When Two and a Half Men co-creator Lee Aronsohn appeared at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference this week, he probably thought the big story would be whether Ashton Kutcher is up for another season as Charlie Sheen’s replacement. (Aronsohn says he is.) Instead, the sitcom veteran, who created the show with Chuck Lorre, found himself in trouble over his coining of the phrase “peak vagina.” Asked about the recent run of raunchy, female-centric comedies like Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea?, Aronsohn said that TV is approaching “the point of labia saturation” and joked “enough, ladies, I get it. You have periods.” The comments set off the kind of insta-firestorm that only Twitter can create, finally leading a chastened Aronsohn to tweet “it was a stupid joke. I’m sorry.”
Some conference attendees defended Aronsohn, saying his remarks were taken out of context. Kathleen Corrigan, a writer who was at the panel, pointed out that Aronsohn’s joke was aimed at “stereotypical shows about ‘being a woman,’ ” and not good shows like 30 Rock. Corrigan wrote that Aronsohn “worked on Grace Under Fire, Murphy Brown & Cybill—real feminist sitcoms. He’s criticizing anti-feminist trash that’s on TV now.” Aronsohn, however, may not have helped himself when he tried to defend the context of his remark: his first try (since deleted) began “women, please look up ‘irony.’ ”
Aronsohn’s original remarks might also have been especially ill-chosen after a TV season when everyone, outsiders and insiders alike, seemed obsessed with what it’s acceptable for women to talk about on TV. Critics like the New York Times’ Bill Carter breathlessly counted the number of times “vagina” was used in new sitcoms created by women, as if the very act of talking about a female body part—as opposed to the corniness or offensiveness of some of the jokes—was inherently shocking. Aronsohn himself noted the irony in the fact that his own show is non-stop penis jokes, yet people are “complaining about vaginas.”
That might be what this controversy has illuminated, if anything. The very act of talking about men’s body parts or bodily functions is no longer considered shocking, but the same doesn’t seem to apply to women. In 1998, Aronsohn’s former boss Cybill Shepherd (who, according to one of Lorre’s tongue-in-cheek vanity cards, had Aronsohn fired because she considered him “a misogynist”) complained that Cybill was not allowed to deal directly with women’s issues: “the network imposes too many taboos on our language. We can’t say ‘period.’ We’re supposed to say ‘women’s cycles’ instead.” 14 years later, TV language is less censored, but the word “vagina” or “period” is still a something that a lot of people – not just one writer/producer – still seem to get worked up about.