“Accidentally on Purpose” is a new sitcom starring Jenna Elfman that centers around a 37-year-old woman who starts a fling with a much younger man, only to find herself pregnant. The premise immediately made me raise a feminist eyebrow, since there are just so many tropes and clichés that potentially lurk just below the surface. Watching the pilot episode, I was pleased to find it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, though it does definitely have its issues.
At the same time, though, there were a few points in the show – mainly just a few lines or interactions between the characters – that made me feel like it was more socially aware than I had anticipated. At one point, Billie (Elfman), a film reviewer, says that because of her job, she realizes that there are three stages in a woman’s life: “Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan in Addicted to Love, and Meg Ryan in the supermarket insisting that she really is Meg Ryan” I’m paraphrasing because I forgot to write down the exact quote, but however casual a joke it was, the overall theme of it was that this woman could immediately point to the ways that media was conditioning her expectations about her life, and it’s funny because we all recognize it a little in ourselves. In this very quick, very generic and non-descriptive line, she manages to highlight the selling of the romantic ideal as women’s life achievement, the shaming of those women who have had that ideal, lost it and want it back, and the age-based downward social trajectory that women face.
Women’s experience of aging, obviously plays a huge role in this show, and it’s juxtaposed at least a little against the male characters’ experiences. Billie’s boss/ex, who is around her age, clearly understands his success based on his career trajectory, and his aloof bachelor status remains a mark of pride. Zack and his friends, while they’re definitely young, are not so young that their extreme irresponsibility should be anything but an enormous embarrassment. It’s obvious from the interactions that Billie and her friends are well aware that guys can have these lifestyles, while they, for a variety of socially-induced reasons, just can’t. Billie’s decision to have this baby, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, is at least partially based on her recognition of this fact, and her choice to stop waiting for James (or a man like him) to change, because he doesn’t really have or want to.
Within this theme, my biggest problem with the show is that it doesn’t always successfully avoid doing one of the things that I think it really is trying to ridicule – making this independent, financially secure and relatively emotionally stable woman look desperate, pathetic, and somewhat deluded about her own ’empowerment’. Sleeping with an attractive, much younger man who is under-employed and sleeps in his van should not be portrayed as more shameful than being that young man in his early 20s who is more focused on drinking with his friends and video games than on anything else in his life. Or, for that matter, than being an emotionally clueless, somewhat narcissistic executive in his late 30s who can’t bring himself to care about another human being or even really understand basic social niceties. Overall, though, this show did a lot better than it might have, and there’s a definite level of awareness to it that I wasn’t really expecting.