It’s Always Satirical in Philadelphia: An Analysis of Gender Portrayals in The FX Hit Series
American television sitcoms often portray their characters in a way that aligns with the gender stereotypes that have always been present within media and everyday life. The modern sitcom, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, approaches gender in a unique way, by relying on satire and dark humor to portray its characters ridiculously with the intention to critique social norms. This show is another friend-group-based sitcom but challenges typical characterizations by using over-the-top offensive humor and a satirical approach to issues such as sexism, racism, and many more. The show follows a group of loud, narcissistic friends that own a bar together in Philadelphia. They refer to themselves as “the gang.” The group includes Charlie, Frank, Mac, Dennis, and Dee. Dennis and Dee are twin siblings, and Dee is also the only main female character in the show. The characters are all seriously problematic and oblivious to their absurd character flaws and bigotry. Gender roles are highlighted in every episode, and this show “does not negate these stereotypes, but overemphasizes them in a satirical light in order to challenge them” (Text Talk: Masculinity in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia displays how satire as a comedic tool in media can explode gender stereotypes, but walks a fine line because the viewer may perceive the humor as unironic reinforcements of oppressive patriarchal norms.
In order to understand that the TV show is indeed satire, it is important to examine the creator of the show and their background. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was created circa 2005 by one of the show’s main actors, Rob McElhenney. The very first pilot episode was filmed with a budget of under $100 and a cheap video camera. Rob McElhenney was a struggling actor in Los Angeles that decided to create a show that is a friend-based sitcom aimed at being the opposite of the famous TV show Friends. In an interview on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, McElhenney explains that instead of a show where all the main characters are always there to support each other, he wanted it to be a show where all of the characters are bad people and are never there for each other. This unique idea helped turn his show into the huge success that it is today. Rob McElhenney is a straight, white, cisgender male, but his show tackles a plethora of issues including but not limited to sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and racism, using satire. McElhenney grew up with his mother and her female partner, as well as two gay brothers, making him a “minority” in his household as a straight person. His character, Mac, is gay in the show and struggles with coming out as gay until several seasons into the show. Mac grew up in the Christian religion and before coming out he repeatedly says he thinks homosexuality is a “sin,” which is part of why he struggles to come to terms with this part of his identity. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia works as a unique and effective show through “disrupting the classic sitcom formula, creating unlikable characters, using low-budget/gonzo-esque cinematography, and mirroring current events with a unique twist” (Kimmel, 2017, p. 2). The show thrives off of shocking the viewers and twisting social issues in each taboo episode released.
Every episode portrays gender in a certain way that is outlandishly problematic by overemphasizing gender stereotypes to the point where the characters engaging in this oppressive behavior are viewed as a big joke. The show’s environment is set up so that the audience can be a third-party viewer to all of the ridiculous sexist behavior in the show and find the characters to be totally non-relatable to themselves. This sets the show up to have the ability to explode gender stereotypes by using over-the-top satirical comedy while viewers watch the degenerate characters continuously fail to be decent people. Analyzing every episode of the show would take a long time, but two of the episodes that particularly address gender-related issues in a way that explodes stereotypes are Charlie Has Cancer (2005), and A Woman’s Right to Chop (2019).
In the season 1 episode 4 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, called Charlie Has Cancer, a transgender woman character is introduced, named Carmen. The episode starts out with Charlie telling the gang that he has cancer (we later find out he actually does not), and so Dennis and Mac look for a girl for Charlie to sleep with to make him feel better. While they are in their bar, Mac spots a woman playing pool and goes over to talk to her. He reports back to Dennis that he’s found a girl for Charlie, and Dennis says “that’s a tranny” and points out the “unmistakable bulge of a large penis” in her jeans. This upsets Mac and he goes back over to Carmen to accuse her of lying to him, but then she compliments Mac’s muscles and he doesn’t seem to care anymore. This scene is emphasizing Dennis and Mac being transphobic and disrespectful but then flips the situation on its head when Mac takes Carmen’s compliments and is obviously extremely attracted to her even after acting upset by the fact that she is transgender and still has male genitalia. The scene points out the irony and contradictory behavior of the character Mac and makes transphobic men look nonsensical and like they don’t even know what they are talking about, which helps explode gender stereotypes regarding trans people by making transphobia seem riddled by nonsense and blind hatred. Later in the episode, Dennis is shocked when he walks into Mac’s apartment and sees him sitting with Carmen. Mac looks ashamed, and explains to Dennis that she is getting her penis removed soon. This scene again emphasizes that Mac acts transphobic but ironically is actually very attracted to and interested in the person he is being oppressive toward, which takes away the credibility of transphobic behavior and gives power back to the transgender character, Carmen. The whole episode works as a critique of transphobia because it makes the transphobic people the joke of the episode by making them look like dumb spewers of nonsense and contradiction. It overemphasizes Mac and Dennis as indecent human beings who blindly insult a trans individual but still think she is attractive. They try to strip away her credibility as a woman but it backfires and more-so strips away their credibility and paints them as uneducated white males with bigoted beliefs.
Another episode that stood out to me, as an overemphasis of sexism in a way that attempts to explode gender stereotypes, is A Woman’s Right to Chop, which is season 14 episode 9 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. This episode explodes gender stereotypes by portraying sexist males in a humorously negative light, while also posing a risk of reinforcing these stereotypes if the audience is unaware that it is satire. The first scene of the episode shows the men of the gang watching two random women in their bar who have really short haircuts. Charlie, Frank, Mac and Dennis proceed to express their disgust at the short haircuts. The scene then goes on to Dee asking them why they even care and then telling them that “traditional roles are ridiculous.” She then says that she can have a baby and abandon it because she has a right to do what she wants. The men then scold her, saying a woman abandoning her child is awful. This scene uses irony to emphasize how warped the men’s view of gender roles is, as they completely contradict their own behavior in past episodes where they immediately abandoned babies that they thought were theirs. As they continue discussing the women’s haircuts, Dennis says “it’s one thing for, like, a 60-year-old art critic to do it, but, I mean, these are young, sexually viable women making themselves no longer sexually attractive to me, and that upsets the natural balance of things.” This statement holds so much sexism to it, that it makes the audience see Dennis as nothing more than the absurdly misogynistic white male that he is, and associate this kind of statement with someone of his nature.
The scene then cuts to Charlie and Mac at the vet because their dog, Poppins, is sick, and they find out it is pregnant even though they thought it was a male dog. They can’t comprehend that the dog is not male, so they say to the veterinarian: “I can’t believe that Poppins is gonna be a father.” She corrects them and says: “A mother.” The two men then start getting upset at the doctor when she asks them if they understand gender. Mac says to her: “We don’t really do gender at our bar anymore. Gender’s so old-school.” This line is deliberately contradicting their behavior in the previous scene, where the men were being extremely gender stereotypical towards the women with short haircuts. This scene contributes to the explosion of sexist behavior by displaying the male characters’ obliviously contradicting behavior and portraying them as “stupid” and “nonsensical” for not grasping that they indeed do conform to gender stereotypical ideas at their bar even though they claim not to. When the doctor tells them that Poppins will die if she gives birth to the puppies, Mac tells her that she has to kill the babies. Charlie calls out Mac, saying, “I thought you were pro-life?” and Mac responds with, “Yeah, but this is different. This affects me.” This is yet another comedic approach to the issue of sexism and women’s rights, portraying Mac as a contradictory nonsensical male who selfishly only approves of abortion if it affects himself.
Dee then takes it upon herself to prove to the men that they cannot control women’s bodies by planning to get a short haircut herself. She announces to the men that she is getting a short haircut too, and they all start protesting in disgust. Ironically, Frank is shouting at Dee about how gross she will be if she gets a short haircut, while he is repeatedly belching and farting and eating cat food. This scene explodes sexism by displaying how men are critical of women while not being critical of their own behavior. Dennis (who is Dee’s twin brother) also contributes his piece, saying, “her hair is just as much mine as it is hers. I have every right to stop her from killing it.” This is another joke poking fun at the ridiculousness of men thinking they have the right to decide whether a woman gets an abortion even though it is her body. At the end of the episode, Dee gets the short haircut and the men come to the realization that they’re “never gonna be able to stop women from changing their bodies.” They even go as far to say that they honestly don’t really care. Mac says they only acted like they cared because its a “guy thing” and they are “used to being in charge.”
Analyzing the show through a critical lens, it is apparent that there are many layers to what the It’s Always Sunny writers are trying to accomplish through their comedy. The question is how effective their use of satire is in exploding gender stereotypes and making meaningful commentary while walking the fine line that satire walks. I read another scholar’s work regarding the topic of satire within It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which was a seventy-page examination of the show written by Katharine Clara Kimmel for her senior thesis at Georgetown University. She analyzes how it is a necessity that the show’s writers keep up-to-date on the most pressing and mainstream issues in America in order to have a steady stream of material for the show. She investigates why It’s Always Sunny is “able to remain successful despite its outlandish take on sensitive themes that would ordinarily scare away an audience” (Kimmel, 2017, p. 8). Kimmel states that one reason the show “might not receive copious amounts of backlash could be due to the fact that the main characters are not relatable to the viewers” (p. 26). This statement is in agreement with what I have gathered from my own analysis, which is that the characters are simply too over-the-top politically incorrect to be relatable to the average viewer, making it more apparent that they are intended to be caricatures.
Kimmel also analyzes the idea of satire “crossing the line” and how to define what that means. She points out that this idea is “interesting because it can carry a different meaning depending on the person you ask. To some, ‘crossing the line’ could mean the use of expletive language, vulgar themes, or racist/sexist/rape humor” (Kimmel, 2017, p. 25). Of course, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia can check off the boxes for all of the above. If they do cross the line, then why are they so successful? Possibly because of the fact, again, that the inappropriate behavior is so overemphasized that the viewers know it is working against the inequalities being portrayed in the show. This brings me to the next important point drawn from Kimmel’s analysis, which is that “with a majority of the episodes referencing cultural and social events, the fan base has to have a certain amount of cultural awareness in order to understand the nuances and why the episodes are satirical and not serious” (Kimmel, 2017, p. 55). I think this is the key to answering whether the show explodes or reinforces gender stereotypes. It can do both, depending on who the audience is.
It can be argued that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia explodes gender stereotypes and sexism with its satirical style of comedy and overemphasis on women’s subordination to men, but this show also risks reinforcing all of the stereotypes it is making fun of if the audience is unaware that what they are watching was intended by the writers to be a critique.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Transcript. (2019, November 21). Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://transcripts.foreverdreaming.org/
Kimmel, K. C. (2017). THE GANG’S IN A THESIS: AN EXAMINATION OF AMERICAN TELEVISION’S DARK HORSE SITCOM “IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA” (Bachelor’s thesis, Georgetown University) (pp. 1–70). Georgetown University.
McElhenney, R. (Writer), & Chatmon, P. (Director). (2019, November 20). A Woman’s Right to Chop [Television series episode]. In McElhenney, Rob. (Creator). It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. FX Productions.
McElhenney, R. (Writer), & McElhenney, R. (Director). (2005, August 23). Charlie Has Cancer [Television series episode]. In McElhenney, Rob. (Creator). It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. FX Productions.
Text Talk: Masculinity. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://alwayssexistinphiladelphia.weebly.com/text-talk-masculinity.html
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (2020). Rob McElhenney: How “Always Sunny” Landed Danny DeVito As Co-Star. Retrieved December 4, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UytuyWBXlwc