Problematic entertainment, part two

Carrying on from the specific-show discussion in part one. In this segment, I’ll explain why I keep watching the problematic stuff I do, while I also ditch stuff that’s theoretically less problematic.

Given how much we’re all, to varying degrees based on our cultures/subcultures, stewing in systematic racism, sexism, classism and other forms of bigotry and injustice, it’s virtually impossible for any of us not to express some of the brainwashing we get from that, and thereby perpetuate the problem. Creators, of course, are no exception to this, and we have the added power of being able to disseminate our reflection of our cultural poisoning to a wide audience. The power of, say, an accountant to be able to perpetuate a belief that women don’t make good executives is pretty small compared to the power of a movie studio head who consistently refuses to greenlight projects featuring women-executive characters. But even storytelling in itself, not just in wide distribution, also acts as a form of teaching and therefore has power. We look up to the things creators tell us about the world much the same as a child looks up to a parent. We can, at least as educated adults, compartmentalize this and understand the differences between fiction and reality, but even so, that fiction takes root in our brains and necessarily affects how we approach day-to-day life. What we are told about what makes a hero and what makes a cause worth fighting for isn’t told to us only by parents, schools, or religion, but by the people who create those heroes and causes with which we are expected to identify.

Those of us with access to 21st-century communication technology and broad information and education have some advantages in that we have access to other points of view, and aren’t limited to just what bedtime stories our parents tell us. Many of us have had some measure of enlightenment via contact with people different from ourselves, and via an education aimed at critical thinking and analysis; at questioning what we were taught as children and using new information to change our existing beliefs. If those beliefs are particularly closely held, cognitive dissonance may get in the way of our enlightenment, but by and large, most open-minded people are capable of questioning constructed paradigms and working to change the ones that cause harm.

With these advantages, we’re fortunate that we can start deconstructing the stories we’re told, and start working on telling better ones. But with decades–centuries, even–of dysfunctional and unjust structures underlying the existing means of telling and distributing stories, it’s not so easy as just marching in, saying, “Hi, this is problematic, knock it off” and expecting people to magically see the light and change how they do things. It’s a process, in other words, and often a very, very slow one, especially as we meet resistance from people who possessively cling to the disproportionate power they’ve been granted by the status quo. Things are changing–it’s only been the last couple of decades that we’ve seen ANY queer representation in mainstream media, after all–but the process still isn’t simple, easy, or fast.

At the same time, we’re all of us, no matter how much we believe in our cause, just trying to get through the day, and because we are still products of a poisonous culture, even if we’re trying to introduce the antidotes, that means we sometimes need to regress. It means we need to step back, to enjoy the things we enjoyed as children, to let our Ids, as flawed as they may be, take over for a while so our higher brains can rest and gather our strength for another fight.

What this means for me, personally (and many others, I’m sure), is that a lot of the things I enjoy are really pretty damn problematic. I explained in the previous post about my love for Game of Thrones and Vikings, but there are also plenty of other things, too, that feed my lizard brain when my social-justice conscience is just so tired that it’s fallen asleep.

Even so, there are still things that I just can’t stomach, and over the years I’ve found they tend to fall into the two categories I mentioned in the previous post: Stuff that touts itself as being progressive and different from the Id-tickling stuff while having massive problems of its own, and stuff that just isn’t good enough, or doesn’t serve my own entertainment needs enough, to override the bad.

Higher standards

I’ve been asked sometimes by Whedonites why I would watch and enjoy something like Game of Thrones, yet not Buffy or Firefly, considering GoT’s fails on women are so much more serious than Whedon’s. I’ve been challenged by some of his fans as to why I dislike the man when he’s supposedly done so much for the cause of women characters. For me, the answer is simple: Whedon purports to be a feminist–he wears that label like armor–so he should damn well know better than to fail in the many ways he has.

He should know better than to populate his female casts near-exclusively with conventionally attractive women, 99% of whom are younger than 30. He should’ve known better than to create a universe in which people swear in Chinese without a single Asian main character. He should’ve known better than to use the tired hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold trope. He should’ve known better than to pretend he’s oh, so queer-friendly and such a pioneer in that area when his only same-sex love scenes are between pretty, young femmes (girl-on-girl is SO HOT but forget those icky queer men, amirite?) He should’ve known better than having naked and barely-dressed scenes with a young woman who looked underage (even if she technically wasn’t.) He should’ve known better than to somehow avoid having his only two female Avengers characters not have a single conversation. He should know that feminism isn’t just giving a pretty girl a weapon while filming her in ways that make her look like the barely clad superheroines that have populated comic books for generations (and he definitely shouldn’t be calling himself a pioneer for essentially making Batgirl clones.) And more than all that: He should know better than to avoid, deflect, or handwave criticism on this stuff.

This is likewise the same reason I have problems with other things that tout how progressive they are but still have key fails. It’s why I absolutely detest Girls and Lena Dunham. They don’t get a pass on racism and classism just for having a not-conventionally-attractive female lead or a female showrunner (of which there are many more–Dunham was NOT a pioneer.) I stopped watching Lost Girl because of its nasty trans- and butchphobia, and its lack of m/m sexuality anywhere near on par with the f/f stuff. It’s why I’m borderline on Teen Wolf and wondering if I’ll keep watching next season despite its having gay characters who actually have love lives, because it keeps killing off women and people of color, and had some pretty darn cringeworthy treatment of Japanese and Japanese-American culture.

I have some guilty-pleasure stuff I watch even though it’s terribly sexist or has many other fails simply because I know its creators aren’t trying to pretend their stuff is something it’s not. The people making Strike Back, with its wall-to-wall fest of tits and TNT, aren’t telling me how awesome they are for daring to have female soldiers; they’re actually doing far more for that genre in simply having those soldiers (and having some gay characters, including a gay sex scene!) and in building an intense emotional relationship between their male leads. They’re slipping in world-changing stuff under the radar, to the people who actually need to have their worlds changed, and doing so by throwing in plenty of bait for the lizard-brain set. If they made a point of saying how feminist they are for having two female COs, they’d lose the audience they’re getting–and whose minds are getting changed. (See also: The recent Bond oeuvre.)

On the other hand, you have stuff like Whedon’s that shouts its progressive cred from the rooftops, leading viewers into a false sense that they’re consuming something pure and better than the Id-tickling stuff, while serving up a shitload of the same fail. Of course, as mentioned above, it’s inevitable that there will be fail in anything, especially anything that makes it through the bigoted gauntlets of mainstream distribution channels, but people who are deliberately making something with an eye to being progressive have a responsibility not to act like their shit doesn’t stink when they’re challenged on the stuff they do fail on.

Not long ago, I had a falling out with a friend (and someone for whom I have a lot of professional respect) over Girls and Lena Dunham. I was told that the critics of the show’s and showrunner’s racism and classism should really just shut up and support the “pioneering” female showrunner despite her faults. Many pixels have been spilled on the issues of intersectionality in feminism to explain why this is so awful, but the overall issue keeps happening: people believing that because they’re great in one area, that absolves them of responsibility in any other.

It’s easy to throw criticism at Strike Back or Hawaii 5-0 because they really are low-brow machofests, despite the few subversive things they throw in anyway. Yet somehow the fails of the self-labeled progressives are supposed to be handwaved because they’re openly trying to do something better. Nope. Sorry. I’d rather watch something that’s honest about its aims than something that tries to sell me injustice as progress.

Quality fails

Of course, there are also things I won’t watch, despite relatively mild fails, simply because they just aren’t good enough or interesting enough for me to want to invest my very limited time. I stopped watching Supernatural, for instance, because it couldn’t keep a female character alive for more than half a season and does deliberate gaybaiting with no payoff, and also just isn’t all that good, when it comes down to it. Twisted, something I enjoyed to a degree in its first season, has a nicely multiethnic cast, but somehow their ethnicity is never mentioned, as if it’s magically not a factor. It turned unbearably dull in season 2, so I stopped watching. Had it stayed compelling, I might still be with it, but nah.

Meanwhile, Stephen Moffat is wildly misogynistic, and both Cumberbatch and Martin are kind of douchey, and yet I keep watching Sherlock, simply because the overall quality is just that damn good.

There are also things that are kind of in between these areas for me: Da Vinci’s Demons, for instance, has been somewhat icky in its treatment of women and people of color, not to mention its unfortunate straightwashing of the title character, but it hasn’t been quite bad enough on those counts to drown out its cleverness and entertainment value. It’s not trying to be something it’s not, in other words, plus what it is trying to be is pretty good for its category, so I keep watching. It wouldn’t take much to push it into the “not watching” category, however. A little too much fail or a little lower on the quality bar and I’d probably stop.

It’s a rare show that fires on all cylinders for me. One of my favorites is Arrow, which has managed to 1. be good 2. have great women and PoC characters, a canon queer one, and an awful lot of catering to a straight/bi female- and queer-male gaze and 3. not try to tell me how awesome it is for item #2. I wouldn’t say its overall quality approaches Game of Thrones or Vikings, but the sheer balance of good for the Id/good for the brain/good for the soul is pretty rare, so I love it. Same goes for Warehouse 13 (and its cancellation breaks my heart.)

I’m sure there are other things that have a pretty good balance–and literally dozens that I watch–these are just the ones that stand out for me. I don’t claim to have perfect taste nor a perfect social-justice conscience, but I do try to make choices that satisfy both my needs for entertainment and a future world in which people suffering injustice are at least suffering a little bit less than before.

Failure is, actually, an option

On a personal note: As a creator myself, I do make a point of trying to be progressive and inclusive with what I write, and I do actually use that as a selling point. My goal as a writer is to tell familiar stories with unfamiliar heroes, and I hope that makes my work more appealing to people who similarly believe in broadening diversity in these genres.

However, I also know that I’ve failed at times, and that I will continue to do so. I try my best to do as much research as possible and to be respectful, especially when I’m treading into territory that isn’t part of my own lived or directly observed experience. But I’m still human, still someone like everyone else who marinated in cultural ick, I still have a lot of very limited experiences with some things, and I’m therefore still going to fuck up. I know I already have, actually: I’ve used a couple of tired, bordering-on-stereotype phrases in describing physical features for a couple of PoC characters, for instance. I’ve since had it pointed out that I screwed up, and instead of getting defensive about it, I took in the new information, and will know better next time. I don’t expect a cookie for any of this; I simply think this is the bare minimum of how a decent human being should behave, and I’d expect it from someone else whom I’d criticize for screwing up something important to me. If my goal is to serve underserved people, if I do something that derails that, then I’ve failed as a creator, so I WANT to know when I’ve messed up. I also understand if those failures make people not want to consume my work or even dislike me personally. I can’t very well be upset with Whedon and avoid most of his work if I’m not willing to take the same from others.

I get that this high standard probably does make it seem daunting to people who want to do the right thing but who are afraid of being torn down if they fail. And to that, I’d just say this: Yes, you will get criticism, but do it anyway. Because trying and failing is better than not trying at all and therefore reinforcing the status quo with your silence. Just be open to learning and always trying to do better. That alone helps quite a lot.

Bottom line: It’s hard to find stuff that’s free of fail, but people also need to just plain be entertained. Sometimes the fail outweighs the entertainment, and exactly where that fulcrum is will vary for each individual. It’s perfectly OK not to like something that everyone else likes just because it makes you die a little inside every time they screw something up. But it’s also perfectly OK to like something that feeds a deep need of yours even if it also has some things that cause some ouch for others. Just try to be aware of the fails, and call them out when possible, especially publicly, even if you really do want to keep loving what you love.

I completely understand if that Jaime/Cersei scene–or any number of the show’s other fails–turns some people completely off Game of Thrones. I understand if the overall level of violence–in general or against women specifically–in the source material makes people want to avoid it. I can understand if the story’s relative lack of people of color is a deal-breaker. Likewise for the fails of Vikings and many of the other things I enjoy. I can tell people I think it’s unfortunate that they’d be missing out on something that has some really wonderful aspects, and I can tout those aspects in the hope of convincing them to give it a second chance, but I can’t expect someone to adjust their own comfort level just to enjoy something I enjoy. I can’t expect everyone to put on the blinders and get into something that fulfills me if it doesn’t do the same for them. I can only expect people to recognize fails when they do happen, and not to pretend that they’re not fails just to justify liking what they like.

About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Ethics, Feminism, Geekery, LGBTQ, Movies, Politics, TV and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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