“I wanted to give Younger full marks for gender parity, but the romance between Liza and her boss is extremely problematic, particularly in the #MeToo era.”
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-4
Creator: Darren Star 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈
Writers: Original novel by Pamela Redmond Satran 👩🏼🇺🇸, TV scripts by Darren Star 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 (48 eps), Ashley Skidmore 👩🏼🇺🇸 (47 eps), Brandy Barber 👩🏼🇺🇸 (24 eps), Lyle Friedman 👩🏼🇺🇸 (23 eps), and various (5 ♀ and 6 ♂)
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
The premise of Younger requires some suspension of disbelief: a newly single, stay-at-home mom attempts re-enter the publishing industry after more than a decade away. Realizing that nobody wants to hire a 40-year-old to fill an entry-level position, Liza Miller (Sutton Foster) pretends to be 26 in order land a job as a marketing assistant, enabling her to support her college-bound daughter. In her reincarnation as a millennial, she relocates from suburban New Jersey to Brooklyn, befriends her 20-something colleague Kelsey (Hilary Duff), and even starts dating a younger man, a tattoo artist named Josh (Nico Tortorella). The question of whether or not she can maintain her ruse, and what happens if and when people find out, kept me invested in spite of what seemed to be an outlandish concept. From the same creator as Sex and the City, the TV Land series balances a mix of silliness and glamour that makes it extremely easy to binge-watch.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Younger is most successful when commenting on ageism and the challenges facing older women. Empirical Press’ head of marketing, Diana Trout (Miriam Shor), initially comes off as difficult boss of the Miranda Priestly vein (The Devil Wears Prada). But contrary to first impressions, she’s gradually revealed to be a nurturing and wise mentor to Liza, even though they’re actually the same age. Her career represents the path that Liza gave up to raise a family. At times, the jokes revolving around Diana’s desperate search for a boyfriend play into the cliché of an accomplished woman succeeding in everything but love. Yet, her inability to be the “relationship type”—epitomized by her hilariously awkward attempts at flirting—makes her the most relatable and endearing character. Frankly, witnessing Liza’s messy choices when it comes to both dating and work can be exhausting, so it’s nice to see a woman who has her life together, at least in one capacity.
For the most part, the writers have no trouble celebrating the sexuality of women over 40. Through Liza’s relationship with Josh, the show clearly enjoys flipping the portrayal of a mid-life crisis, normally associated with older men dating younger women, on its head. So while I initially wanted to give Younger full marks for gender parity, it can’t be ignored how extremely problematic the romantic storyline between Liza and her boss, the owner of the publishing house, is in the #MeToo era. Even though the twist is that Liza and Charles are an age-appropriate match, the fact that he believes she’s nearly half his age but nevertheless acts on the attraction feels icky. While consensual, their unprofessional behavior, such as making out on a work trip, can easily lead to abuses of power given that he possesses the ability to make or break her career. I’m not sure if the writers have written themselves into a corner with what was supposed to be the defining will-they-or-won’t-they pairing of the series, but I hope they find a way to resolve it without romanticizing an employer-employee relationship.
Sex and the City actress and executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker recently owned up to the fact that the late-90s-early-aughts hit series lacked women of color, and that it would probably be “a different show” if it were made today. Unfortunately, Star didn’t get the memo. Younger features zero women of color in its cast, which is pretty appalling considering it’s set in New York City, where just 42.5% of the population was white in 2016. A few men of color make recurring appearances as love interests, including Aasif Mandvi, though his role as the “safe choice” never seemed to be a real contender for Liza. There is some good news: Charles Michael Davis, the actor who plays Zane—also known as Kelsey’s rival editor and sometimes partner in bed—will be returning as a series regular in Season 5.
In the show’s defense, publishing is notoriously white. In a 2015 survey, nearly 80% of the overall industry identified as white. Though, I have a hard time believing that the casting of exclusively white women in Empirical’s editorial and marketing departments—under which Kelsey, Diana, and Liza fall—was meant to be a conscious statement about the lack of diversity. As talented as Foster is, the story could have been much more complex and rich if its protagonist had been a woman of color. She would not only have deal with ageism in the workplace but also the larger problem of structural racism. What’s more, a 40-something woman of color passing for younger would be more believable since there’s an actual scientific explanation for why people with darker skin (that is, skin with more melanin in it) appear to age more slowly.
Queer women, though they’re predominantly cisgender and white, enjoy a significant amount of screentime. There’s an added bonus that Debi Mazar, who’s married to a woman in real life, plays Liza’s lesbian roommate Maggie. Although some fans feel short-changed because she’s never had a serious relationship arc, her character might simply not be the type for intimacy. On the other hand, we do see Kelsey’s sexually fluid friend Lauren (Molly Bernard) go from casual flings with both genders to a monogamous relationship with a man. That two of the supporting characters do not identify as straight at least demonstrates an effort to broaden the otherwise somewhat limited scope of the show.
Mediaversity Grade: B- (3.63/5)
Overall, it’s a little disappointing to see how Younger’s creator changed very little from the white woman fantasy he helped propagate over twenty years ago. New York City is among the most diverse in the world, so there’s really no excuse. Even a show that’s mainly intended to be escapist fun could afford to be more conscious about inclusive representation, especially considering how much of it is set in Williamsburg—a neighborhood synonymous with gentrification and a tenuous relationship with existing communities of color. For a series that’s dedicated to skewering the generational divide between Gen Xers and Millennials, as well as insider publishing jokes, its disinterest in discussions about race seems to be a missed opportunity to capture a large part of the cultural zeitgeist.