So I was watching Glee the other night, waiting desperately to see if Brittany and Santana would show some sign that they were still together. As I tried to peer into the minds of Glee’s creators and discover their subversive intent in having the lesbian character Santana dance to a song with romantic lyrics about boy/girl love with the gay-in-real-life Ricky Martin, it hit me: TV is not activism. I mean, critiquing TV can be activism, but TV programming itself exists, by and large, in the service of profit, not activism. In recognition of TV’s persuasive powers over “impressionable youth,” there is a long history of the “after school special” and the “very special episode” of family sitcoms. But the structural inequalities and relations of rule responsible for the most urgent cultural problems of our time run way deeper than the politics of media representation.
I think media criticism is vital and I will continue to expect more from TV writing, but I got to thinking about what it would mean if I turned my frustration with networks’ token “diversity quotas” and such into attention toward political struggles in my local community. Exploring this idea on the website of a media organization dedicated to feminist responses to pop culture may be a little risky, but hear me out: What I want to consider here is what happens when politicized topics represented through TV take up most of our political radar. I think this sometimes happens because of the extraordinary power of TV which, though made from the perspectives of a privileged few, is capable of suggesting the bounds of our social worlds and depicting the content of their landscapes.
Sometimes, the abundance of ideas we receive in the form of TV plot lines occasions a corresponding abundance of critiques from people who aren’t engaged in these issues beyond the way they’re dealt with on TV. I’m not advocating a hierarchy of causes—I’m not saying categorically that criticizing TV is less important than thinking about some other cause, like access to health care for trans youth. I’m saying that since capitalism creates the consumer as the citizen, the fact that TV plays such a powerful role in people’s perception of the world can draw their critical attention in ways and in numbers that other issues (such as grassroots organizing) do not.
Another related issue is that paying attention to the ideas found in entertainment media may incite critical reflection on them in their media context without inviting real-life political connections. I have noticed a pattern in which even people for whom the real-life personal and collective struggles of queer people are utterly foreign and invisible, somehow feel comfortable talking about how sensitive, or realistic, or overattentive certain shows are with their gay characters. In these cases TV, as a substitute for lived experience, leaves some viewers feeling entitled to talk about politicized identities and struggles as though they were their own.
Ultimately, those of us with liberatory, social justice agendas may find ourselves disappointed with the fact that TV doesn’t bear the same responsibility toward us as citizen-consumers that other agencies of public life do. Again, because TV is so omnipresent, we might think it should have to provide us with good role models, that it has a responsibility to tackle relevant social issues, and that it has to respond to our critiques. We might even think that critiquing TV is in itself a sufficient way to address the urgent cultural problems of our time.
Because of its cultural power, social justice-oriented programming can be a great thing. But because it can take up so much of our attention and shape our idea of what is going on in the world, it can distract us from thinking about these issues in a different context and further obfuscate the political activity that is always going on below the radar of mainstream culture. And as long as media entertainment remains profitable, it doesn’t have to respond to our political agitating—it is fundamentally a money-making venture, developed in concert with the advanced capitalist global economy we have today. Though capitalism and democracy are often seen as a natural pair, participation in one doesn’t equal participation in another.
In our media scholarship and our daily viewing practices, it could be useful to hold this thought in mind so that we don’t inadvertently give commercial media even greater power to dictate our interests—political as well as commercial. Moreover, when we expect popular narratives to “deal” with sexuality—or any item in the laundry list of identity politics—our desire, though seemingly progressive, can set these issues apart from the sphere of everyday reality. We may unintentionally perpetuate a discourse of “special interests” that asks for the benevolent attention of those who are unmarked by them. When we stop talking like this, though, it’s obvious that these are not special interests; they are just “the facts of life” and we should expect to see them thoughtfully acknowledged everywhere.