Genderlicious: Catharsis for Radical Anti Racist Feminists to "Regular Dudes"—Why do we watch what we watch?

The four bromancers of Hot Tub Time Machine get wet together. 

At my home planet of Racialicious, I recently started up a True Blood roundtable, where five of us weekly go to town on the various racist-sexisms of everyone's favourite vampire show. As the grumpiest of the bunch, my opinions on True Blood are vastly more negative than positive, especially when the episode is heavy on violence against women—which increasingly seems to be the theme for True Blood's newest season. So sometimes we get commenters who ask us, why the heck do y'all watch this show anyways?

When my fellow Racializen Tami asked us all this question during our first roundtable, we didn't come up with any great reasoning. I talked about how in the past, I had quit watching the show over the persistent rape motif, only to be drawn back in. Others blamed the interesting plotlines and comparably good writing for keeping them watching.

It seems like radical, anti-racist feminist pop culture critics are not alone in this phenomenon—that is, the phenomenon of subjecting ourselves to hurtful viewings. Apart from exposing myself to regular doses of vampire sex violence, I also have a soft spot for bromances. And I've noticed a trend in bromances of late (or maybe it was always there): the rape-or-sexualised-humiliation-scene-as-comedy.

This year's Hot Tub Time Machine features a scene where a group of strangers circle two grown men in a bathroom and force one man to give the other a blowjob, while they both sob. Also from this year: in Get Him to the Greek the main character is forced by his friends to go off with a woman who tries to (or maybe does? the camera cuts away) put a dildo up his bum while he cries and begs her not to. And in the mother of all bromances, The 40 Year Old Virgin, a group of friends put a porn movie on surround sound and then lock their sexually shy friend in the room alone and refuse to let him out. Note: all of these scenes are supposed to be funny. Not funny with a bitter edge, just straight up, laugh out loud funny. In other words, the target audiences of these films are asked to identify with a group of characters on a quest, and then guffaw when said characters are sexually humiliated. That's some deep shit. 

Radical anti-racist feminist pop culture critics separate themselves from the target audiences for bromances who laugh raucously at such scenes of sex-torture and post clips of these scenes to their friends' Facebook walls. But while there is an enormous difference between watching pop culture to take it apart and understand how it defines our interactions with each other, and simply consuming it wholesale without pause, is there is something similar in the initial draw that brings any group to a piece of culture that demeans them? 

When I started out thinking about the recurring scenes of sex-torture in recent bromances, I figured that—apart from being reinforcements of homophobic culture on overdrive—they must have some kind of cathartic function for audiences. The entire bromance genre is based on heteronormative adult men's inability to express love and affection for each other. Consciously, writers write sex-torture as comedy because they think sexual violation is funny. Unconsciously, I think we can argue that these scenes exist because our culture of masculinity uses the threat of non-consensual sex to punish men for natural feelings of affection and admiration for their friends.

Sex-torture comedy is cathartic for heteronormative adult men because it provides comfort that other adult men experience the same humiliations or humiliating feelings, all packaged in something that you can laugh at, where laughter is a way to create distance between your sophisticated self and those poor shmoes on screen. 

But to bring it all back to us radical anti racist feminist pop culture critics—the more I do this, the more I wonder if we are really that different from "regular viewers" that we elevate ourselves past.  Sure we write long blog posts about our viewings, we read really thick books about it, we maybe even have academic degrees in it... but what initially draws us to pop culture that is different from what draws everyone else? What is cathartic for us in watching whatever it is that we watch?

Because as much as it may disturb me to ponder it, there's got to be some kind of psychological release that we get from consuming TV, films, and music that hurts us (and is often low quality, everyone who watched the Hills series finale, please raise your hand)—otherwise why would we continue so doggedly to do it? Why do I still watch True Blood, even though every episode disgusts me?  

I figured my first post for Bitch Media, the mecca for all cranky pop culture connoisseurs (and I mean cranky in a loving way), would be a good place to ask this question: Why do we watch what we watch, when what we watch is hateful or hurtful to the communities that we love and belong to? 

 

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Comments

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I try to stay away...and generally succeed.

For me, it's easy to stay away from shows or movies that offend me. I see an ad and it offends me and I don't have a desire to watch. I sometimes have to bend the rule when I'm in a group who wants to do or watch it. And that's where I think it gets complicated. These shows are a generally popular in the mainstream. All my friends, my boyfriend, my sister, etc. all typically want to see and like these shows or movies. That makes it harder to avoid in the sense that I don't want to be a stick in the mud and who wants to be that touchy feminist that is labeled as high on her feminist horse? It's hard to have that role and voice when all my friends change their last names once married or in this less severe case, want to watch a sexist show. In general, my loved ones are very supportive and this helps me avoid the mainstream sexist shows. My boyfriend knows what offends me and he will turn the channel when he comes across that sexist radio station I am boycotting, he understands that I want to keep some form of my last name if we marry and he will listen to my rants about sexism. My friends and family don't know my beliefs as well as him but I normally just tell them I don't have a desire to watch or see this without giving reasons. Or they go along assuming I like it and I don't correct them. The one example I can think of with me liking a show that can be offensive is Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I just don't watch the episodes that are offensive. I understand in True Blood it would be hard to avoid because what is offensive is in every episode. I guess if I were in that position I'd have to decide if I could tolerate the show in spite of its flaws. But the offensive content would probably be enough for me not to even want to watch.

True Blood and other crazy ass tv shows...

I consider myself to be a feminist, yet i do watch True Blood. I believe that the show is so addicting, because it is so sexual, controversial, and down-right nuts. Its no surprise that its offensive, because it's meant to shock the hell out of people. And so, I don't think the scenes of violence, gore and sexuality are as bad because they are meant to shock; they aren't meant to be funny. You are supposed to walk away from it thinking, "Wow, that last scene was really fucked up." However, I do have a major problem with tv shows that portray sexual violence as something that is funny. For example, the show Family Guy has done this a number of times and it makes my skin crawl. In one scene, Peter decides to enter into a bull-riding competition. The bull throws Peter off and rapes him, and then your supposed to laugh at that. The episode keeps the "joke" going by having the bull stalk Peter. Episodes like these don't make me laugh, they make me want to throw up.

These are really interesting

These are really interesting questions. In regard to why we're drawn to popular culture, I'm fond of the theory that we (cultural critics of all stripes, I guess?) aren't drawn for different reasons than the general population. If we were drawn for different reasons, would we actually have anything interesting to say? Maybe to other people who think just like us, but that would get boring. Fast. I think its also fruitful to break down the dichotomy between us (who totally get it and consume pop cultural critically) and them (who consume pop cultural uncritically and don't get it.) I don't think it exists for one, and for two - Why are we doing this breaking down pop culture thing? Do I want a cookie for Best Analysis of Mad Men by a Random Blog Reader? If there were an us and them, our teaching would be didactic and our class would be boring. Nobody would care.

As far as watching being cathartic, that's an interesting way of talking about it. Is there an aspect of confirmation/affirmation in that? As in, we imagine that world to be an unfair racist, sexist place and seeing racist or sexist things in pop culture affirms that belief? And we get a peculiar sense of satisfaction from that confirmation?

...

some Sedgewick anyone?
I think she would argue what you are, that at heart (head?) we are all paranoid viewers. The pleasure in viewing comes because we already know what we are going to see.

The joy of stories

Oh geez. First it was Twilight, now it's True Blood. As an ardent feminist and mother of two girls, I still don't understand this constant moaning when every character and story line isn't powerful and redeeming.

What about just the power of a good story? Shakespeare's tragedies are full of some of the most dysfunctional relationships ever, but we don't say he promoted suicide, murder and co-dependency!

I would be bored to death if every story was full of life-affirming messages. I find True Blood fun to watch because it's clever, it's quirky, it's a complete release from my day to day life, because Bill's passion for Sookie is totally hot. I love that it's fictional, and funky, and fun.

Do we have to analyze everything to death?

I have real friends who are wonderful people who make terrible mistakes sometimes and deal with tragic things. Some of them are terrible role models. But they are real life and real life is full of a huge variety of personalities, and strengths, and weaknesses.

We need a variety of these qualities reflected in our stories too, or we will cease to be a culture and just be a bunch of awful bores.

spectrum of stories

I always find it a bit funny when folks reading blogs like Bitch and Racialicious complain when writers analyze things...after all these are spaces that make no bones about analyzing everything; it's why we exist!

However I do think your point about requiring our stories to reflect our lives is important, and that's something I think about a lot (and honestly struggle with) as a writer. I sometimes go out of my way to avoid stories with a lot of sexual violence in them (True Blood excluded, obviously...). However sexual violence is a huge part of human experience, whether or not I like it, and is it possible to truly be a writer - and engage with the world, since that's what writing is about - if I am so selective about which parts of the world I am willing to deal with?

At the same time it does make sense to me that in their off-time, people like to avoid the more distressing parts of existence.

In any case, the argument about True Blood is not that it is not redeeming - much of it is, I would argue - but that it uses extremely graphic violence against women for the sake of entertainment.

True Blood uses extremely

True Blood uses extremely graphic violence against men for entertainment, too. As do an alarming number of traditional folk tales, cause most people LOVE that shit. They love confronting what they fear most in a safe way.

Too Much Violence and not Enough Sex

Ever since I was a teenager back in 1978 I always thought Europeans were prudish about Violence and Americans about sex.

Some 32 years later not much has really changed just the degree. Europe is a lot more liberal about Sex and America a lot more liberal about violence as a whole.

This is very much reflected in the different type of TV in Europe and the USA

While I do not drink the

While I do not drink the True Blood kool-aid, my guilty pleasure is watching horror films. While some are brilliant, artsy, and fair in portrayals of gender, the majority are T-and-A filled misogynistic slashers and "torture porn."

I personally used to have no problem with these torture porn movies, like Hostel, Saw, etc., until these filmmakers started including rape scenes, as in The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, etc. As a survivor, I cannot watch these scenes, and immediately turn them off, or walk out of the theatre, and forget about ever watching those movies.

My biggest question about those movies is, what is to be gained by filming rape? What is the audience supposed to get from it?

When I watch horror movies, I tend to somewhat self-identify with the women, making my responses to most horror films fear and slight disgust, and my response to movies like Audition and Misery, more like some sort of voyeuristic pleasure. So it makes me wonder if some portion of male viewers is enjoying watching some innocent woman get raped and what the audience's role is in the rape.

I know this is a little off-topic, but I'd like to know what you think...

Not off topic!

Definitely not off topic! This is something I think about a lot because I really cannot handle sexual violence on tape. If I know a movie has a rape scene I will often refuse to watch it...partly that is a political thing, as in wanting to boycott movies/tv that turn rape into entertainment, but partly that is just subjective taste - I just find sexual violence so upsetting that it ruins my viewing experience.

But what I have been thinking about lately is that, as I was saying in the spectrum of stories comment, is that rape is a huge part of human experience. Saying so is not to say that it should be (God forbid) or that it will always be, but simply that, at this point in time, it is. And considering how art in large part exists to help us understand our world, is it possible to make art or simply be a witness to our world without engaging with all the dark and terrible parts of human experience? That's an honest question, not a defense of rape in art.

I think we film rape scenes because rape is a part of our experience that we are trying to understand. I do think that this is true no matter whether it is a rape scene "done right" - if that is even possible - or whether it is a rape scene done in the most grotesque way, perhaps in a way that is titillating. On some level - apart from narrative or political reasons for putting a rape scene on film - we are driven to try and understand something that is both incredibly horrible and horribly common. And I think that filming rape is about trying to understand rape for both someone who has endured rape and someone who has raped another person.

I also think that there are other cultural ways to deal with rape than watching it in movies/tv. But that's my two cents as to why rape scenes exist in such large numbers; it's because rape is a distressingly common experience.

"But that's my two cents as

"But that's my two cents as to why rape scenes exist in such large numbers; it's because rape is a distressingly common experience."

Thea, my concern with the heavy use of rape scenes in film and television is that it makes rape acceptable. Yes, it is a "distressingly common experience" but by showing it extensively in markets aimed towards young men ages 18-34 does not it actually increase the acceptability of rape within the social construct?

Between the surge of video games, film, and television portraying violence towards women in a plethora of ways, should we not be concerned that this primary age bracket of susceptible young men will believe these actions are ok to go out and commit? Too many of these young men perceive their favorite film/television characters as idyllic and these same characters can be seen torturing, assaulting, and mutilating women. Not just in the physical sense but also in the emotional sense.

In this day and age, we should have the opportunity to show female empowerment on television in a way that also appeals to the male viewer. At one point, it was displayed in Joss Whedon's "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer"; however, today, so much of our film/television is anti-women. The shows that try to tout themselves as being pro-women always seem to show quite a bit of hypocrisy.

I think it's because your

I think it's because your feminism is a form or "capitalist feminism", born and bred from Neoliberal institutional(and corporate media) conditioning which ignores the plights of working class/poor women/men of color and endorses the feminization/criminalization of men(especially of color) by the western hegemonic patriarchal social order... Look into it...

In my opinion, all of those shows are trash and dumb many people down especially those susceptible to Neoliberal economic conditions and economic traps from media advertising...