Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Toni and Candace return to Portlandia declare war on for-profit feminism

Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen (IFC)
Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen (IFC)

With only three episodes to go this season, it’s surprising that it’s taken as long as it has for Portlandia to return to the well of Toni and Candace. The owners of Women and Women First are the show’s most iconic characters, and clearly the ones who Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have the most fun writing for and performing. In their unique blend of repressed rage, high standards, and often contradictory motivations, they remain characters who are easy to set loose in a random situation and build from there. Last season’s “The Story Of Toni And Candace” was a prime example of that, going back to the past to see how they fared in a past life as high-powered publishing executives.

“First Feminist City,” on the other hand, is an episode that’s firmly centered in the pair’s comfort zone—or at least it seems that way at first glance. Once again, Portland is being nationally recognized, this time for being the most feminist city in America, with such indicators as pink-colored police motorcycles, stores dubbed “FeminInn,” and 80 percent of catcalls followed by a sincere apology. For the first time in Portlandia history people are flooding the store, disproving Candace’s son’s claim that no one needs a vagina pillow, as they’re coming from as far as Asia to spend $500 on one.

Yet despite what could be seen as validation of their message, Toni and Candace couldn’t be more displeased at it. They amusingly find a way to be outraged on every level by the attention, ranging from indignation that their unique take on feminism is being devalued by this surface level popularity to a more practical complaint that they have work until mid-afternoon. The script cleverly keep them as both right and wrong on the topic, raising a legitimate complaint against what’s happening and then undermining it with objections that are selfish or preposterous. (“This big green money is a big green penis! And it’s not going to impregnate me with its ideas!”) We also get some welcome continuity with a reminder of the pyromaniac lurking beneath Candace’s passive-aggressive exterior, as when she promises to pull out a gas can and set the money ablaze a can is within arm’s reach of the cash register.

However, she spends as much time posing with the gas can as she does pouring the gas, adding an amusing twist to the story. Candace’s appearance in “Breaking Up” reminded us that she’s uniquely gifted at letting her high-minded ideals work in concert with her considerable ego, and the attention she’s getting as an “celebrity feminist” is like catnip to her. Her taking on an assistant makes for one of the episode’s best running jokes, only heightening Toni’s frustrations as Candace has someone new to reinforce her ideas and give valid scheduling reasons why she can’t do things she doesn’t really want to do. And when Toni refuses to bask in the newfound glory, she finds a more receptive partner in guest star Kevin Corrigan (who despite his many credits will always be Community’s Professor Professorson to me). A feminist tour guide who’s been bringing his charges to Women & Women First, he takes the suggestion to have his own feminist store and runs with it.

The commercial for Feminart puts Portlandia back in its comfort zone of absurd commercials, one that further heightens the episode’s digs at people who think just saying things are feminist is good enough. “We’ve womanized everything from blenders to blankets to baseball bats!” Kevin excitedly proclaims, throwing around pink paint and the women symbol as if it’s all they need to sell products. (And a year-round Halloween section, just for fun!) Yet in keeping with the general good nature of Portlandia, none of it comes across as malicious. The store isn’t trying to subvert feminist ideals or even exploit them, it just cheerfully believes it’s making a difference despite all evidence to the contrary.

All of that stands in contrast to Toni’s speech when she storms Candace’s “celebrity feminist” interview, screaming at the top of her lungs about how their worldview has been commodified right down to ready-to-wear costumes. It’s an illustration of the “weirdos who care” argument Ben Wyatt made long ago on Parks And Recreation, and why Toni and Candace manage to stand above Armisen and Brownstein’s other creations. The things Toni and Candace believe are extreme, narcissistic, and more than a little crazy, but there’s good intentions buried within all of that craziness and they are completely genuine in their commitment to their beliefs. Even if, in Candace’s case, said good intentions need to be run through their new assistant first.


And that commitment makes their efforts to destroy Feminart all the more enjoyable, now channeling the chaos that they tend to leave in their wake. The staff meeting after they manage to seed Feminart with their feminist sisters is a lively affair that feels like a particularly successful improv session, as if they were given the seed of pitching awful ideas for a feminist store and just followed it to a natural conclusion. It asks the truly important questions (“If she can’t speak, does that make her not a feminist?”), touches on truths (“Sucking some D is pretty much universal”), and forces the logo to stand for so much to the point that it doesn’t really stand for anything—other than maybe pizza. You wind up feeling sorry for poor Kevin and his tampon name tag by the end of it all, the business now run on Toni and Candace logic that takes the superficial into the incomprehensible.

In the end, it’s a return to status quo. The nation’s attention moves onto a new craze, Kevin goes back to the tour bus for a look at Portland strip clubs, and Toni and Candace are back in the customer-free quiet of their shop. While “First Feminist City” doesn’t blaze any new ground to the same extent that “The Story Of Toni And Candace” did last year, it’s a sturdy use of Portlandia’s most reliable pairing that puts them through some tension, makes them work through it, gives them a win, and returns them to their comfort zone of over-steeped tea.


Stray observations:

  • This Week In Portland: A Toni and Candace story is always a good excuse to remind viewers that In Other Words, the actual feminist bookstore and community center that inspired Women And Women First, is a real non-profit that is always looking for support. Real life sadly does not imitate art, and since no one’s giving them three grand for vagina pillows, you can do your part and send them a few dollars.
  • Sam Adams, former mayor of Portland and assistant to Mr. Mayor of Portlandia, makes a cameo appearance as one of the man on the street interviews.
  • More fun business wordplay following last week’s vape shop discussion, as Candace is workshopping names for her line of vests. “Invested” or “Vestibule” are early front-runners.
  • Toni has two—two!—tattoos of Audre Lorde.
  • “Do you even know what a cervix is?” “I just had one tattooed on my backside.”
  • “We’re not selling things at the not-for-profit bookstore!”
  • “Maybe you can pass the gas can just like it was the torch of feminism.”
  • “How does the unborn child get nourished on cashews and soy alone?!”
  • “Are we going to go into any of these clubs?” “It’s strictly an architectural tour.”