From ‘Game of Thrones’s’ pervasive rape to ‘American Horror Story's’ catfights, TV’s got a women problem. But that doesn’t mean we don’t love watching.
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Whenever the fall TV season starts again, I remember one of my favorite Onion articles: “Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break from Being Feminist to Enjoy TV Show,” about a woman who “reportedly took a 30-minute break from being a feminist last night to kick back and enjoy a television program … and treat herself to a brief half hour in which she could look past all the various and near constant ways popular culture undermines the progress of women.” I think about the conversations I have with close friends, fellow feminists who live-tweet their menstrual symptoms at Republican legislators who fancy themselves OB-GYNs; who write and circulate essays and petitions demanding equal pay; and who confess, after a few drinks, to secretly binge-watching shows like Say Yes to the Dress, Sex and the City, Scandal, and Grey’s Anatomy. They know they’re overdosing on a saccharine fantasy of femininity, but they just enjoy these confections.
My own guilty pleasures—sojourns from the supper table of righteous empowerment—aren’t pastel-frosted, they are salty and smoke-flavored: I have loved The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Game of Thrones, True Detective, and Homeland (Carrie and Brody 4eva). Fare that has been, at its worst, contemptibly regressive: making a narrative gimmick (and cheap titillation) out of rape and sexual assault; showcasing the cattiest, nastiest behavior that lends credence to the “all girls are bitches” trope as campy good fun; turning violence against women—not to mention the zombie apocalypse—into living portraits of epic (White) man pain; and having female leads sacrifice their diamond-bright brilliance for the sake of doomed, obsessive love (Carrie and Brodie 4eva). The Walking Dead, in particular, spends its first two seasons trafficking in antiquated gender roles: We follow Southern sheriff and freshly awoken coma survivor Rick Grimes, who wanders a blighted Hellscape still trying to be A Good Man™. The men in his survivor group go out on runs, while the women cook, wash clothes, and tend to the children (and the lone woman who would rather be a hunter than a gatherer is shown as mouthy and incompetent; she accidentally shoots at one of the group’s strongest members); the lead female character is Rick’s brittle wife, Lori, who has clung to his best friend as a protector for herself and her son until Rick’s return. This ain’t Fury Road’s egalitarian apocalypse, not by a long shot.
Still, the show has made overtures in remedying what think piece after think piece have called its “woman problem”: the introduction of Michonne, a katana-wielding warrior woman who evolves from a wary Ronin to a beloved member and fierce protector of the group; the choice to gender-swap the leader of the latest safe zone from Douglas to Deanna; and the emergence of Carol Peletier, the battered wife whose survival instincts sharpen into a captivating brutality. As a feminist, I should believe that this makes the show better—but as a zombie fan who first loved Night of the Living Dead as a teenage fiend for monster movies, I say that The Walking Dead has diluted its dark potency by expanding its worldview: The first season’s claustrophobic focus on Rick’s adjustment to this new terrain, and the taut shock of discovering its horrors as he does, made it feel fresh and compelling. Later seasons have entered a narrative cycle of lather, rinse, and repeat: The group tries to find a safe haven, the safe haven goes to Hell, and then everyone scatters, only to reunite again. These seasons may feature more active, empowered women trying to build a better world after the end of the world—but I still miss the earlier, more problematic Walking Dead, the one more indebted to the granddaddy of its genre, the Romero film: Truly terrifying zombie stories argue that civilization is not worth saving.
Writing for The AV Club, Caroline Siede explores the possibility that you can be a feminist and still appreciate art that doesn’t always align with your values; she likens this to being a die-hard Star Wars fan who can revile the Ewoks as furry little turds while embracing Return of the Jedi as one of the greatest films in its genre (if not of all time). She is concerned by an “all-or-nothing rut with feminist criticism lately,” a rut that draws “battle lines … between movies that are ‘feminist’ (i.e. ‘good’) and ‘sexist’ (i.e. ‘bad’).” By the kind of all-or-nothing logic that Siede describes, even a masterwork like The Wire, which was not exactly known for the depth and breadth of its roles for women, would be considered an artistic failure, even though it addresses a wide plethora of other social ills. I love The Wire beyond measure: Does that mean that I am more of a Baltimorean than a feminist? Or does it mean that I can value the David Simon’s accomplishment while still wishing he’d given badass detective Kima Greggs a big loan from the girl zone?
This rut has become a canyon, a fathomless divide between idealized notions of what art can and should be, notions that can often strip that art of context—and the lived experiences that can give art its transcendent darkness, or, just as importantly, its capacity to entertain us. Sometimes, all we want is to sit back and savor the combustive chemistry of the genius-but-troubled CIA analyst and the hunky war hero-turned-double-agent; watch Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett sling barbs at each other while looking fabulous on American Horror Story: Coven; go down the rabbit hole of the Yellow King and Carcosa; and have a fuck-yeah moment when the dragons attack the bad guys, or when our hero makes a righteously gross zombie kill. While TV can often reflect the broader fluxes in our politics and culture, it is, at the end of the (long, long work) day, here to enthrall and amuse us; sometimes, it does this by mirroring our lives, and sometimes, it turns the pressure valves of our fantasies.
And fantasy, just like real life, is anything but tidy. I read things like Anita Sarkeesian’s tweets faulting Mad Max: Fury Road for “[interpreting] feminism to mean ‘women can drive fast and stoically kill people too!’” and I worry that we are entering an age of cultural criticism in which the full merit of a work is gauged on how clearly it hews to our pre-defined “isms.” Sorry (not sorry), but I find a cathartic release in a flash of the old ultraviolence. This careful curating of an idealized entertainment doesn’t just decontextualize work to the point of absolute revision (I can see it now, Mad Max: Drum Circle), it also creates a criticism based on knee-jerk assessments—assessments that can be made without understanding or appreciating the history of a particular genre (or, sometimes, without seeing the very work called into question). Thorough, meaningful criticism entails more than just a finger-snap reaction: What if, for instance, Pauline Kael had discounted Last Tango in Paris’s savage poetry of intimacy because of the infamous “butter scene”?
Nobody will ever compare Ryan Murphy to Bernardo Bertolucci: After all, American Horror Story often devolves into icky, unfunny catfights masquerading as high camp, and the finale of its supposed girl-power season (Here’s lookin’ at you, Coven) featured two of the bitchiest witches getting choked out and slapped around by two mere mortal men. But, at its best, American Horror Story attains a kind of pulp pathos in articulating the agonies and desires of the oddball and the Other, the lonely and the queer and the just plain not-meant-for-this-world. The series’ best season, Asylum, was anchored in the story of Lana Winters, a young lesbian reporter incarcerated in the titular hellhole simply because of her sexual orientation (though parts of the story hinge on alien abductions and demonic possession, this part is grounded in fact, and Asylum is set only 50 years ago). The most brutal, heart-razing sequence in American Horror Story’s entire run (which includes, among the four horror stories, a school shooting, a teenage girl being burned at the stake, and Kathy Bates’s attempt at a Bawlmer accent) is when Lana is subjected to conversion therapy: She is tormented with images of her former lover before she’s forced to masturbate to images of men. And yet this kind of medieval agony isn’t just the province of the “bad ol’ days”: It is still legal today—only three states ban the use of conversion therapy on minors.
But Asylum is also surprisingly reflective toward the architect of Lana’s suffering, the nun who locked her up, Sister Jude. Jude, a former lounge singer, struggles between shucking off her past as a broken-down boozer and remaining attached to her more earthly desires. She adores the monsignor, dreams of the day he’s named the first American Pope (since she herself can’t rise toward Rome), but he condescends to her, tells her to blunt her sharp mind on the more appropriate (i.e. “womanly”) task of managing the inmates. That sharp mind turns into a barbed tentacle, whipping out at anyone and everyone she can vent her rage upon. The promise of characters like Lana and Jude—or the witches of Coven, especially Fiona Goode, the Supreme witch, who is charismatic and cruel, smart and tart and utterly heartbroken, often in the same scene—with their diamondlike multiplicity, keep me watching American Horror Story, even when I have hated parts of it beyond measure.
As a fat woman, I teared up in anger at Freak Show’s Ima Wiggles, the fat lady who only exists to be the bottom rung of the Lobster Boy’s descent into alcoholic oblivion. I don’t forgive Murphy and co. for making sexual sport of a fat woman, but I do remember Coven’s Queenie (played by the impeccable Gabourey Sidibe, a woman who has been outspoken about body acceptance). While the other girls are bickering over boys, this witch is getting shit done—she becomes massively powerful, even outwitting a centuries-old voodoo god. I remember conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (played masterfully by Sarah Paulson), not fat, but still forced to fight for every scrap of dignity they have in a culture that seeks to simultaneously demonize and fetishize them. A friend of mine recently asked me what I want out of the show’s latest incarnation, Hotel, and I joked that I just want to see Lady Gaga wear stunning costumes and channel David Bowie in The Hunger. This remains true, but it’s not entirely the truth: Based on some of the trailers and promotional stills, I’m hoping this season has interesting and unsettling things to say about motherhood and addiction (even if, in true Ryan Murphy style, it doesn’t articulate those things entirely successfully).
This is not to suggest, of course, that anyone should have to subject themselves to works that will trigger or unnerve them (unless, of course, they’re into that sort of thing). The “off” button is a powerful tool. Though I have friends who rave about the beautiful grotesqueries of Hannibal and the powerhouse heroine of The Fall, I’ve never been able to stomach the cruelties inherent in stories about serial killers. So I understand why anyone would eschew the pulp machismo of True Detective season one or the medieval horrors of Game of Thrones. And even though I’m a Game of Thrones fan, the showrunners’ penchant for treating rape like an instant “just add plot and/or character development” powder leaves a dry, stale taste in my mouth. I expect better from a show that has given us Brienne of Tarth, the lady Lancelot who walks the blade-thin line between upholding honor and enforcing tyranny; Arya Stark, the tomboy turned assassin; Cersei Lannister, whose entire story arc has been the slow curdling of a bright, ambitious woman into something petty and vicious; and Danerys Targaryen, the child bride who stepped out of the flames and into her power as a warlord and queen. I get why sites like The Mary Sue refuse to cover the show anymore, but I’m not at all ready to give up on it, and I’m grateful for critics like Sonia Saraiya, who writes exhaustively and powerfully about how the sexual assault scenes on Game of Thrones do a disserve to its fans, and to the show itself.
I worry that an online culture of criticism fueled by the hot take is burning away our appreciation for what even “problematic” shows do artfully well. Homeland skewers the jingoistic vision of The War on Terror so dear to the right wing by showing the devastation of drone attacks; True Detective season one may not have a “strong female character” reacting to the violations of other women (that would be the brilliant Sundance series Top of the Lake), but it offers, instead, a painful excavation of the toxic masculinity that allows these violations to happen: though one of the detectives imagines himself an all-American family man, the ways he neglects and abuses his daughters show how even one of “the good guys” can so easily discount and discard women and girls. After all, real life has a woman problem.
Feminists who think and write about pop culture need to be leery of tripping into the rut of good and bad. We need critiques of media that are grounded in context and sharpened by nuance. There is a difference between calling for more women in writers’ rooms or calling out Matt Damon for whitesplaining the purpose of diversity in Hollywood to the lone Black woman producer on Project Greenlight, and, say, savaging the Entourage movie for its lack of well-developed female characters. The energy expended on digging that rut would be better used to agitate for more stories (and more diverse stories) by and about women. But during those lazy Sundays on the sofa, we should find pleasure in what we watch, even if it’s a sugar rush or a potato-chip binge sort of pleasure. Women like me shouldn’t feel guilty, or like “bad feminists,” for wanting to watch brides-to-be go defcon one over beaded bodices or grizzled anti-heroes slam knives into a zombie’s chawing maw.
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