TV Can’t Stop Thinking About the Female Gaze

On the heels of WandaVision, two new series—Kevin Can F**k Himself and Physical—explore how pop culture can limit the roles that women play in real life.

The protagonists of 'Kevin Can F**k Himself,' 'Physical,' and 'WandaVision'
Apple+; AMC; Disney; The Atlantic

The creators of Kevin Can F**k Himself have yet to go on the record about this, but they’re clearly tired of lopsided sitcom marriages. The series, with its pointed title, seems to be a roast of shows starring the comedian Kevin James over the years, such as The King of Queens; notably, his characters’ spouses didn’t have a life of their own outside of doting on him. (One even got unceremoniously written out off-screen between the first and second seasons.) Kevin’s protagonist, Allison (played by Annie Murphy of Schitt’s Creek), takes after those long-suffering wives: She flits along the edges of the frame, ever dutiful and understanding of her husband, Kevin (Eric Petersen), in spite of his childish antics and myriad jokes at her expense.

Unlike actual sitcoms, however, Kevin explores her inner life—in an inventive way. The show presents any scene involving Kevin as a sitcom, and anything without him as a drama. When Allison’s in the room with him, a laugh track punctuates his every line, and the studio lighting is as blinding as the smile she plasters on her face. When she slips away, the sitcom setup disappears. It’s as if the supposed happiness of her marriage is an illusion.

sitcom still of people in a living room

Kevin, which is airing Sundays on AMC and streaming on AMC+, is the latest in a trio of recent series to center on a character who is aware of their own performance, and whose world toys with familiar pop-culture language as a result. Disney+’s WandaVision, which began airing in January, followed the Marvel superhero Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) as she transformed a small town into an evolving sitcom set. Inspired by her favorite comfort watches from childhood, she plays an unflappable housewife to avoid dealing with her grief. Apple TV+’s Physical, which debuted its first three episodes Friday, follows Sheila (Rose Byrne), a woman whose obsession with aerobics makes her fantasize about becoming an exercise-tape star. In her mind, she leads routines in a satin leotard amid neon lighting. These television shows follow women who are mimicking pop-culture representations of women—and explore how such images can limit their roles in real life.

Of these series, Kevin is the most surreal, and therefore the most intriguing. If WandaVision teased from the start that its protagonist’s powers were somehow creating the sitcom pastiche, Kevin refuses to explain its internal logic. Is the sitcom a scenario Allison is envisioning to help her grin and bear her buffoon of a husband? Is it Kevin’s imagination pouring into hers? Is this a Truman Show–like situation, where she is being filmed and televised? The lack of answers contributes a sinister tone: Kevin isn’t a show about the making of a show, à la 30 Rock or BoJack Horseman, but there is enough of a production at work—the laugh track, the camera movement, the lighting—that the characters’ dismissal of this artificial world feels off. The show suggests that this device, this way of thinking and seeing Kevin and Allison’s marriage, has been ongoing for so long that the charade has become second nature for all involved.

Yet more disturbing is how Allison, despite being able to toggle out of sitcom mode when Kevin isn’t there, includes him when she fantasizes about a better life for herself. In early dream sequences—yes, the show also has dream sequences, on top of the sitcom and the real-world scenarios—she pictures herself dolled up like a ’50s housewife, pouring a drink for Kevin in a pristine kitchen. The image comes straight out of Leave It to Beaver, with Allison as a Technicolor version of June Cleaver. Kevin also hints that Allison has absorbed this image from the world around her; she’s never known a different dynamic for a marriage, for a wife—perhaps because she’s never seen any other kind.

At first glance, Physical is nothing like Kevin or WandaVision. The show doesn’t shift genres, nor does it include a laugh track or homages to other shows. It’s also set in the late ’80s. But as Physical unfolds, the shared DNA becomes apparent; Sheila is also a housewife, adept at playing the dutiful spouse to her Kevin, a philandering husband named Danny (Rory Scovel), who launches a local-election campaign. Her fantasy is informed, too, by what she watches—in this case, aerobics. And though the show doesn’t use sitcoms as a device, it does grant Sheila a stage in her mind: While in class, she imagines a spotlight picking her out from the crowd; at home, she practices routines by watching her reflection on her microwave door; and in bed, she has elaborate dreams of leading her own tapes, one of which includes half a dozen Sheilas dancing in unison.

The show also offers a voice-over as intrusive as a laugh track. Like the offscreen audience’s guffaws that underline Kevin’s jokes about Allison, Sheila is constantly putting herself down in her head. The toll of self-judgment is steep, manifesting as an eating disorder; whenever she’s feeling overwhelmed, she binge-eats burgers at a motel, and purges before showering and heading home. Aerobics, with all its choreographed punches and kicks, becomes a cathartic replacement—another way to quell her judgmental inner voice.

woman in aerobics outfit at gym
Apple +

But as much as Sheila sees aerobics as a solution, it only furthers her downward spiral. She lies to Danny and pilfers from their savings account. She steals a video camera from a wealthy friend’s home. And the pressure to be fit just makes her more self-destructive; indeed, the show can often be a harsh and unpleasant watch when Sheila’s unable to see past her preoccupation with perfection. As with Allison and Wanda, her everyday life is so stifling that Sheila becomes fixated on a different version of herself, on an image she’d been taught conveys control: a skinny, peppy aerobics star who can gyrate to the beat. But she’s still chasing a version of herself that fails to solve her problems. All of them are.

It’s no coincidence that these three shows—shows about performing roles and riffing on well-known visual languages—are about female characters. Watched back-to-back, they work in conversation with one another, showing how narrow, yet all-consuming, onscreen portraits of femininity have been. These women, all hyperaware of how they’re perceived, play with extreme ideas of themselves that they’ve pieced together from pop culture, whether in the shows they watched growing up, a fad they can’t look away from, or societal norms that dictate the behaviors they emulate. And in their push to experiment with the lives they lead, they share similar journeys—running from one version of themselves to the next, only to become caught in an identity just as limiting as the last. Without her partner in superheroics, Wanda leaves world-saving behind for the confines of the sitcom. Sheila ditches her identity as a devoted political wife to be a chirpy exercise-video star.

And Allison, after yet another betrayal on Kevin’s part, stops picturing herself as June Cleaver, but as an antihero, someone darker and more complicated than that of the sitcom wife. As she researches murder mysteries and digs into her suburban town’s seedier side, the world outside the sitcom, once docile, begins to transform, to become more violent, more bleak. The show implies that, simply by shifting how she thinks about her role in Kevin’s life, Allison’s new reality naturally turns into a rendition of another genre: the crime drama. It’s as if no matter what she does, even if she tries to lose the plot she’s been given, she’ll always be playing a part.