How to Watch TV like a Feminist: thoughts on critical consumption of pop culture

Chanel Dubofsky has written for Lillith, Forward, and Tablet. She is the creator of The Marriage Project.

There were three televisions in our house—literally, one per person. For better or worse, I was allowed to watch as much as I wanted. I’m an only child with a whopping imagination and television fed my busy brain and kept me company when I wanted ambient noise or needed to be lulled to sleep. 

My first lessons in media literacy happened via my mother, who would watch TV with me every Saturday night until I was a teenager. This was when I learned to love the Golden Girls, Empty Nest (a spin-off of the Golden Girls involving other mid-life Floridians and also a large dog), and a police procedural drama called Hunter. This was also when I learned which shows I should avoid watching with her (nothing involving sex, too awkward)  and when I should turn the TV off and read a book (usually when she’d point out the signs of drug use in my favorite singers as we watched MTV). Our TV watching time was not so much an opportunity for my mother to translate what was happening on screen, but a chance for me to react, which I didn’t. I pretended to be infinitely more street smart than I was, for the sake of avoiding an uncomfortable conversation. The result, of course, was having to figure things out on my own. I was in college before I understood the mechanics of oral sex. 

After my mother died when I was nineteen, my grandmother covered the television in the kitchen, the only remote gesture towards traditional mourning that anyone in my family ever made, being reticent at best about Jewish ritual. Because the three of us spent so much time together around the table, eating and talking with the television in the background, turning it off made it impossible to pretend that things were normal, like my mother was at work, or out for a walk. I felt desperate. I watched TV in my room with the door closed, drinking in the sounds and pictures of the bright, carefully scripted, safe world like a dehydrated runner. 

I like my television in marathon form—predictable, with plots that aren’t too demanding. I like the familiarity of a schedule. I like really, really awful shows. When I moved out of my old apartment, Jersey Shore (the season when they’re in Italy) got me through the worst of the packing. While job hunting, I managed to watch every single episode of the original Beverly Hills 90210.

Fine. I like bad TV. I’m not the only one. But I’m the only person some of my friends know who espouses radical feminism while flipping back and forth between Teen Mom and Days of Our Lives (I’ve been watching that since I was eleven—it’s still later that same day). It’s contradictory, or at least complicated, but that’s what human beings actually are. We eat Cool Whip from the container and we watch The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Hopefully, we participate in the world as much as we try to change it, and we consider our consumption as much as we consume.  

It’s important to hold television accountable for what happens on it. That doesn’t mean you have to turn it off, which by the way, I’m not a fan of. It’s important for feminists to be engaged and aware of popular culture, it’s where the most insipid and the most blatant demonstrations of sexism and misogyny exist, and being a witness to that helps us to know what we’re dealing with, as well as the most relevant way with which to engage with it. 

Here are some things to consider whilst being a consumer: 

1. Are there women, people of color, queer folks in the movie/show? 

2.  What do they do?  What are they wearing? Do they contribute to/further the plot? Are they active or passive?  Consider using the Bechdel test as a way to analyze women and female relationships. 

3.  Engage critically by asking questions actively and starting conversations. (Remember, feminists have no sense of humor—you can’t even tell a racist/sexist/homophobic joke in front of us. We’re so sensitive, we ruin it for everyone else.) 

4. How does what you see make you feel to start asking questions? If the answer is, “terrible,” you might want to rethink your relationship to the show. You don’t have to talk yourself into liking it, just like you don’t have to like a boy or a girl or anyone just because they like you. You don’t have to pretend. Don’t listen when people tell you to lighten up; confronting things like race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. makes people uncomfortable, but the right response is not for you to shut up. Trust your instincts—it’s one of the most feminist things you will ever do. 

And by the way; there is at least one element of popular culture I can’t bring myself to participate in anymore-those glossy, thick, delicious-smelling magazines directed at women near the check out line at the grocery store. I look at the thin, slick, airbrushed photos on the cover, close to the headline, “10 Surefire Ways to Get Him to Marry You.” That’s too much, even for me. I can turn the TV off, or change the channel, but these magazines  bring out the worst in me. They make me angry in a way that’s unproductive. After years of simply being angry, I can recognize the difference. It’s okay to let things be complicated, and sometimes, if the decision is yours,  it’s okay to just walk away. 

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