thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Nerdy Girls of Super Fun Night

In Television, TV on March 7, 2014 at 7:22 am

Sarah T.

On television, nerdy girls are few and far between. In what is clearly a wish-fulfillment fantasy hatched in the depths of writers’ rooms populated by men who are former social outcasts, the dude-nerds of shows like Freaks and Geeks, The O.C. and Friday Night Lights tend to spend their time around the popular girls of their dreams—Sam and Cindy, Seth and Summer,  Landry and Tyra.

When nerdy girls do make an appearance on TV, they’re typically sassy, confident pixies, boasting about their in-depth knowledge of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels while clad in ironic t-shirts and edgy haircuts. That is an awesome way to be, but these characters hardly seem like they’ve logged time at the very bottom of the social totem pole. It’s doubtful that Anna from The O.C. has ever sat by herself in a cafeteria while jocks fired spitballs at her through a straw. (Not that I would know anything about that, ahem ahem.)

The Fox sitcom Super Fun Night, starring Rebel Wilson, attempts remap the nerd landscape by featuring a trio of women with genuinely awkward personalities. Kimmie (Wilson) is a naïve young lawyer whose idea of a romantic Valentine’s Day surprise is an elaborate restaging of Phantom of the Opera. Her roommates are prim and proper Helen Alice (Liza Lapira) and gruff, sporty Marika (Lauren Ash). The show follows the friends as they decide to abandon their trusty group motto—“Always together! Always inside!”—and venture into the world of bars, karaoke clubs and other venues that exist outside their apartment.

Super Fun Night has a fine line to walk. The show wants to play the three friends’ misfit tendencies for laughs while acknowledging that they’re still loveable characters. At times the series fails to balance these dual missions, veering toward cruelty. When other characters lob fat jokes at Kimmie, the show seems to expect viewers to cackle along with them—even as it simultaneously portrays Kimmie as confident, beautiful and deserving of love. The show’s original pilot episode, which aired midway through the series, is a perfect example of Super Fun Night’s worst mean-spirited tendencies. A nightclub bouncer repeatedly rebuffs and insults Kimmie and her friends, calling them “eye broccoli”—the opposite of eye candy. Then Kimmie is further humiliated when her dress bursts open in front of her office crush, revealing the garish light-up bra that she’s wearing underneath.

In moments like these, Super Fun Night hardly seems like a victory for nerdy girls. Instead it humiliates its heroines for failing to conform to conventional standards of femininity, suggesting that they really might have been better off staying inside.

But the show can also be remarkably funny and sensitive in depicting the girls’ forays outside their comfort zone. At the outset of the series, all three have remained virgins into their late twenties. This is entirely believable, given that they’ve rarely ventured outside their apartment, content to celebrate cookie proms (which involve eating Oreos in strapless satin gowns) and finish 2,000-piece puzzles. They’re not inexperienced because they’re undesirable; they’re inexperienced because they’ve never really sought sexual experience out. Over the course of the first season, the trio realizes that they’re ready to look for love—and they each show a lot of courage in pursuing it.

Kimmie, the boldest of the bunch, takes the first plunge by attempting to seduce her office crush. After that plan goes awry, she attends a seminar on the art of meeting men and winds up heading to a hotel room with a guy she’s picked up at a bar. She’s nervous and covering it up with a performance of sultriness that she doesn’t really feel—when her paramour, Parker, starts removing his clothing, she responds with a slow, elaborate strip tease that ends with her taking off a single bangle bracelet. “It’s nice to meet a woman who owns her sexuality,” Parker says appreciatively. It’s a scene that remains true to Kimmie’s awkwardness without shaming her for it. The show’s sweetly respectful tone extends to the big reveal: when Kimmie finally tells Parker that she’s never slept with anyone before, he’s kind and sensitive and not at all judgmental.

They don’t wind up having sex, but a few episodes later, Kimmie does the deed with a goofy, open-hearted chef named James who flat-out adores her. We don’t see the scene where Kimmie tells James that she’s a virgin, just the pair’s glowy post-coital canoodling—which implies that her level of sexual experience turned out to be not such a big deal once the right guy came along.

Super Fun Night handles Marika’s coming-out story with a similarly gentle touch. A tall, blunt jock full of bluster that’s only part-faux, Marika has never admitted that she’s attracted to women out loud. Asked if she’s ever kissed a girl before, she brushes off the question: She’s been “too busy fending off dudes, I guess.”

At times the show relies heavily on lesbian stereotypes in depicting Marika’s character. Her friends rattle off her “love of vests, dedication to pants, obsession with Tegan and Sara, dreams about sipping hot cocoa with Billie Jean King and striking resemblance to Jodie Foster” as clues that have tipped them off to her sexual preference—a very uncreative and reductive way to approach the process of figuring out one’s sexuality.

But as Marika points out, “There’s a big difference between thinking something and knowing that something is true.” The show takes its time with her coming-out storyline, from the first subtle hint—when Marika blushes with pleasure after a waitress compliments her on her shoulders—to the scene where she agrees to act as a buddy’s wingman and winds up getting the girl for herself.

When Marika is finally ready to act on her feelings, she runs to her new love interest—a spirited, artistic woman named Frankie—and gives her a kiss. “What was that for?” Frankie asks. “The last 28 years of my life,” Marika says. It’s a romantic moment, and more importantly, it gets to the heart of what Marika’s character arc this season has really been about. Even more important than the fact that Marika is finding love with Frankie is that she’s learning to see her whole self for the first time in 28 years, and how to let others see it too.

Super Fun Night isn’t the nerdy girl show of my dreams yet. But the show’s uneven tone reminds me of the first season of Parks and Recreation. Parks treated Leslie Knope with an off-handed nastiness that left a sour taste in viewers’ mouths—yet beneath that callous exterior was a big-hearted show just dying to get out. If Wilson’s series can stick to the better angels of its nature and figure out how to draw humor from its characters without bullying them, it can offer viewers a refreshing sight: a bunch of nerdy girls who know how to have a good time.

Related links:

Weight Weight, Don’t Tell Me: Body Image and the Mindy Project

Tina Fey’s Nerd Rage Burns “Women Aren’t Funny” to The Ground

How to Be Awesome Like Leslie Knope

  1. I think you are so right about the unevenness of the show this first season … And, I do love the episodes that as you mention seem to have more heart, empathy, and really celebrate the ladies being awesome. I think the ways that they negotiate new romances and their shifting friendships is really lovely and interesting. And, also I wonder about your thoughts on HA’s relationship with Benji? And the allergic to sex situation.

    • Ooh yeah the Helen-Alice and Benji relationship is interesting too, but I feel like the show treats that pairing the most like a joke? I like the two of them together a lot, and the idea that their mutual shyness and nervousness almost prevented them from getting together in the first place is both funny and realistic. But the whole allergic-to-sex/H-A situation just seems ridiculous. What do you think?

  2. I concur. I really love H-A’s character and how the other two cover spots to protect her from freaking out. And, I really liked the romance until the allergic to sex situation. I’m sort of hoping they ditch that in favor of just more awkward shy hilarious fun times…

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