Fear of a Feminist LensHow Emily Nussbaum Pioneered TV Criticism

Emily Nussbaum (Photo credit: Getty Images)

As I read through Emily Nussbaum’s new essay collection, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, I realized I could chart my own evolution as a critic by my response to her work. When I began reading, I bucked against what I perceived as her prioritizing of enjoyability over what, to my mind, were more important concerns, such as representation and the question of whether or not a work is feminist. As I got further into the book, I began to appreciate Nussbaum’s intention to approach the work she critiques as what it is, rather than what she wants it to be. Then, just when I was getting comfortable, Nussbaum flipped my perspective by scrutinizing her own critical approach, acknowledging the privilege of her viewpoints and investigating how her fear of being a censor led her to go too easy on the art of awful men like Woody Allen and Louis C.K.

With I Like to Watch, Nussbaum offers a transparent confrontation of her own history and how it crafted her biases, and in doing so, brings to the forefront the concept that feminist writers face undue critique from readers simply by the nature of their feminist lens. Critiquing the work of another critic is a strange cultural exercise. We are all scholars of the arts, so it only makes sense that we should read and respond to each other, yet for me it feels invasive and presumptuous to scrutinize another person’s critical process. It’s for that reason that I approached reading I Like to Watch with a sense of hesitation: Nussbaum, the New Yorker’s television critic since 2011, is a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer whose reputation speaks for itself with booming, self-assured candor.

She has praised and panned everything from premium-cable  breakthroughs like The Sopranos and Sex and the City to recent Amazon darling The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and everything in between. She’s very much a leader in the feminist criticism space, and so I chose to examine her work in a context that recognizes that television hasn’t always been valued as an art, and, as such, feminist television criticism hasn’t always been valued, either. In the book’s first essay “The Big Picture: How Buffy the Vampire Slayer Turned Me Into a TV Critic” Nussbaum gives an overview of television’s history, chronicling its uphill battle from a trashy confection that existed in service to ad revenue—what theater critic John Mason Brown once dismissed as ”chewing gum for the eyes”—to the sprawling, ever-expansive high-art medium celebrated today. 

 

It’s here that Nussbaum vividly describes the exact moment she fell in love with television, bringing readers back to the fateful night in 1997 where she watched Buffy’s explosive Season 1 closer, “The Pack,” and had a reaction so profound that it altered the trajectory of her entire career. “I’d never finish my doctorate,” Nussbaum wrote. “Instead, Buffy spiked my way of thinking entirely, sending me stumbling along a new path.” Nussbaum approaches television criticism as both historian and fan, and while she constantly points out storytelling methods throughout history, her own method of juxtaposing her feelings about certain television programs with cultural context is the book’s strength. 

Unlike Joy Press’s Stealing the Show from 2018, I Like to Watch doesn’t focus solely on television made by women. Instead, it critiques television as a whole from a female perspective, even when her subjects are shows indelibly coded as masculine. The essay “Cool Story, Bro: The Shallow Deep Talk of True Detective,” for instance, doesn’t simply pan the show’s hypermasculine impulses and lurid obsession with naked female bodies; instead, it pulls back the curtain of masculine bravado to reveal the truth of the actual text and hold it up to scrutiny. Nussbaum refers to Matthew McConaughey’s character Rust Cohle as a “fetish object” and the characters around him as “dark-drama cliché, from the coked-up dealers to the sinister preachers to that curvy corpse in the antlers.”

She also adds a service element to her critique, recommending other shows (like The Fall and Top of the Lake) whose narratives of sexual and violent appetites are utilized with more purpose. The question of why—Why is True Detective treated to more serious analysis? Why is the criteria for what makes a television show classic and narratively impressive so narrow?—is what most concerns Nussbaum. I Like to Watch makes an argument for appreciating an array of television offerings, tearing away the limiting parameters of “prestige TV” and widening the scope of analysis beyond masculine and male-gaze aesthetics (troubled middle-aged men, hot young women in trouble, finding poetry in misogyny).

One of Nussbaum’s strengths has always been her willingness to suggest that female-centric shows—Sex and the City, Girls, and Jane the Virgin among them—deserve the same critical gravitas bestowed on the likes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. In her now-classic essay “Difficult Women: How Sex and the City Lost Its Good Name,” Nussbaum notes that the show was “one of the first television comedies to let its characters change in serious ways, several years before other half-hour comedies, like The Office, went and stole all the credit”—and argues that ingrained misogyny within television criticism has glossed over the effects of Sex and the City’s narrative sophistication and its impact on television comedies as a whole.

I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by Emily Nussbaum (Photo Credit: Random House)

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Nearly every essay in I Like to Watch touches on gender in some small way, but none as much as “Confessions of a Human Shield.” In this essay, which acts as the book’s centerpiece as well as an expansive history of feminism’s relationship to media, Nussbaum chronicles her own feminist revolution and how it has influenced the way she evaluates art. “Confessions” dwells in particular on Nussbaum’s struggle with her love for the erotic and her distaste with sex-negative feminism in media. As a feminist who loves eroticism in film and television, I often struggle with guilt over the question of whether the films and television I enjoy are morally sound and worthy of recommending. Feminist critics are often seen as censors before we even open our mouths, and I Like to Watch takes that assumption head on without providing any easy answers.

“Confessions of a Human Shield” also serves as an indictment of abusive men in the art and media world as well as a scathing self-critique of Nussbaum’s own desire to cling to abusive male heroes. The portion of the essay where she discusses Pearl Cleage’s love for Miles Davis and how it soured once it was revealed that Davis beat his ex-wife (actress Cicely Tyson) is especially gutting: Throughout the essay Nussbaum keeps coming back to Cleage, using her relationship with Davis’s work as a mirror for her own complicated feelings about Woody Allen and Louis C.K. Nussbaum is open about her feelings about these men, charting her love for them and how it was bolstered by her devotion to keeping a critical distance. By the end of the essay, Nussbaum is exploring new critical methods to evaluating the art of bad men, acknowledging the way their art has shaped culture without using that impact as a shield for their crimes.

Nussbaum’s analytical approach is to evaluate media as a whole each time—not just the content, but the culture around it and what came before it. I Like to Watch is as much a history of television criticism as it is an analysis of it. With this book, Nussbaum provides a roadmap for how to talk about television with an openness that sheds the hand-wringing that has plagued television criticism since its conception. The narrative is a freeing one for the contemporary female arts critic—one that rejects shame and embraces the contradictions of life and the art that is molded by it.

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by Jourdain Searles
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Jourdain Searles is a writer, podcaster, comedian and cinephile who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She loves tequila, the cinema and drinking tequila at the cinema. You can follow her deranged rantings on Twitter.