Into This Cosmic Mess (The Weaker Sex).
(In which I explain the almost-success of an early Sliders episode)
The Weaker Sex
Written by Dawn Prestwich & Nicole Yorkin
Directed by Vern Gillum
Original Airdate: May 3rd, 1995.
The team slides into a world where Women are the dominant gender. Arturo is so pissed at being “second-class” he runs for Mayor. Wildly sexist hijinks ensue, which is probably the point?
For the most part, Sliders has aged poorly. This is, to a certain extent, inevitable — even something still as beloved as The X-Files is chock full of huge cell-phones, weird lace dresses, giant suits, and bad haircuts. Sliders has aged similarly, and that’s part of the charm. But it has also aged in a different, stranger way — the show is full of references to pop cultural or political (in the broadest uses of the terms) events of the time. These things have much different ways of showing their age. I say this because this episode has some of the most strangely aged bits in the entire series.
In this episode’s teaser, the sliders play the now-classic game of “are we home?” They’re playing this game at a pretzel stand, where the clerk says “could you keep it down? The President is about to speak!” And the sliders are like “you mean President Clinton?” “Who else?” The team celebrates their fortune. And then, on the television, comes President Hillary Clinton. They’re not home!
This joke was cheap in 1995. Today, it’s devastating. Think about it — it’s played for a laugh, as in, “what? Hillary as President? No way in a million years!” The fact that it’s been almost thirty years and we haven’t surpassed Sliders is frankly embarrassing. But hey, here we are! I hate it! And I’d love to say, “okay, let’s put aside talking about that joke,” but I can’t. Because while at first it seems like a classic “teaser gag,” it’s actually the driving point of this episode.
To back up a little, there’s a certain amount of free ideas inherent to Sliders’ concept. We’ve already gone through most of them — that being variations of the “foreign government in power” alternate history (Russia, England, next season it will be France and India, season three England again). This week, it’s probably the most obvious idea in the alternate history playbook: instead of patriarchy, it’s matriarchy. If President Clinton wasn’t obvious enough, we cut to the bonkers sight-gag of Rodin’s Thinker with breasts: in this world, Women are the dominant gender.
This episode is tricky. For starters, it’s one of the episodes that changes the most between watching it in 1995, 2010, and after 2020. In 1995, it has one level — it’s a simple gender swap, a screwball kinda comedy episode where we play with the general stereotypes and change it all up. Rembrandt’s storyline, being the simplest, encapsulates this the most — he’s basically catfished by a rich woman who just wants to bone, and leaves Rembrandt to comfort her spurned former boy toy.
On writing this seems at best dumb, but in fact it’s the best joke in the whole episode– the simple sight gag of a man acting out the over-emotional girl-on-television stereotype does an incredible job of highlighting how stupid that trope is. It’s a deft turn of expectations — we go in, as Remmy does, thinking it’s going to be the age old “cast member gets to bone the guest star.” But it’s the opposite — Rembrandt’s getting used, and his insipid petulance at it is genuinely hilarious. It’s just the rest of the episode that becomes (ho boy) problematic.
To start, there’s the alternate history on this world. The episode posits that women were “sick of men fighting wars” and so they abolished it. Which, albeit a little silly, sounds great. It sounds like the show is actively positing that a world run by women would be a world of peace. However, that peace comes from a farcical notion (Pope Jane Pauley is just… a bad joke), and so it is through the lens of farce that we have to experience this feminine utopia. Which again, shouldn’t be an inherent problem. It’s just through the lens of the current era, the one we’re living in right now, that this stings. Which leaves me with the unpleasant proposition of either judging this episode through the lens of the current era, or trying to take it on its own merits.
There’s really no option there — Sliders as a whole just can’t be judged as if it came out today. Some shows are timeless, and some are not. Sliders is in no way a timeless show. But in a way, that comes out for its benefit — Sliders becomes a strange time capsule of a former era’s zeitgeist. This is a perfect way to view the episode: what was pop culture’s idea of feminism and women’s issues in 1995?
In that sense, it’s eerie to see what little has changed, how some jokes could easily still be made today. The President Clinton joke is an obvious example, as is the second half of the joke, where the pretzel man says “I feel sorry for the prez, being married to that loudmouth.” That’s as great a Bill Clinton joke as it is a shitty Hillary Clinton joke! But there’s another later in the episode that put my jaw on the floor. To briefly recap the main drive of the episode: incensed by suddenly becoming a “second class citizen,” Arturo runs for Mayor of San Francisco — the first man to ever do so. During the mayoral debate, the current mayor defends her equality credentials by declaring “my husband is a man. I have two sons who I love dearly.” That line alone is a perfect skewering of the timeless political classic “as a husband and father” defense. It’s an incredible moment that shows that the satire here is spot on, when it’s set at the right target.
The problem here is that for the majority of the episode, I’m not sure it is on the right target. Most of the action here deals with Arturo’s candidacy. On one hand, this makes sense, since this would be a huge deal on this world, and for the most part the episode treats it as such. But there’s this weird sense of going too far with it that undercuts whatever message is trying to be made. When a group of “equality minded” men wine and dine Arturo to convince him to run, it’s played as farce — they’re whining and stamping their feet about the “glass ceiling.” I’m pretty sure the joke is just at the simple idea of a man having to whine about that. But it goes so far that it winds up making the very idea of fighting inequality seem like a joke — women are right to want to fight the patriarchy; the men who make Arturo here come dangerously close to making fun of that fight. It’s patronizing to the very idea of trying to affect change.
Wade puts it succinctly: “you imposed your value system on people who just aren’t ready for it.” Good on you, girl! It’s an important moment in an episode that for some reason completely shoves her to the sideline. Which is bizarre! This should be her moment, but instead she sticks to the sidelines and nags at Arturo. He yells at her that she’s just angry that “she’s suddenly in a position of power and is afraid to lose it,” and despite the obvious projection there, you can’t shake the feeling that the episode wants you to agree with him.
The problem here is that it’s Arturo who’s running for Mayor, trying to change the fabric of this world. While it’s easy to imagine him wanting to do this, the script goes a considerable length to make him seem absolutely ridiculous. His scenes are split half and half between obvious parody and mockery (his campaign slogans are “a man for a change” and “I favor the good things in life. I oppose the bad things in life”), and trying to build the idea that he believes he’s making a positive influence. Since he’s a main character, the show is inherently built around us wanting to trust him. But it’s impossible when he starts monologues with “I feel like Martin Luther King before the march to Selma.” Yikes! It makes for frustrating viewing, because most of this episode turns out well. As a parody of the soundbite based hypocrisy of political campaigns, it’s spot on. As a parody of “the experience of a woman in the world,” it’s muddy as all hell.
Because this episode isn’t about “what would it be like on a world where women had the power that men do,” it’s just “what would it be like if women were men?” It’s a simple gender swap. So when Wade becomes angry at Arturo for trying to change the status quo and says “the world is nicer here,” we actually don’t have any evidence of that. We just see Quinn being sexually harassed in the workplace, or Rembrandt getting used for sex. We only see the exact things that make this world’s government on par with the British States of America — something in need of being overthrown. The comedy just stops when it goes out of its way to make us wonder if Arturo is right to do this. The problem is that men whine when women have more than them already — that part isn’t parody, it’s just our world. But the episode tries to play it as more gags, which just falls flat.
It’s a disappointment. But it isn’t as infuriating as the teaser makes it out to be. “The Weaker Sex” isn’t a disaster to watch in 2020 or beyond. Its only real sin is being outdated. It’s unfortunate to think that a simple farce, played for jokes alone, would have come off better. But in the end, if this is how we get through another one of those obvious setups for Sliders episodes, then it could have been a whole lot worse.