Pepper Dennis

Note: Plot spoilers for second episode in last paragraph.

What’s so despicable about a place where guys can be guys?
— Charlie Babcock (Josh Hopkins), “Poker Clubs and Boob Cams: Film at Eleven”

There’s nothing necessarily “despicable” about a place where boys can be boys. There’s nothing very remarkable about it either: it’s the world we live in, after all. This despite the fact that common cultural discourse would have us believe that gender equality (if not parity) has been achieved. We live, so we are told by mass media, in a “postfeminist” age.

“Postfeminism” might best be described as a double bind: women are expected to compete “equally” with men in all arenas and at the same time behave in traditional manners (feminine, sexually desirable to heterosexual men, objectified, etc.). Susan Douglas glosses the phenomenon in In These Times:

Postfeminism, as a term, suggests that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism, but that feminism is now irrelevant and even undesirable because it has made millions of women unhappy, unfeminine, childless, lonely, and bitter, prompting them to fill their closets with combat boots and really bad India print skirts.

This conservative mess provides the context for Pepper Dennis. The WB says the show is “about a modern woman who refuses to give up on the dream of having it all. Though she is sometimes her own worst enemy, Pepper is determined to balance a demanding career with her desire for family and friendship.” Let’s leave aside the heterosexist saw that women are their own worst enemies. There are plenty of other offenses in this packaging.

Pepper (Rebecca Romijn) is “modern” in that she is a driven television journalist climbing the corporate news ladder. In the pilot that airs 4 April, she is primed to take the anchor seat just opened at Chicago’s WEIE News, only to be passed over by the head honchos for Charlie (Josh Hopkins), an out-of-town ringer. Despite her hard work, the industry is still the same old boys’ club.

Pepper is also “traditional” in that the crisis that drives the show is “her desire for family and friendship,” which comes up against her professional aspirations. Forget the fact that she puts on a distinctly “masculine” persona, aggressive at work and in private (one-night stands are her preferred modus operandi). Deep down, she’s a very traditional girl, full of a “properly” woman’s desires. She “wants it all,” family, romance and a successful career, yet is now realizing she might not get it. It’s enough to make a girl crazy.

The show underlines Pepper’s distress with the ideal-seeming life of her suburban super-wife sister Kathy (Brooke Burns). Married to Bryce (Jason Brooks), Kathy takes private Pilates lessons to stay desirable, decorates their McMansion in just-so style, and cooks all his favorite meals. And yet Bryce takes her for granted. Advised by Pepper that she “grow some balls,” Kathy leaves her inattentive husband and moves in with her sister. Neither woman has been achieved full satisfaction on her own, but perhaps together they can find some balance. Pepper can teach Kathy some independence, and Kathy can show Pepper the joys of romance.

It’s not such a bad “message,” that balance between the competing demands besetting women can be found. But Pepper Dennis eviscerates such a possibility and strongly asserts that successful, heterosexual, committed partnering is the real goal of women. In promotion of its own postfeminist agenda, the show directly blames feminist politics.

Corporate policy and public legislation prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace has been one of the major successes of the feminist movement. In Pepper Dennis, it’s at best a joke, and at worst, gets in the way of “innocent” office romance. In Episode Two, “Poker Clubs and Boob Cams: Film at Eleven,” Pepper and Charlie (of course, there’s an attraction brewing between them) attend a “mandatory sexual harassment seminar” with their co-workers. Here, awareness of sexual harassment is reduced to tiresome role-playing skits that detract from office productivity.

Later, when Pepper decides to take a chance and express her feelings to Charlie, she is shot down. He’s attracted too, he tells her, but business and pleasure can’t mix. In fact, another employee of the station has just been “fired for complimenting a woman’s shirt.” This is precisely the kind of PC exaggeration routinely invoked by the right’s ongoing attacks on feminism. These are difficult times for women and men in the workplace, Pepper Dennis tells us, and feminism has only made women unhappy. The implicit solution is to retract the rights and protections the movement has achieved. If it weren’t for those pesky sexual harassment policies, Pepper and Charlie could find “true love” with each other. It’s a perfectly “postfeminist” message.