I avoided Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 for quite a while; at a cursory Netflix glance it looked like anti-feminist tripe featuring catty women pitted against each other in a false dichotomy of “nice” and “bitch.” Then I watched it.
I could not have been more wrong.
There are two points I want to make in this piece:
- Don’t Trust the B— showcases a twisted yet surprisingly heartwarming female friendship that is fundamentally predicated on respect, and this mutual respect leads to personal growth for both women.
- I endorse the use of the bowdlerized “B—” in the show’s title as well as the word “bitch” in the show, and I even think that the use of the word “bitch” in the context of this show has the potential to have a positive impact on women’s lives.
Viewers are introduced to the series via June, an intelligent and optimistic Midwestern gal who moves to New York for an exciting new position at a big financial firm, only to discover that the firm has imploded and as a result she is left with no job and no apartment. Despite the dire nature of her circumstances, June is determined: she will not give up and go back to Indiana — she will take control of her life and somehow find a way to stick it out in New York. (Tenacious ladies FTW!)
After meeting with a montage of potential (utterly awful) roommates, June meets Chloe, who presents herself as the picture perfect BFF lady roommate. As soon as June signs on and pays first and last months’ rent, Chloe starts walking around naked and barging into the bathroom and being a total asshole all the time.
But June does not capitulate to Chloe’s con artistry, instead she escalates the altercation: she sells all of Chloe’s furniture. When June stands up to Chloe, their friendship begins to take root.
In an interview with Collider, show creator Nahnatchka Khan explains:
If June was weak, Chloe wouldn’t respect her, and for Chloe, respect is everything. If she doesn’t respect you, forget it. June is strong in a different way than Chloe. She’s strong in a more surprising way. Chloe does things that shock people, but then, June also steps up in a way that feels surprising and unexpected.
Because of their fundamental respect for each other, over the course of the show’s two seasons these two very different women are each able to learn from the other. June teaches Chloe that girls can play pranks on each other, and Chloe teaches June that “sexy” shouldn’t be narrowly defined by the people featured on the covers of magazines. Chloe teaches June that she can be a “casual sexer,” and June teaches Chloe that it’s okay for her to care about other people.
Dreama Walker’s June is a joy to watch: her strength and determination in the face of adversity, her glass-half-full approach to life, her verve.
She’s an ambitious woman navigating the boys’ club world of finance, and she’s not afraid to walk away from a tremendous career opportunity when she discovers a gross misogynistic ethos pervades the company that hired her. It should be noted that June is no prude: she clearly has sexual desires, and while she’s sometimes hesitant to act on them, she’s never ashamed of them. Only someone with spectacular strength, spirit and optimism could stand a chance of weathering Hurricane Chloe, and June is ever up for the challenge.
And let’s talk about Krysten Ritter’s Chloe –
I challenge you to name another female character on TV who is such a total sociopathic manipulative narcissistic asshole and yet so incredibly likable. Sure, the anti-hero is all over television, but it’s male characters: Gregory House, Walter White, Don Draper, all the guys in this book so aptly titled: Difficult Men. Chloe is unique, as Buzzfeed points out in the list “9 Reasons to Save Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23”:
2. There’s no other character like Chloe on TV.
She’s a treasure. The joy of Chloe is that there’s always a method to her madness. Even when she’s nasty and vindictive, she has a greater plan. Sometimes the end doesn’t justify the means, but she’s doing her best by being the worst.
Deep, deep, deeeep down, Chloe is extremely loyal to those closest to her. Her approach to everyone and everything is typically maniacal and manipulative, which renders her moments of (albeit often twisted) altruism all the more meaningful.
For example, in the pilot episode, Chloe has sex with June’s cheating scumbag boyfriend on June’s birthday cake for no other reason than to prove to June that she needs to DTMFA. “That is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me,” June says, and she means it.
Khan provides an insight into Chloe’s psyche and why we embrace her often horrific antics:
She does have her own moral code. She’s not just a sociopath. You understand why she does what she does, once she explains it to you. It’s weird, fucked-up logic, obviously, but you’re like, “Oh, okay, all right, I see what she’s going for.”
My favorite example of this occurs in “Sexy People…”, the episode in which Chloe takes over People Magazine to prove a point to June about the mutability and marketability of “sexy” in popular culture:
Chloe: I had them mock this up down at the office. I became the managing editor of People Magazine today.
June: Yeah, right.
Chloe: It’s true. I’ve taken over a bunch of companies before…You just gotta walk in like you own the place, fire the first person to ask you a question, fire the second person to ask you a question, and then gaze out the window and draw a peen on the board. It’s the traditional intimidation-confusion-submission technique.
We root for Chloe in her quest to take over People’s Sexiest Man Alive issue, no matter how atrocious her methods. In fact, even the recipient of Chloe’s worst treatment (Brenda, smackwich) ultimately states that Chloe was the best boss she’s ever had. We, the audience, are asked to love Chloe in all of her bitch glory.
This brings me to my essay’s second subject: the word “bitch.”
Just prior to the launch of the series, articles sprang up questioning and condemning ABC’s use of “Bitch” and “B—”:
Michal Lemberger, in “What ‘B—’ leaves out” (Salon), acknowledges that while “bitch” is often used to denigrate women, it can also be used by women to elevate other women:
Any woman who is labeled a bitch is someone who won’t give what’s asked of her. She has broken the social contract that demands women be pliable and accommodating. Which is precisely the opposite of its meaning when used as a compliment. A woman who admiringly calls another woman a bitch is declaring her admiration for someone who won’t conform to those expectations.
Nevertheless, she takes issue with the use of the “B—” in ABC’s show title:
Despite the gains women have made, gender relations in America remain troubled: Widespread wage gaps still exist, as does a paucity of women at the highest levels of power. We’re still arguing about why women get blamed for their own rapes. The list goes on and on. The words we use to refer to women show us how far that process is from being complete.
Megan Kearns, in “‘Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23’: The Upcoming TV Show and the B Word” (Bitch Flicks), vehemently takes issue with the title’s use of the B—:
It’s not within a cultural vacuum that this show chose its title. The creators and ABC all know it demeans women. But they obviously don’t give a shit. What’s new?
I respect every woman’s right to object to words that have historically been used to subjugate women. But I also endorse every woman’s right to reclaim this oppressive language, to seize control of a hateful, harmful word and reshape it to facilitate empowerment.
I believe that the use of “bitch,” in the context of Don’t Trust the B—, has the power to create a positive impact on women’s lives. This show, created by a woman, paints a bitch as a fearless woman who knows who she is, what she wants, and how to get it. We root for the bitch!
Andi Zeisler, co-founder and creative/editorial director of Bitch Magazine, writes in “The B-Word? You Betcha.” (Washington Post):
My own definition of the term being what it is, I can confidently say that I want my next president to be a bitch, and that goes for men and women. Outspoken? Check. Commanding? Indeed. Unworried about pleasing everybody? Sure. Won’t bow to pressure to be “nice”? You bet.
Outspoken, commanding, unworried about pleasing everybody, won’t bow to pressure to be “nice” – this sounds like Chloe…and it also sounds like June. In fact, sharing these qualities is what allows this unlikely duo to forge their friendship. Sure, Chloe takes “bitch” to the comic extreme, but hey, that’s the genre.
Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 is by no means an absolute paragon of feminist values. There’s lots of problematic sociocultural stuff to unpack here, like impossible standards of beauty and white central characters orbited by peripheral characters of color. What shouldn’t be considered problematic by feminist communities is the show’s use of the word “bitch.”
America can’t yet handle using all five letters of the word “Bitch” in a network show title, but there is no question as to what B— means. The bowdlerized version allows Khan to use the controversial word, and the way she uses it pushes our culture’s conception of “bitch” toward Zeisler’s definition – a good thing for women and a great thing for June and Chloe!