they call themselves girls, are more likely to be written or created by other women, a trend that will continue into the spring, as ABC's "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23," created by Nahnatchka Khan, joins the party April 11.

"Women behaving badly, to me, is funny," Khan told reporters about the show's title character (played by Krysten Ritter), whose bad behavior can be expected to go beyond an occasional reference to genitalia.

Khan said afterward that she thinks networks might be becoming more accepting of women characters with flaws.

"I think 'Bridesmaids' got society - like the audience - sort of prepared for all these things coming out," Khan added.

"Bridesmaids" producer Judd Apatow - who's producing Lena Dunham's far more explicit HBO comedy "Girls," which premieres April 15 - says it started earlier than that.

"I think people try to connect everything. All of the television shows about women that were picked up were picked up before 'Bridesmaids' came out," he said in an interview a few days after I'd spoken with Kahn (and others who'd cited "Bridesmaids").

"The first 'Sex and the City' [movie] opened up to an enormous amount of money. There's a gigantic crowd of people saying, 'Why aren't you making movies and TV shows for us?' It's ridiculous that we're even at the point where we have to have this conversation," Apatow said.

Emily Kapnek, creator of ABC's "Suburgatory," said she didn't know when she included a vagina joke in the show's pilot that she'd be part of a trend.

"I guess this is vagina's moment . . . I think there is some sort of pride in that it's become, you know, sort of something you can talk about," Kapnek said, while noting that her show hasn't gone there very often. "We still get a lot of pushback" from the network's standards watchdogs, on certain things, she said.

"We had some joke about vaginal birth. There's a reference in an . . . episode where this character recalls being traumatized by something he'd seen and then he whispers, 'Vaginal birth.' And we got dinged," she said. "It has been a little bit of a dirty word that sort of seems to be getting popularized, brought to the mainstream."

Not surprisingly, Chelsea Handler, the not exactly demure late-night E! talk show host whose memoir was adapted for the NBC sitcom "Are You There, Chelsea?," said she likes vagina jokes.

"Maybe I'm the only one, but you know what? We have vaginas. We should be joking about them," she said.

She's not the only one.

"It's a funny word," said Liz Meriwether, creator of Fox's "New Girl," with a giggle.

"I'm really happy that there's so many female-driven comedies and that they're all so different," she said.

"A lot of people put female comedy in a box and think it's one thing, but I think it's a lot of different things."

For Dunham, whose new HBO comedy gets to show some things that even the most risque network sitcoms only hint at - I watched three episodes on a plane last month and had to lower my laptop screen repeatedly to avoid attracting a crowd - restrictions may still exist, even if they're ones she hopes to ignore.

"There's nothing you can't say" on HBO, Dunham conceded.

"But there's things people don't want to hear," she said, adding, laughing, "but I want to say vagina all the time."


Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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