MTV's been having a good summer. In part, that's because the second season of its reality series Teen Mom has been generating huge ratings for the network—it is this summer's third-most-watched original cable series in the coveted 12-34 demographic. The show, which documents the lives of four young women after they gave birth to children as teenagers, along with its sister show and predecessor 16 and Pregnant, has already generated a fair amount of cultural chatter on the question of whether the show is a valuable educational tool or just, as most seem to have concluded, regular old exploitation of the young women in question. There's something to this argument, of course. MTV's ratings success makes for a strange contrast with the fact that Teen Mom's stars have been occupying the front pages of celebrity weeklies like US complaining that they are dead broke, doesn't it?
I'm of two minds about the argument. On the one hand I certainly don't have much faith in MTV's dedication to social messaging, at least not enough to believe it extends much further than what advertisers are comfortable with. I'm not the first, for example, to point out that abortion, as an option, is not something that's seriously discussed in the context of the show. You can spin that fact as having something to do with showrunners needing to have a more extended narrative arc than, "Now I'm pregnant, now I'm not." But Teen Mom does follow one young couple, Catelynn and Tyler, after they've given their child up for adoption, so sponsor queasiness seems a more likely explanation.
I'm not one to guilt anyone for caring for lowbrow culture, not least because for so many years my bookish university friends made fun of me for watching television at all. (I've felt no small degree of satisfaction that The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Mad Men have had them eating their words more recently.) But every time I've tuned into any version of Bravo's Real Housewives franchise this year, I've had to fend off a sinking feeling that I've hit the rock bottom of my guilty pleasures.
I spend as much of my time as possible watching television, and as with most of the media I critique and consume, I watch it primarily because I like it. From science fiction to sitcom to soap opera, TV shows are a worthwhile occupation on their own. Television, in its many problematic variations, is awesome.
While I like a broad variety of shows, I dislike just as many. I don't like watching shows I don't like, so I don't watch them. And I don't write about shows I don't watch—with few exceptions (Bones, Police Women of Memphis), I don't formally review media I haven't watched or read at least twice. When I'm interested in watching or writing about a particular series or season, I don't just look for how it's "good" or "not good" in a feminist sense—I have to have some kind of positive emotional, literary, humorous, or aesthetic reaction to it. There are too many socially irresponsible shows in television, so I focus on the ones I like.
A love letter to television and Bitch after the cut.
Image: An illustration of a smiling television against a pink background, with hearts above it. From Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr
I grew up in a limited-television home, and didn't have a television to myself in college until senior year, when I was too busy to watch the free cable. Now that I'm paying my own bills, food and kitty litter have won out over those extra 40 channels, 35 of which I have little interest in. I've managed to acquire three different television sets for free, but for the first year or so they sat unwatched except on Thursday nights, when we would hooks up the antenna for The Office and its attendant Thursday night workplace comedies.
But even though I wasn't making my use of our television - televisions - I still had to watch my programs. But how could I? Where would I go? What method should I use? After ten years online, I knew that the Internet to be a many-splendored resource for media, but my tracking skills had gotten a little rusty.
If you're on a site about feminist response to pop culture (spoiler alert: you are), you have probably heard of the Bechdel Test for movies. Conceived in Alison Bechdel's Dykes To Watch Out For, the test is simple: to pass, the movie in question must feature a conversation between two named female characters that is not about a man. It's a good indication of whether or not a film is at all concerned with women, or if its focus is entirely on men. It's deceptively simple; upon hearing this for the first time, I thought "well, surely almost every film must pass!" But no.
While I am not the movie writer in residence here (check out Snarky's archive for that!) I've found that it's easily applicable to other forms of media, including television! It's not a standard I apply to every single episode of every single television show I watch, but more of something that occurs to me while I'm watching. "Oh," I'll think while watching Tami and Tyra talk about college on Friday Night Lights. "This episode clearly passes the Bechdel test! Awesome!" The Bechdel test is not a way to tell whether or not a show is feminist—that depends on the viewer's interpretation of the show and their definition of feminism—but it's a good way to gauge the development and value of female characters on the show.
Mad Men is back on Sunday for its fourth season! I am a big fan (I've written about the show often at Deeply Problematic) but unfortunately I cannot write critically about a season that has not yet aired. Nonetheless, I do have a few specific subjects I want to see addressed in season four. The first two are issues that the show is already addressing quite well, and which I would like to see explored further. And the second two are matters the show has not yet addressed (to my satisfaction, at least).
There's not a whole lot I have to say about Police Women of Memphis as a show in general. I think that glorifying a very problematic justice system as this show seems to do is probably not fantastic. But, I like that it depicts ladies in positions of authority, being competent. It's also cool that many of these women are of color. And one of the cops on the show is named "Virginia Awkward", which is a pretty kickass name.
PWOM came to my atttention this weekend after I heard of its depiction of an almost radical act. It portrayed women as being worthy of respect, and protection. As not deserving of sexual harassment. This in itself would be worthy of praise. But this depiction is particularly worthy of singling out because the women being protected were trans women. And in a media environment that generally depicts trans women as deceptive, predatory, disgusting, and generally less than human, that's exceptional.
United States of Tara, a show about a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), recently wrapped up its second season. I haven't yet seen it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first season—I love Toni Collette and Diablo Cody, and there are not a ton of shows about women by women. There are even less shows set in my home state of Kansas. It's a funny, well-written, and on some levels well-executed show.
But, after rewatching and researching the show's origins and authorship in a critical context, I was perturbed to realize that the show's portrayal of disability was not only sensationalistic, but inherently based on appropriatiion. In United States of Tara, DID is used as a metaphor, an analogy, a plot point—part of the human experience, yes, but also an opportunity to speculate, crack jokes, and make grand statements about Life (normal life: that is, with able privilege) and Being A Woman (an everyday woman: that is, one who is not crazy).
In an interview with Salon, Munn says "these women [Jezebel bloggers] sit behind this very thin veil that I can see right through, this idea that 'we stand up for women.' If you stand up for women, then don't bash me." This quote reveals a strict adherence to what I'll call the Palin Feminist Fallacy: the idea that if a woman does something, it is automatically a feminist action. Being "okay" with a sexist remark doesn't mean that it's automatically no longer sexist, and being a female who makes misogynistic jokes doesn't somehow cancel out the misogyny.
Weeds in its first three seasons was an excellent show—it was well-written, clever satire with multifaceted and funny characters. Its send-up of the rhetoric and culture of suburbia was funny and pointed and coherent. Celia was a hilarious and capable antagonist, and I loved that the older het white men on the show—Doug, Andy, and Dean—were strongly characterized as inept and lazy. In contrast to the class and race privileged characters in Agrestic, Heylia James and her nephew Conrad Shepherd, the pot dealers who gave Nancy her start in the business, were funny, sympathetic, and competent. They were easy to root for, while Nancy made irresponsible decisions by the dozens. Heylia and Conrad took themselves and their ambitions as individuals seriously, and handled themselves and their business adroitly.
I'm not alone in thinking that Weeds has fallen hard in recent years. The basic thesis of the show in its fourth and fifth season seems to be "everything falls to shit, and Mexico and Mexican folks are every awful stereotype you've ever heard." All but the most clearly and slowly spelled out motivations of the characters are completely unintelligible. It's not very funny, and doesn't put sexism or racism or classism in any kind of critical context. The greatest indicator of this steep drop in quality is the complete and total erasure of Heylia and Conrad. Much to the show's detriment, these two fine characters have been abandoned, literally never mentioned at all after the end of the third season.