Fallon in Drag Perpetuates Harmful Gender Stereotpyes

Maggie Menditto, Contributing Writer

When I was 11 years old, I walked to the Potomac Video Store and rented the first eight episodes of the popular television show Gilmore Girls. Over the next couple of months, I consumed six seasons of the show, hooked on watching the mother-and-daughter best friends Lorelai and Rory navigate school, work and love, all while balancing their down-to-earth sensibilities and burgeoning career ambitions.

I identified with 16-year-old Rory, who was shy and quiet but whip-smart with big dreams and a strong work ethic. I wanted to be her, going so far as transferring schools in the eighth grade to be the “new girl,” as Rory was in season one. When I had trouble in school or felt bad about my lackluster social status, I looked to Rory, who always kept her eye on the prize and was perfectly content to spend her weekends at home with her books. Rory was going places, and so was I.

Strong, intelligent, sensible female teenage characters are rarely portrayed in popular culture. Almost no girl characters can be counted upon to always value their independence and ambition above superficial concerns. The enduring veneration of Gilmore Girls, despite the show’s cancellation in 2007, is a testament to this fact. Too often, television shows, movies and commercials unnecessarily slot young girls into a formulaic, offensive cliché that reinforces dangerous gender roles. These seemingly harmless and often humorous stereotypical characters are so commonplace that their producers and consumers may be unaware of the damaging effects on the developing minds and confidences of young teenage girls.

Take, for example, the popular sketch “Ew!” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Recurring every couple of months, the sketch features Fallon and usually another adult male celebrity in drag portraying two 14-year-old girls hosting a talk show in the basement of the home of Fallon’s character, “Sara without an H.” Clad in a layered blond wig, ruffled purple dress and pink leggings, Fallon is almost incomprehensible as Sara, a heavy lisp emanating from his lip-gloss-covered mouth full of braces. The punchline of the sketch, which has featured similarly costumed stars such as Seth Rogen, Michael Strahan and Channing Tatum, is often the girls’ enthusiasm for the mall, boy bands and dance parties, and their loathing of little brothers, football and exercise.

Lighthearted though the sketch’s intentions may be, “Ew!” perpetuates the harmful stereotype that young girls are only capable of enjoying superficial activities and will reject anything that is not inherently perceived as feminine. Worse still than the sketch itself is its seemingly universal acceptance and praise. With each video receiving millions of views, virtually no one has stopped to question the unfortunate light it casts on the butt of its joke: young girls.

Having recently been a young girl myself, I am familiar with the staggering self-consciousness and frequent identity questioning experienced during those formative years between 12 and 16. With combined peer and societal pressure to be attractive and mature, teenage girls are just trying to do the best that they can. Using this inherently vulnerable demographic to make an easy joke is just that: easy. Furthermore, creating roles for girls in the media that don’t challenge this rigid stereotype displays a lack of creativity and aptitude.

Popular culture needs more original and inspired female teenage characters. Shows and sketches that employ such base comedy as Fallon’s “Ew!” should not be accepted as commonplace. The media and society are reflections of one another; if you tell a young girl that this is the way she is supposed to be, it’s going to make an impression.

Part of the reason for the lack of variety in female characters is the predominance of male creators in Hollywood. According to a study conducted by the Women’s Media Center, in the 2011–2012 television season, only 26 percent of all behind-the-scenes creators were women. The research done by the WMC reveals that female screenwriters are far less likely to sell speculative screenplays than men. How can we expect to see roles that accurately depict the female experience when men write the vast majority of those characters?

Dynamic, ambitious girls like Rory Gilmore should not be anomalies in entertainment. Until we demand smarter female characters, the entertainment industry won’t provide them. This change begins by rejecting shows with characters that reinforce negative stereotypes, like Fallon’s “Sara.” On Oct. 1, 2014, two events coincided: Gilmore Girls was released for online streaming on Netflix and my little sister turned 11 years old. Being at school six hours away as she enters adolescence, I am grateful and comforted to know that she has easy access to the smart and strong role models that so guided and motivated me.