“I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist.” Roxane Gay, 2015.
My entire adolescence is up for questioning thanks to Netflix.
Despite never really leaving the public’s consciousness due to incessant reruns and its pervasive presence in our vernacular, Friends is apparently ‘back.’ The show that dominated every xennial’s Friday night plans. The show that shaped the way we viewed friendship. The show that launched a million haircuts. The show that gave us unrealistic expectations of what it meant to live in a large city in your mid-twenties. But like all good pop culture that was so of its time, watching it through a 2018 lens can make for some uncomfortable moments (Joey’s treatment of women, jokes about Chandler’s ambiguous sexuality, transphobic jokes about his father and fat-shaming jokes at the expense of Monica who married the man that shamed her into slimming. I could go on…)
So what happens when your favourite pop culture is massively problematic? What happens when you realise that a show which was an intrinsic part of your life during your most formative years (11 to 21) was in fact homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic and lacking in any kind of diversity? What happens when you still love it despite all of these issues?
I recently started to take a closer look at some of my favourite pop culture after watching Roxane Gay’s incredible ‘Confessions of a Bad Feminist’ Ted Talk in which she discusses her attempts to reconcile her love of “thuggish rap” and her feminism. I am white so I am not in a position to discuss the nuances of a genre of music and poetry that was created by and for black people. I am, however, in a position to look at my own problematic pop cultural preferences.
I have always been quite particular about the music I listen to. TV and films? Not so much. When I was a teenager, I was mocked mercilessly for my music choices by my more musically discerning friends. Now in my thirties, I am still mocked mercilessly for my taste in music by my partner. I have always prefered my music to be made by women, punk with pop melodies and the lyrics had to tell a story, preferably a political one.
But I also fucking love commercial pop music and the first time I heard Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, I just wanted to dance for hours! Then I listened to the lyrics and I didn’t feel like dancing anymore. That was it. Robin Thicke was cancelled and the song turns my stomach whenever I hear it now. When the children in my class asked me if they could listen to ‘Timber’ by Pitbull during their free time, I told them absolutely not as it was not ‘appropriate’ (teacher code for sweary/sexual language). They argued with me but how do you explain to an 8 year old that the song they want to listen to is essentially about date rape? Pitbull? cancelled. I know that Taylor Swift is being hailed as a feminist icon for the social media generation after her victorious sexual assault court case but her political neutrality to maintain her fanbase and constant score settling with former lovers and friends in her songs just doesn’t sit well with me.
While I developed unrealistic expectations about what my life would be like in my twenties from Friends (great hair, massive apartment and a LOT of free time to drink coffee), the unrealistic expectations I had for my thirties came from a show that first aired when I was 15: Sex and the City (great hair, smaller, cooler apartment and expensive shoes). Being a grown up was going to be amazing! Because of its far more adult themes, Sex and the City comes off even worse than Friends when I look back on the heavy-handed treatment of anyone or anything that was non-white, cisgendered or heteronormative. Throughout the series, we witness the unrelenting slut-shaming of Samantha Jones and we watch as all four white, middle-class women indulge in biphobia, transphobia and islamophobia. We see the fetishisation of the black male body and the tired ‘angry black woman’ trope wheeled out for some ‘diversity’ when Samantha claims she ‘doesn’t see colour.’ Alcoholism and sex work are also up for ridicule in what was supposed to be a progressive and groundbreaking show which celebrated female friendship and women’s sexuality. But only if you’re cishet.
I could have been the third Gilmore Girl. I cannot function without black coffee, I talk a mile a minute and I consume unnatural amounts of junk food. I fell in love with Rory and Lorelai the first time I met them in Stars Hollow in my mid-twenties. I was like a kid counting down the days until Christmas when the new Netflix series was announced so I rewatched all seven series in anticipation for the grand event. And there it was, that nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Upon third viewing, I had finally realised what a spoilt, privileged little brat Rory was and there was nothing funny about Emily’s cyclical disposal of ‘the help’ who were rarely able to speak English. While there are people of colour in prominent roles, they conformed to tired old stereotypes: Michel, the closeted Celine Dion fan who adored cotillions and Mrs Kim the Asian ‘tiger mom.’ We are encouraged to celebrate free-spirit Lorelai’s emancipation from her wealthy, uptight parents and the new life she has independently carved out for herself and Rory but the truth is, nothing that bad was ever going to happen to either of them while Emily and Richard were around to foot the very expensive bill for a private education or a new marital home. It’s essentially a show about two very privileged white women progressing nicely along in their lives, doing the things they always wanted to do with various handsome men throwing themselves at their feet and wealthy benefactors bailing them out when things get a little icky.
Roxane Gay finds it hard to make peace with her feminism while listening to rap music; I find it hard to balance my love of classical era Hollywood films and my feminism. They don’t make ’em like they used to, eh? The casual, or even explicit, racism, the absence of diversity, the normalisation of gender-based violence, the clear objectification of women and the trivialisation of poverty and working class struggle. Doesn’t sound so different to the films that are being made these days, does it? Of course there were films with strong female characters, mostly made in the thirties and forties featuring women like Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunn and Rosalind Russell. But these films are not above reproach and the main goal of our female protagonists was always marriage. Again, it doesn’t sound so different to the films being made these days that continually fail the Bechdel test, does it? I’ve also read enough about the studio system during this time to know what horrific atrocities were afforded to the female stars of the time at the hands of studio heads and directors but this is about problematic art, not problematic artists.
And there is a difference. I can easily make a conscious decision not to watch a Woody Allen or Roman Polanski film. I can easily not listen to Chris Brown or R Kelly. But misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia and islamophobia permeates everything from music, movies, tv, advertising, sports to literature. If I was to turn off or away from everything that was problematic, I would be sitting in a room, well, not doing a whole lot. I can see what was wrong with these TV shows and films and that allows me to enjoy them for what they were; I see their flaws but I also see what was right with them too. I cannot change a TV show that was made twenty years ago and I’m not going to give up the happy memories that it gave me growing up but I can, going forward, make better choices with the pop culture I buy into and support. We can all bring about change with the choices we make with our remote controls, radio dials and box office pounds. Instead of just turning off, turn on. Seek out and champion the musicians, filmmakers and artists that are doing incredible things. The rich, white men in charge will soon get the message.
So, I will continue to watch Gilmore Girl reruns and loathe myself for it and if that makes me a bad feminist, to quote Gay, “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”