Even without Charlie Sheen around, CBS’s Two and a Half Men continues to generate controversy.
Lee Aronsohn, the show’s co-creator and executive producer, this week found himself in the center of a Twitter maelstrom for statements that he made at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference, issuing several comments that many—from everyday Twitter users to female comedians and columnists—decried as misogynistic.
Giving a keynote address on Sunday afternoon at the conference, Aronsohn’s statements about female-driven sitcoms included, among other things, one that has gotten him in the most trouble. “We are approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation,” Aronsohn said, referring to female-centric sitcoms like 2 Broke Girls, Whitney, and Chelsea, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “Enough, ladies. I get it. You have periods.”
If that wasn’t enough, later, he described his characters on Two and a Half Men as “damaged men.” Fair enough. But then Aronsohn took it one step further. “What makes men damaged?” he asked. “Sorry, it’s women. I never got my heart broken by a man.”
No sooner had his quotes hit the Internet did Jen Kirkman, a comedian and writer for Chelsea Lately and NBC’s short-lived rom-com Perfect Couples, issue a steely battle cry for women to fill Aronsohn’s Twitter feed with incredibly vivid and intentionally grotesque descriptions of their period.
Kirkman was waiting for her flight at an airport when she saw the THR story. “I’m just really sick of this kind of stuff and I didn’t want to write anything angry about it and be unfunny,” she said, speaking to The Daily Beast yesterday.
So she launched her Twitter protest. “I declare a fatwa on Lee Aronsohn,” she wrote. “And by fatwa I mean a big bucket of period blood on his head.”
Some of Kirkman’s 75,000-plus followers soon sent their own missives. A sampling:
“When I’m having cramps, and then I poo, my cramps are less severe! Weird, hey?”
“for the better part of a decade i threw up every time i got my period. you’re right, periods are hilarious!”
“Gonna write a strongly worded letter to @bennyace with a quill pen and a bottle of period blood.”
Not helping matters: Aronsohn, who tweeted, “Women, please look up ‘irony.’” (He later deleted the tweet amid a torrent of reactions.)
And after Aronsohn’s tweet failed to get the intended response, he caved, and issued a tepid apology: “Yes, yes—It was a stupid joke. I’m sorry.” (A note for Aronsohn: when apologizing it’s best not to continue to insult the aggrieved party. His “yes, yes” seems particularly patronizing.)
Today, you can find no shortage of editorials from outraged women parsing his comments.
Aronsohn’s comments were particularly distressing because he had a good track record. Before working on Two and a Half Men, he’d also worked on shows with strong female characters and feminist leanings: Murphy Brown, Grace Under Fire, and Cybil, to name three.
His past writing credits, however, don’t excuse his comments, according to Kirkman. “I think that’s just a job,” she said, pointing out that a liberal friend writes for right-wing commentator Glenn Beck. “A good writer can get into anyone’s point of view.” And, if anything, Aronsohn’s name today is more closely associated with the unending stream of fart and dick jokes that emerge each week from Two and a Half Men. As Kirkman wryly noted: “I hear guys talk about their dicks nonstop. No one is saying anything new about their dicks.”
One reason the Aronsohn controversy continues unabated is that the man at its center won’t give any interviews. (Aronsohn didn’t respond to several requests for comment from The Daily Beast.) And because no one seems to have a transcript of the conference session, there are some questions as to whether or not Aronsohn’s comments were taken out of context, and whether or not having some context changes the notion that what he said was horribly sexist.
Aronsohn’s comments were made at a panel moderated by Teresa Pavlinek, a Canadian comedy writer and former member of the Toronto Second City comedy troupe. She had prepped for the event by watching numerous episodes of Two and a Half Men, and had a phone conversation with Aronsohn beforehand to discuss what they wanted to focus on during the panel.
For the first 15 minutes of the event, Aronsohn discussed his early work during a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Why I Hate Writing.” After a few minutes of back and forth with Aronsohn, Pavlinek opened the floor to the audience, who asked Aronsohn about his views on current sitcoms.
“They weren’t really controversial questions,” said Pavlinek, who was “shocked” that the panel turned into such a controversy. “I really didn’t know it was that big of a deal. I had some people come up to me after and talk to me—‘Oh, I disagreed with that,’ ‘I thought that was a generalization.’ No one was totally freaking out.”
Aronsohn’s sensationalistic remark about “women damaging men” stemmed from a question about the female characters on Two and a Half Men, according to Pavlinek. “‘How do you or don’t you keep them from being stereotypical?’ He was very honest. This isn’t verbatim, but he said, ‘They aren’t always fleshed out.’ Then, he went on to talk about how it’s about two damaged guys,” she said. “We kind of laughed about that.”
“I asked him about [writing for] Cybil and Grace Under Fire, and he said, ‘I think I have a feminine side that I connect with. Two and a Half Men is a very different show.’”
“He went on to talk about how men get damaged, and it was from his own experience,” Pavlinek said, citing how used a quote that his ex-wife said to him for Jon Cryer’s character. Bob Lackie, an aspiring screenwriter and fourth-year student at Ryerson University’s Radio and Television arts program who attended the panel, paraphrased his quote as, “Sometimes I realize I am coming home to you and I want to cry.”
It’s no surprise that beneath Aronsohn’s bravado is a wounded heart. But the comment that got the Two and a Half Men executive producer a Twitter stream of labia and period jokes, Pavlinek said, came from a question about stand-ups with new shows. “‘What do you think about these new shows Whitney and Chelsea?’ And that’s when he responded about the ‘saturation.’”
Lackie said Aronsohn first responded, “Are those two different shows?,” in an attempt to make a joke that the two shows don’t have different point of view. (Though he did not mention 2 Broke Girls by name, that show—Two and a Half Men’s network sibling on CBS—is the worst offender of the girls-in-the-gutter trend.)
“I could see the gap between what he was saying and the intent of what he was saying,” said Lackie, “and I knew it was going to blow up.”
Pavlinek said Aronsohn was specifically “talking about those types of shows that talk about being a chick. I asked him about The Mary Tyler Moore Show—a show with a female lead. It wasn’t about her just being a chick. She had a job and a life.” He said, ‘I totally agree and I loved that show.’” To be sure, there are plenty of female-centric sitcoms that don’t fall into this trap—see Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope in Parks & Recreation, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, and even Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl series, which started out as a “I’m a weird female, hear me roar,” and has evolved into a show about a foursome of freaks and geeks.
For her part, Pavlinek said she wasn’t offended by Aronsohn’s comments. “I laughed at his metaphors. I laughed when he said ‘saturation.’ Because it was ridiculous. It was exaggeration to me. I thought he was kidding.”
“I think he was unfairly misquoted and taken out of context,” she said, and clarified, “I do think that his comments could be construed as misogynist. If I hadn’t been there and I’d read that, I would have been like, ‘What an asshole.’ And he wasn’t an asshole.”
“You know when you get a vibe, ‘Oh, you are an ass—I didn’t get that vibe at all.’ I didn’t get the sense that he was saying ‘I hate chick shows.’ I got the sense he was done with that kind of show.”
This notion—that there are too many shows about women from a specific point of view is just, well, comical, and not a little depressing.
“The saturation point is so funny,” said Kirkman. “There are three women doing it.”
“That’s more of a sad state in the last however many years of TV to think this is saturated because there is a wave of female shows,” said Pavlinek. “We notice it more because there are women in it, and it seems odd.”
Later, in a follow-up email, Kirkman addressed the notion that Whitney et al. were problematic because they were all from the same perspective.
“Women, because they’re also human are more nuanced than that,” she wrote. “And that’s just not true that only one POV of women is out there. But that’s just another sign that there still aren’t enough shows driven by women. If he feels only one POV is coming through, that just means we need more. That’s a great idea! Thanks Lee!”