“Life after feminism” is a simultaneously rewarding and challenging life. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always been a feminist to some extent. But it wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I started versing myself in the language of current feminist culture and changing my attitudes toward supporting sex positivity and inclusive ideas of gender identity.
It was then that my life started to change. While feminism has empowered me and changed my life in a million positive ways, there are definite drawbacks that come with looking at everything through a feminist lens, and the basic impossibility of enjoying a night on the couch watching television is definitely one of them.
Because it’s difficult, isn’t it, when a show you’ve always loved cracks a joke or introduces a plot line that makes you cringe? Or when you decide to catch up on a show you’ve lost touch with and suddenly realize that its gender representations are archaic? Or even when your friends keep telling you to watch a show, but something about it makes your stomach uneasy? Here are my attempts to guide you so that you don’t resort to throwing your television out the window or watching 30 Rock reruns from now until the end of time.
- Identify what you find offensive. Was it one joke or one plot line? Is it an ongoing joke? Is it just this one episode or is it a recurring problem? Is it a representation of a particular character, gender, race, sexuality, or religion? Or is the concept of the show itself making you uneasy?
- Now that you know what exactly is offending you, do some research. Chances are if you noticed it, someone else noticed it too. And, since it’s 2013, they’ve probably already published a blog post or written a magazine article, complete with pictures and .GIFs. Do you agree with the reasons these people are offended too? Is anyone defending the show and are you buying it? Did they find even more offensive concepts you hadn’t even thought of yet? Getting other people’s opinions can either confirm or deny your suspicions that the show is doing something wrong. In addition, reading up on the show itself can be helpful in understanding the intentions of the creators and writers of the show – are they trying to create commentary about prejudices and failing? Or is the show completely ignorant of the stereotypes it’s perpetuating?
- Weigh the positives and the negatives, and make your decision. Weigh the merits of the show against the offensive part you’ve encountered. Is it worth continuing to watch? Are you going to continue to be offended by the show every episode, or was this a one-time portrayal? This is a personal decision you have to make for yourself.
I’m going to share some of my own experiences with this process, though some people may disagree with the conclusions.
Parks and Recreation
Don’t freak out. Parks and Rec is basically my favorite show and I think it does an amazing job of mocking race and gender stereotypes. On top of that, Leslie Knope is an incredibly positive feminist figure 99.9% of the time. However, in the Season 2, Episode 11 episode, “Tom’s Divorce,” the whole gang goes to a strip club and much of Leslie’s screen time involves her attempting to change the strippers’ lifestyles, telling them to spend their money on getting an education. This ignores the classist implications of such sex work. It oversimplifies a complex issue, which, while ridden with tons of sexism and objectification, has a lot more to it. It becomes focused on criticizing the strippers themselves rather than the entire society in which they exist.
However, I still consider Parks and Rec to be my favorite show. All of the times I have simultaneously laughed and applauded the show’s ability to comment on the internalized oppression in our culture outweigh this one instance of uncertainty. It is important to point out that not every show that strives to subvert stereotypes and comment on oppression is going to get it right 10 times out of 10. They might miss the mark sometimes. But most of the time, if a show is attempting to combat oppression like Parks and Rec is, it’s still worth your time.
The Big Bang Theory
This show has become a feminist’s worst nightmare. I was a big fan of the show when I was younger but fell out of touch with it over the years. Post-feminism, I tried to get back into the show and realized that it was offending me left and right. The problem with this show is that it shamelessly promotes stereotypes of both “nerd” culture and of the “dumb blonde” archetype. It also slut-shames Penny endlessly.
Sure, give it props for fast, complex dialogue and for its ability to incorporate accurate scientific principles into its plotlines. But when it comes to its characterization, it relies on overused and offensive stereotypes. I did my research and found people pointing out stereotypes I hadn’t even noticed. They pointed out that all of the female characters on the show fall under a stereotype: overprotective mothers, the slutty dumb blonde, the unattractive nerd girl. While the show still made me laugh from time to time, I was uncomfortable with the idea that so much of what was making me laugh was founded on sexist stereotypes. I decided to stop watching.
I am outing myself as one of the few Emersonians who purposefully does not watch HBO’s wildly popular Girls. Both friends from home and from Emerson have urged me to watch it, but after seeing the pilot episode, I decided I didn’t want to spend my limited TV time watching the show. Many people might criticize me for criticizing a show I haven’t watched a significant amount of, and that’s fine. I acknowledge that bias. However, I could not embrace the concept of Girls.
I definitely agree that Lena Dunham’s frequent nude scenes, revealing a body that does not fit within oppressive American beauty standards, are courageous and revolutionary. However, as someone who grew up in an incredibly diverse town, I am constantly frustrated by the lack of diversity on television, and this show is a perfect representation of that. I read racial criticism on both sides of the argument. I understand that Lena Dunham did not feel she could accurately portray the experience of a woman of color. I always wonder why she couldn’t have hired writers who were women of color. Then I remind myself that Lena Dunham just simply did not want to portray that experience. It’s understandable. She wants to create a portrait of her experience: of her quirky, white friends trying to get by in New York City on their parents’ dime. That’s fine. I’m sure she’s doing what she’s doing incredibly well, and I’m glad that her characterizations have empowered so many of the girls on this campus. I just wanted to watch some new people be empowered for once, like the wonderfully diverse group of people I grew up with. So no, I decided not to watch Girls. I decided that for me, the good writing and the subversion of oppressive beauty standards weren’t enough to outweigh my general wariness of the concept.
So, how do you watch TV after feminism? Well, it’s a lot harder than watching TV before feminism. But that’s the point. Ideally, we would all love to turn off anything that offends us. We would all hope to change what’s on the screen altogether, so that we’re never offended.
But last time I checked, we don’t live in a post-racial, post-gendered society. Sexism, racism, homophobia, heterosexism, and ignorance in all the other forms you can think of are still incredibly present in our society. As a result, they’re going to be perpetuated on our screens for years to come.
As feminists, we need to figure out how to navigate that world without shunning everything we see. It’s hard because our opposition loves to seek moments of hypocrisy, to criticize us for enjoying a show that has offended us before. But, in my opinion, as long as we’re talking about what we’re watching, about which stereotypes are being perpetuated and subverted, about what is offending us and why, about which representations we can learn from and which we cannot stand to watch, we’re still doing our jobs as feminists.
Maria DiPasquale is a freshman Writing, Literature, & Publishing major and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Minor at Emerson College. She hails from a lovely, diverse, and liberal little town called Maplewood, New Jersey, a quick 30 minute train ride from New York City. As a result, a dialogue about race was ongoing throughout her childhood, shaping her current interest in equality. She is a feminist who aspires to write stories and novels that draw on equality issues. Her other interests include exploring cities, wandering around museums, buying more used boots than she could ever need, and making long lists of books she wants to read.