close reads

The Women of Superstore Are Busting Taboos and Breaking Barriers

Photo: Eddy Chen/NBC

One of network television’s most consistently and quietly revolutionary sitcoms, NBC’s Superstore has always foregrounded its politics. But over the last three years, the show has eschewed the popular issue-of-the-episode approach, instead injecting its commentary into character, theme, and story with ever-increasing intelligence and sophistication. Centered on floor workers at a St. Louis big-box store called Cloud 9, Superstore gazes directly at class, privilege, diversity, and discrimination to examine their most palpable and practical impacts, from the challenges of trying to support a family on $9 an hour to the sacrifices and constant fear that come with living as an undocumented immigrant.

In its fourth season, much of Superstore’s political commentary has come through its relentless revision of established female character tropes. Via a series of interconnected story lines revolving around Cloud 9 floor supervisor Amy (America Ferrera) and assistant store manager Dina (Lauren Ash), Superstore has assuredly and deftly used comedy to break taboos and stereotypes about sex and women’s bodies. In doing so, it’s not only managed to underscore the competence and complexity of its female leads, but also showcase the specific and myriad difficulties women face in the workplace.

As the show’s de facto lead, working mom Amy has been the centerpiece of this showcase in season four of Superstore, which airs its mid-season finale tonight. She started the season returning to work after a months-long suspension, the result of an accidental sex tape with floor worker Jonah (Ben Feldman). While he is relentlessly teased and worshipped, the staff keeps quiet around Amy, assuming she’ll be embarrassed. Never one to let sexism lie, Amy challenges her co-workers with an impromptu proclamation that she’s unashamed of her sex life. A 14-year-old new hire, hearing the speech and vastly misreading the situation, immediately propositions her in a back room, prompting a harassment meeting in which the staff attempts to untangle various webs of sexual politics in the #MeToo era.

The inciting encounter alone is a 15-second thesis on male fragility, but the discussion that follows is so much more: a rumination on the interlocking and contradictory nature of privilege and power, slotted neatly into the third act of an episode of network television. While Amy wants to acknowledge that the sex with her co-worker was consensual and move on, she also recognizes that her authority as a supervisor could be used coercively. Dina (her self-proclaimed best friend) agrees and says as much in an outburst that is clearly meant to be supportive. But not everyone sees it that way, and without meaning to, Amy ends up in the uncomfortable position of justifying her own capabilities for abuse: “I mean I didn’t, and I wouldn’t, but I could.”

Consent established, the quality of the sex is next to come under scrutiny. The initial consensus among the staff — who witnessed the whole encounter via a series of sitcom high jinks involving a misplaced livestream camera — appears to be that the sex was bad. Which, of course, prompts the question, What makes sex good or bad? There are a lot of different answers to a question like that, especially along gendered lines, and the way these characters answer seem in line with that disparity. The inequality of their experiences is directly addressed by the crowd, and the lack of surprise on display also seems a telling bit of commentary.

Short of much more space to tread before running into FCC decency standards, the conversation tacks toward more minor quandaries. “Was it weird having two people inside you?” Mateo (Nico Santos) asks because Amy is in her third trimester of her second pregnancy, which she discovered last season shortly before beginning her relationship with Jonah.

Dina also starts the fourth season very pregnant, in the last days of her paid surrogacy for Glenn (Mark McKinney), the Cloud 9 store manager. A naturally combative person, she vacillates quickly between supporting Amy and competing for the better pregnancy without seeing any contradiction between the two. The canonical beauty of the show, Amy looks and feels progressively worse as her due date approaches, while Dina’s radiance only amplifies week to week.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

A stern, aggressive woman whom a lesser show might have turned into a sexless caricature, Dina’s pregnancy makes her hotter than ever, and she is given myriad opportunities to don racy outfits through her ninth month — including one shameless attempt to seduce the hot OB/GYN delivering her baby. Dina has an active and casual sex life (we know because she says so), but besides the hospital lingerie, none of her sartorial choices are rooted in seduction. In “Baby Shower,” she hopes to trounce her sister in an annual Christmas-card battle, posing in a series of photo shoots as everything from sexy Mrs. Claus to sexy Virgin Mary lost in New York. When her ex, Garrett (Colton Dunn), happens upon her inexplicably but effectively reenacting Beyoncé’s half-naked pregnancy photo and is literally stunned into silence, she is transparently oblivious to her effect and bullies him to leave. In “Costume Contest,” she wears her now-traditional sexy cop Halloween costume because she likes authority and her boobs look amazing so, frankly, why not? Dina’s sexuality is ever-present, which doesn’t mean she has some magic power — her brazen flirtations with the delivery doctor are largely rebuffed — just that her sexuality belongs to her, regardless of circumstance, and she decides how and when to employ it.

Amy continues her relationship with Jonah and is sexually active throughout her pregnancy as well, but neither the relationship nor the pregnancy are without impediment. In addition to a few more allusions to a less than perfect sex life, Amy’s time and emotional bandwidth are stretched thin between daughter, fetus, ex-husband, and new boyfriend, and it takes a substantial toll.

More significantly, she experiences a pregnancy that is physically and emotionally taxing while working for an employer that seems to go out of its way to make everything harder for her. Overworked and tired, she tries with increasing urgency and resignation to get some bare semblance of help from the corporation — a little time off, maybe an appointment with the company-approved doctor — but those requests are systematically and cavalierly denied. In the culmination of this saga, after being forced to give birth in a free clinic next to a literal corpse, she finds out corporate has canceled her maternity leave in conjunction with her sex-tape suspension and must drag herself to work hours after returning from the hospital. Looking an almost-accurate amount of disheveled, she zombie-walks through the aisles, cries over a broken chip reader, and finally has a full-on public breakdown, screaming to her boss about hemorrhoids, frozen diapers (her own), and afterbirth.

That kind of physical and emotional weakness is a reality of pregnancy and childbirth rarely seen or allowed on television. The slate of slapstick pregnancy tropes employed by every comedy from Friends to The Office — insane cravings, hilarious emotional outbursts, mad dashes to the hospital — are largely abandoned. Instead, we see Amy endure a series of gross, painful, terrifying, wearisome ordeals and emerge with the tarnished glory of the not-quite-defeated.

Photo: Eddy Chen/NBC

Superstore wouldn’t be what it is without the stark, raw honesty and vulnerability of those moments. But just as refreshing and beautiful is the nearly invulnerable Dina, who (still in the hospital) asks for a moment alone with the baby girl she has carried, but recoils when Glenn’s wife attempts to hand her off, saying “Oh, no thank you. You can put it in its bin.” She gives the baby some concise and practical life advice and promises she will always be available, except on Wednesdays or Fridays, when she has crew practice. And that’s it.

Two days later, while Amy is exhausted and upset to be away from home, Dina is equally frustrated to be away from work on bed rest and spends the day running the store via video chat. These two are given nearly all of the show’s weighty material in season four, and their individuality, consistency, and complexity of character have taken the already great series to the next level.

Superstore smartly buttresses those dual portraits, drawn in loving detail, with quicker studies across the cast of other layered, resilient women. Kelly (Kelly Stables) quickly overcomes her breakup with Jonah and zealously works to move forward and create the life she wants. Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) and Carol (Irene White) continue to pull back and forth on a man who is so much an object that he spent most of last season in an offscreen coma. Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom), a young mother working two jobs, spends one episode wrapped in a futile quagmire of staff carpool logistics and the next sporting a coconut bra to win a day off in the store costume contest.

This fresco of fully inhabited women is rendered even richer with endless illustrations of the fragility, awkwardness, or incompetence of the men who surround them. While Amy stands in front of her peers and unabashedly answers every question they have about the sex tape (“No, technically I did not have an orgasm, but it still felt good”), Jonah slumps in his chair reluctantly, contributing as little as possible. Twice in the span of five episodes, as women dominate substantial A-plots, male characters face trivial challenges and throw childish fits, quickly excused by co-workers who explain paternally, “He’s had a big day.” In a micro-scene in a hospital waiting room, a white man severely open-coughs in front of a hilariously large “Cover Your Cough” sign as a black woman side-eyes him tremendously. The cumulative effect of all these choices is a pretty clear indictment of the toll men’s weakness can have on the women around them.

No one exemplifies that dynamic better than Glenn, the sweet, bumbling, sheltered store manager who prides himself on his kindheartedness. Though Glenn’s intentions are good, his discomfort with and ignorance of contemporary sexual politics consistently make him a dismal advocate for his female employees. When Amy points out the sexist double standard in employee reactions to the sex tape, Glenn nervously announces, “I’m not really caught up on this whole #MeToo thing,” as if this is somehow both acceptable and an adequate excuse for not treating his employees with equality and basic decency. He is unable or unwilling to fight for her after corporate cancels her maternity leave entirely, but he expects increasingly ill-conceived gifts (a bath bomb, then a puppy) to absolve him of that responsibility. In a telling sequence after Amy’s canceled maternity leave, she asks to pump breast milk in Glenn’s office. He initially agrees but is quickly overcome by his discomfort and shuttles her off to a cramped supply closet, ridiculously insisting that this is a far better place for her. Glenn is not malicious or aggressive, but he values his comfort zone more than Amy’s well-being, and she frequently suffers for it.

Oddly enough, Dina, while carrying Glenn’s child, seems immune to many of the same indignities and frustrations. After her implantation last season, Dina spends several days lounging in the garden section, presumably on the clock, while Glenn rubs her feet and brings her dips and crudités. Weeks before her due date, Amy wrestles with corporate on the phone in her boss’s office, trying and failing to reduce her hours based on doctor’s orders. Glenn sits meekly by, contributing nothing helpful and then wilting at the use of the word discharge.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

The effects of this treatment are real and consequential, but neither Glenn nor any other man ranks particularly high on Amy or Dina’s list of priorities. Both have men they care about, but each is more concerned with her own goals, values, dependents (Amy’s children, Dina’s birds), and interests to invest those relationships with all that much importance. And each is even less concerned with what women, either on or offscreen, are allowed to do and be.

Perhaps the most effective and affecting characteristic of Superstore’s paradigmatic overthrows is how little the show acknowledges them. Not a single character seems to find either woman’s choices and behaviors while pregnant to be especially odd or incongruent, despite their objective novelty on network television and, let’s be honest, in mainstream culture. Instead, we entirely skip over litigating the obvious idiocy of sexist taboos and move right into what happens when we break them. Because there’s nothing wrong with making unusual choices, but they do have a tendency to make life a lot more complicated — and nothing enriches a story like complication.

The Women of Superstore: Busting Taboos, Breaking Barriers