Can you have a baby on your own AND explore your sexuality? Annie Fell looks to Showtime’s new show, SMILF, written, directed by and starring Frankie Shaw, for an answer.
No one wants to fuck a single mom — or, at least, that’s the mainstream consensus among terrible men. This notion is also the crux of the first scene of SMILF, the new Showtime series about a 20-something single mom trying to balance exploring her sexuality with raising her toddler son. In one scene, the main character, Bridgette Bird, is shown grinding up against a pack of sweaty dudes in a game of pick-up basketball as the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song)” plays. It’s classically hot, until Bridgette’s son, Larry, starts crying and violently cock-blocks her. Bridgette’s look of resignation makes it clear this isn’t the first time it’s happened.
SMILF is the brainchild of Frankie Shaw, who writes and directs in addition to playing Bridgette. Shaw has had minor roles in various TV shows and films throughout the past decade, but is probably most well-known for co-starring in the bro-comedy Blue Mountain State and being the victim of Total Frat Move interviews. She’s a single mother herself — the semi-autobiographical show draws from her experience of having a kid at 22. In an interview at Sundance, Shaw reveals the impetus behind her decision to get behind the camera: “I knew I wanted to make films, but I didn’t see anyone else doing it so I thought I had to be an actress. So for the past 10 years I’ve been doing that. I think I was so sick of being a broke, single mom, so I started writing.”
At the heart of the first episode, “A Box of Dunkies and Two Squirts of Maple Syrup,” is Bridgette’s fear that her “pussy’s blown out.” Unintentionally celibate since Larry was born, the mystery of how giving birth has affected her vagina’s elasticity seeps into her masturbatory fantasies and, perhaps, her entire worldview. Like any sexually adventurous woman, it becomes her mission to uncover the truth about the status of her pussy — the only problem is that she lives in a studio apartment with her son.
Underlying the show’s plot is Bridgette’s financial instability. Somewhere around 82.5 percent of single parents are mothers, 31.2 percent of whom live below the poverty line, and SMILF illustrates that fact fairly well. Out of near-starvation, Bridgette eats rogue cheetos she finds around her apartment and drinks maple syrup from the bottle. Should she wake her sleeping baby to grab a late-night meal for herself, or continue to pace around the apartment scavenging for calories? Ultimately, she decides to build a wall of pillows around Larry and book it to the deli.
While promoting the series, Showtime committed the cardinal sin of comparing one female-focused show to another based entirely on said femininity:
— SMILF (@SHO_SMILF) September 13, 2017
The only relative similarity between Broad City and SMILF is their shared portrayals of female sexual voracity as something that is complex and multi-layered rather than just traumatic. The realist color palette, dramatic lighting, and graphic sexuality of the show most closely resembles Girls, but any comparison between Hannah Horvath and Bridgette would be wholly inaccurate. Bridgette makes an inordinate amount of mistakes, but her character is defined by her willingness — or, more accurately, desperation — to learn from them.
The women of Broad City and Girls are aggressively sexual and vulgar when discussing their bodies, but, being cisgender middle class white women, their explicitness, though relatable, feels overwhelmingly low-stakes. Bridgette worrying that her vaj is loose is funny, not just because of its vulgarity or vanity, but because she’s worrying about it in the face of her far more pressing concerns. Though Abbi, Ilana, and the Girls quartet are supposedly broke 20-somethings as well, the only evidence of any sense of financial instability in the respective shows are jokes about eating bagels from the trash or working part time in cafes. Things are not exactly dire for these women.
I doubt I need to rehash the criticism of both Broad City and Girls’ handling of race, but I will bring up that, based on the first episode, SMILF doesn’t seem to do a much better job — it does take place in Boston, after all. However, we’ve yet to see the show explicitly discuss race. The topic is inevitable; Bridgette’s ex, Rafi, is played by Colombian-American actor Miguel Gomez and her son is played by a child actor of color. Boston is known for its neighbourhood segregation, so it will be thoroughly disappointing if the show doesn’t touch on the politics of Bridgette’s status as an impoverished white woman in Southie.
She is, however, perhaps the most realistically flawed character currently on television. Bridgette’s character – a young, essentially destitute single mother who is neither demonized nor pitied by the show’s gaze – is not one we’ve seen portrayed on TV (let alone a comedy) before now. She is affable, smart, and has goals she’s actively trying to achieve — namely, becoming an actress — but she’s no martyr. In the pilot episode, Bridgette tries to break her dry spell with an old high school classmate she runs into at the deli. She makes him get naked as soon as he comes over — this is a purely utilitarian act. She asks him to check if her “pussy’s blown out,” but, as soon as he starts, he notices a tiny foot poking out of the blanket next to them: it’s Larry, asleep. He rolls off the bed and stumbles out the door, but not before telling Bridgette that she “feels great.”
Bridgette fucks up badly and often, but we still root for her because she’s genuinely trying her hardest with the hand she was dealt. I am of a generation that sees getting pregnant — let alone actually having a child — as somewhat Kafka-esque (but maybe that’s just me projecting). So it’s almost shocking to see a single mother on television who is so deeply relatable, and it’s absurd that a realistic representation of such a large percentage of the population should feel so revolutionary. True women’s sexual liberation is usually reserved for those who are already free, whether that be from poverty, racism, transphobia, or otherwise. SMILF isn’t carving out a space in the mainstream for every impoverished single mother, but Shaw is making a dent, and that has to count for something.
Annie Fell is a New York City-based bad girl/business bitch. You can follow her on Twitter.