Preceding a first date, heterosexual women are taught to put their best, most “representative self” forward. Be overly friendly. Laugh at his jokes even if they are not funny. Don’t eat enjoyable foods if they create a mess. Censor your humor. Be fake if you have to be. Play nice. These precautions are all implemented with the explicit purpose of subliminally persuading the man to like you — even if you truly do not like him. The purpose? The evasion of a lifetime spent rotting away as an old maid. This rationale is never debated, or even heavily questioned, because like most social constructs, the bulk of its work is done covertly.

Interior designer Debra Newell (Connie Britton, “Nashville”), the woman at the center of Bravo’s newest scripted series “Dirty John,” follows these unwritten rules to a tee on a string of failed first dates with men she has met online. She giggles appropriately, she listens and, by the conclusion of these dates, she has only wasted time and an unsatisfied libido to show for her efforts. This dissatisfaction that Debra feels, and many real women feel, is the direct result of these rules existing to protect male egos rather than protecting women from what danger could be (and is) out there. Danger like John Meehan (Eric Bana, “The Forgiven”).

Socially-constructed rules exist for men, as well, but they are scant in number and taken more as suggestions than law. And while women are immediately written off as (insert derogatory comment) lest they break the facade at any point, men are to be forgiven. It is for this reason that when a man decides to act out of line — like when John “misreads” Debra’s signal on their first date and ends up in her bed — she is expected to forgive him. And so she does.

Despite Debra’s questionable behavior at many points throughout the pilot, “Dirty John” does not feel like a show in which they were blaming the woman for her rash and misguided decisions. Instead, “Dirty John” is a tragedy unfolding. A woman is dealt horrid consequences for merely partaking in what society has told her is her only option — being likeable at any cost, playing nice in order to attain what every woman must want: a man’s desire.

Not only does Debra forgive him after their horrendous first date, but she accepts his offer of a second date. Five weeks later, they have bought a beachfront home together. But John is a Nice Guy™ so there is no need to worry! He goofily wears scrubs to the swanky charity event Debra invites him to. He plays the role of the dope when Debra’s daughters call him on his shit. John is not the villain in a traditional Lifetime fashion — he is not evil and controlling simply to move the plot along. He is the villain because he recognizes the constructs placed upon women and exploits them for his own sexual or monetary gain.

His exploitation of Debra could not have been more transparent than at the charity event. John understands acutely that a “good woman” is not supposed to lash out at her partner, especially in a public setting, so he tests the waters of Debra’s tolerance by not only arriving late, but also grossly underdressed. Eric Bana is so convincing in his faux-Nice Guy routine that it plain to see why someone as traditional as Debra would immediately retreat to her ingenue docility rather than confront his embarrassing behavior.

Despite the catalyst of Debra’s erratic behavior undoubtedly being John, by the end of the episode this fact becomes more and more opaque. Debra Newell has muddled the distinction between autonomous decision-making and willful accommodation. And because Connie Britton so masterfully inhabits the role of Debra, a woman who unknowingly demonstrates a master class in trickle-down manipulation (from John to Debra, from Debra to her children), she becomes an easy target for blame.

This urge to blame isn’t completely unplaced; she does allow John to threaten her younger daughter, Terra (Julia Garner, “Ozark”). However, the great irony of the situation portrayed in “Dirty John,” and in many women’s lives, is that once placed in an abusive situation the expectation is for women to suddenly grow a backbone, when they’ve been persuaded their entire lives to rid themselves of this very trait. Anything to force the blame of any consequences upon women.

“Dirty John” will not be winning Emmys anytime soon, but it would be unfair to claim that the Bravo show lacks any substance. “Dirty John” does exceptional job work in highlighting the social teachings of passivity targeted at women, and further, showing the grave consequences of what can happen before we realize it is too late. 

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