I spend my entire life hunched in front of a screen, and that isn’t something I’m ashamed to admit. I work as a freelance writer, and most of my money comes from reviewing TV shows, movies, and various other little offshoots of pop culture. And that was all well and good, until I became a feminist.
Last year, I had my big feminist awakening, which began with a few quiet mumblings about the representation of women on TV and grew into an all-encompassing ideology that permeates every part of my life, and, for the most part, I love that. But it’s made my job- which essentially amounts to pointing and laughing at bad TV, and screaming the praises of Hannibal from the rooftops- that much harder. Because sexism of TV kind of comes with the territory, and it’s impossible to turn off those feminist spidey-senses that start tingling whenever there’s a sexist representation or stupid trope or annoyingly retro stereotype on display onscreen. So, can you enjoy the shows you love and still get your feminist card punched? Well, I certainly think so- in fact, I think that it’s important for feminists to engage with sexist television.
With so much casual sexism at play on TV, it’s basically impossible to find a TV which has spotless feminist credentials (for my money, Sleepy Hollow is one of the few shows that pulls the elusive mix off). But that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to enjoy sexist TV . The issue here is balancing the critical part of your brain with the one that just wants to be entertained, and it doesn’t mean that you have to wave goodbye to America’s Next Top Model, The Big Bang Theory, or The Bachelor in the process.
It can be difficult, in an era where being a feminist has become a loaded weapon of an ideology that spurs vitriol whenever it’s brought up, to accept that we live in a very sexist society. So sexist that most major forms of entertainment are going to be sexist in some way. Is that okay? Of course not, but millions of us all over the world engage with pop culture, and that makes keeping impeccable feminist mindsets almost impossible. And that’s why many of us, rather than speak out about the sexism in the shows we love, choose to shun them into a “guilty pleasure” corner, which gives creators further free rein to produce content that reinforces damaging stereotypes because hey, no-one’s taking this stuff seriously, are they?
So, how do you engage with sexist TV without letting it get the better of you? The balance that I’ve come to terms with in my head is being able to acknowledge sexism, and identify why it’s bad- which is always a useful little defence mechanism when someone demands that you explain why Game of Thrones is sexist (because, well, duh). I’ve honed down the innate ability to separate sexism from what I enjoy within TV shows, and appreciate that the people behind these productions aren’t necessarily raging sexists by proxy, but just misinformed and probably relying of stereotypes because they’re a quick way to get a character across in a limited timeframe. You can get pissed off that Penny in The Big Bang Theory goes to college so she can be smart enough to date her boyfriend, and still find Sheldon utterly hilarious. You don’t have to boycott shows that subscribe to sexist stereotypes, as long as you’re confident in calling out the casual sexism that’s rife on television screens today. It’s important that we take television shows seriously, as they can bring together people from all over the world and stimulate fascinating conversations about the nature of the characters and the way the show is created. And by admitting that hey, I like X crappy sexist TV show too, we can start dialogues with over fans about sexism and feminism on TV. Pop culture is something that almost everyone in the world has access to on some level, and that makes it a perfect place to start conversations about innate sexism in our culture.
For me, it boils down to that irritating chant of “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it” that’s directed at people who point out sexism in popular entertainment. If I decided to boycott every single show that depicted sexism in some way or another, there would be a lot less reason for me to have Netflix. A show can still be really entertaining, or well-made, or interesting, or thought-provoking, while still tapping into stupid sexist stereotypes that would rile up any feminist. Maintaining my job as a critic hasn’t required me to switch off my feminist side when I watch sexist TV, but rather to engage it even more than usual. Because it’s vital that we keep watching, critiquing, and reporting on sexism in pop culture, and the only way we can do that is by understanding the universe the show has created and looking at it from an authentic fan perspective. So, don’t be afraid to stick with your guilty-pleasure sexist TV shows- just be prepared to bring the small screen to account when it needs it.