Tube Tied: Criticizing and Feminizing--Last Thoughts on Feminism and Television

Well, my time here has come to an end, just in time for the new season of 30 Rock to premiere and me to consequently be able to get my Tina Fey on without thinking to myself, "Why do they keep implying there's something wrong with Liz!  Liz is awesome!  I call misogyny!  Why does Scott Adsit's wife have a stupid accent and why are they talking about her not having any sex drive as if it was always the woman's fault if the dude has an affair?  That's not subversive funny!!"  Instead I just ate my sad-single-lady dinner pint of Phish Food with my furry feline and laughed to my blackened little heart's content and ignored problematic storylines.

But the curse is still upon me.

Case in point: I have been watching Friday Night Lights this week because a friend turned me on to it.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I am only halfway through the first season.  I watched most of that with said friend after we wore through the soles of our shoes walking the entire perimeter of Vancouver over last weekend.  Friend is (at least) a proto-feminist, but I think I annoyed the hell out of her by consistently pointing out that the entire conceit of the show is drenched in white male privilege.  I mean really, the base assumption of the thing is that all the white kids are good at heart but the real drug abusers and anger therapy-needers are the blacks and the Latinos.  (It came complete with a depiction of a Latino lying about hearing a racial slur to get a white kid in trouble when in fact the racial slur came from a black guy because we know blacks are the real racists, natch.)  The show is not wholly irredeemable - indeed I am continuing to watch and perhaps it will get better.  But between the lack of meaningful screentime given to the female characters and Very Special episodes about racism in which the fundamental theme is that "white people don't mean any harm," it's never going to be the kind of show I can love in an unqualified way.

This Bitch blog has been the first time that I've had the opportunity to annoy more than my friends with my occasionally hypercritical view of the world.  (Er, at least under my real name.)  I've gotten a fair bit of reaction from Bitch readers that has surprised me, mostly of the "Trust in Show!" variety.  (In this category: "[Showrunner] is a big feminist!" "The season just started!")  Maybe I'm being unfair, but I just don't think like that.  When I was a young pre-feminist thing reading Bitch in the nineties, I found all the critique, the eyebrow-raising and the general healthy skepticism of pop culture incredibly liberating.  These days - and maybe it's just because I turned thirty and am turning into a cranky Kids Today type - it seems like people just want to enjoy themselves while watching TV.  They just know that Joss Whedon or Damon Lindelof or Ryan Murphy could not have meant it that way.  And that's understandable, I guess.  When we all get to consume them continuously by aid of DVR, Hulu and iPod, it's easy to get attached to one's particular conception of who and what the makers of the things we love are.  And TV is sort of the comfort food of pop culture entertainment; it's
always on, it's always been there for you when you've gotten home from
a bad day at work or from ill-advised drunken activities at the bar -
and so we all probably feel more affection for it, have lower expectations of it, than we do of other forms.

Television also happens to be a good flashpoint for this kind of pop culture defensiveness because, by its episodic and drawn out nature, it invites fandom.  Most of the really good shows on air in the last ten years have been the kind that required chronological viewing, and an investment of time, in order to be intelligible.  (Much as I love it I can't imagine beginning one's Buffy journey with the musical episode, for example.)  And, strange though it may seem, much as I might rag on shows like Mad Men - and oh, did I rag on Mad Men in this space - I still love them.  I still think they are worth watching when they really tie themselves in knots on the gender politics front.  I too am susceptible to keeping the faith through difficult plot points and ill-advised stuntcasting and riding lawnmower deus ex machinas that fizzle into nowhere and ultimately seem superfluous.  (See what I did there?) 

Here is the thing, though: even these cherished imagined worlds can't be completely untethered from this one.  I have said before that I don't know of anyone who thinks there is a monocausal link between pop culture and personal behavior.  I would agree that not all works of the imagination can, will, or should be didactic in the strictest sense of the term.  But I still think that my favourite television shows are up for analysis because our enjoyment of them is not a politically neutral thing.  These shows invite us to identify with people - the Coach Taylors and Don Drapers, the Serena van der Woodsens and the Claire Fishers, the Ally McBeals and the Murphy Browns - and those invitations involve, whether we like it or not, certain beliefs about what it is to be a person, and consequently ideas about gender too.  I don't know that one has to think of television as proselytizing in order to comment meaningfully, and think hard, about these issues.

And after all that I guess the least I can say is: so long, and thanks for all the Bitch.

by Michelle Dean
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

Thanks, Michelle!

Thanks for writing, Michelle! It has been fun reading you while watching tv, and having to keep up-to-date with television shows that are a season behind in Canada (e.g. Mad Men). I hope you keep writing feminist critiques of television because it makes watching these shows that much more interesting.

Oh, nooooooo! I have really

Oh, nooooooo! I have really loved this blog and will be sorry to see it go. But thanks for all of it!


Thanks for sharing that. I'm constantly struggling with people who fall to the extreme's of watching television whether it's "intellectually turning off and just enjoying it" or not watching it at all. Thanks for articulating the complicated nature of watching television through an anti-oppression lens and how we can enjoy our entertainment and be critical simultaneously.

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