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11 May. 2012 | Comments (0)

We have seen several TV comedies that feature men behaving badly. The UK's Fawlty Towers started in 1975 and features John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, a character who proved that men could behave very badly indeed. Basil was petty, selfish, vain, incompetent, and very likely the inspiration for a series that was actually called — to make the point with perfect clarity — Men Behaving Badly.

It took some years for this precedent to reach American airways. But eventually we got Charlie (Charlie Sheen) on Two and a Half Men and Barnie (Neil Patrick Harris) on How I Met Your Mother. Charlie and Barnie were rogues of the first order, unapologetically self-centered, self-interested, and self-celebrating.

It took a couple of years more for women's television to follow suit, but now these shows are here in earnest. This year saw the launch of Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, starring Krysten Ritter. As the b---- in question, Ritter's Chloe is a monster of self-absorption. There are no lengths to which she will not go, including making love to her roommate's boyfriend on said roommate's birthday cake. She makes Charlie and Barnie look like tender-hearted amateurs.

This show has precedents of its own. The BBC production Absolutely Fabulous (aka AbFab) featured me-generation Londoners who never met a fashion they couldn't love, a pharmaceutical they couldn't abuse, or a family member they couldn't disappoint. It also has it's opposite. New Girl features Zooey Deschanel as Jessica Dey, who is constitutionally incapable of thinking badly of anyone — especially herself. Jess teaches grade school and is thoughtful, whimsical, and kind.

Jess and her kind used to rule the airwaves. Unless they were as crazy as Lucy, as noisy as Phyllis (Diller), or as nasty as a daytime soap star, TV women tended to be compassionate, kind, and thoughtful. Even when they weren't paragons of virtue, they had powers of empathy that made them more social than men.

A great wave of cultural innovation followed, giving us creatures of a different kind. The women of Dallas, Sarah in The Sarah Conner Chronicles, Samantha in Sex and the City, Christine in Old Christine, Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, Whitney Cummings. Clearly, a change was upon us. But it seemed to me that as much as these women helped redefine the idea of women, they were breaking rules, ostentatiously. Some part of the act was a riot grrrl refusal of gender definitions. Clearly, the center of our gender gravity was shifting, but these performances too often felt like exceptions that proved the rule.

But not Chloe. This character doesn't have any trace elements of empathy. In Episode 2, she manufactures a social disaster and then says, to no one in particular, "No one's to blame though. So that's good." This line is funnier for the fact that Chloe always feels blameless. She can leave a wreckage in her wake, and hey presto, who cares? Not Chloe.

If you are a survivor of the Culture wars, you may feel called upon to take a position here. Surely, this new experiment in female identity can be taken as evidence of the death of civility and the impending death of civilization. But as your consulting anthropologist, I would recommend caution here. Chloe is merely our culture doing what our culture does. She's merely an experimental gesture driven by the notion that any opportunity that belongs to anyone belongs to everyone — and it's up to art, or at least culture, to reset the playing field.

As long as there was a Charlie and a Barney, there was going to have to be a Chloe. We may wish to say, if only by habit, that this gender, age, class, ethnic identity is off limits to that gender, age, class, ethnic group. Good luck with that. Anything that's open to anyone is, sooner or later, open to everyone. In our culture everyone gets an "all access" pass, and God spare the elite or convention or stereotype that says otherwise.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 05/01/2012.

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