On Media Criticism and Enjoyment

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Over the past month, I went on a binging spree on Netflix, and watched all six seasons of the TV show Supernatural. The show follows two brothers – Sam and Dean Winchester – as they work as demon hunters. They travel around middle America, landing in various towns and saving the earth from the apocalypse right under the noses of an unsuspecting American public. It’s campy, it’s jokey, and dramatic. It has likeable characters and pratfalls and wit – basically, it’s everything I want in a television show. I could quote from that show for ages, and have spent many hours fangirling over the character of Castiel an angel who is beginning to have doubts over his Father’s existence and is slowly adjusting to working within the human world. There’s a lot of theological depth in the show, too, with how they handle the ideas of heaven and hell and God and sovereignty – the idea that God could go “missing” is a large overarching trope in seasons five and six that is well worth exploring.

But the show has a lot of problems, too. Take a look at that picture of the cast posted above. Notice something?

Yeah, they’re all white. And they’re all men.

In fact, the show leans so heavily on white people that viewers just know that when a black person or a woman shows up, at some point, they are either going to die, turn evil and then die, sleep with one of the main characters and then die, or they’re already a demon. It’s highly telling that, in season six, the big bad boss – one of the worst nemeses yet – takes the form of a black woman.

At points in the show, this trope becomes extremely annoying. I long for a female character who wasn’t a cloying stereotype of an idiotic woman, a mother figure, or a skank who was only interested in getting the main characters into bed. Indeed, it’s fairly telling that one of the ways the viewers can tell a girl is demon-possessed is that she becomes overtly sexual. It’s annoying, at times, as a female viewer of the show to see women represented as caricatures and not whole human beings.

But yet, I continue to tune in. And in the eyes of many, that is somehow a betrayal of the cause – I’m throwing my entertainment dollars behind a show that perpetuates negative portrayals of women. Sisterhood and all that!

But here’s the thing: to attempt to only digest media that does not have problematic elements would result in…well, not digesting any media at all.

The practice of media criticism does not necessarily suck the fun out of something. If one goes in to the consumption of media fully aware of where their lines are and what sort of messages the entertainment is propagating, only can safely consume said media. The problem with entertainment is that it is never entertainment for entertainment’s sake – or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Awareness of what the media you are consuming is doing and saying about women, minorities, and society as a whole is important for eventually improving upon those “norms.”

To that end, there are a number of questions I ask myself when I begin a new television show or movie/book series:

  1. Do I find the main characters interesting? This does not necessarily mean that I have to like them – there’s a difference between finding a character intriguing and wanting to sit down for a beer with that character. For example, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes isn’t likeable. He is crass, he is rude, and he is, as he says himself, a high functioning sociopath. But he is interesting and that draws me into the show.
  2. In that vein, are the main characters realistic? This is my objection to Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl. Jess is a collection of character traits, rather than a believable human being. I’m amazed that she is able to write lesson plans, given her seeming inability to even dress herself in the morning. This rule, of course, bends within the world of the show: Castiel isn’t a “real person” by a long shot (I mean, come on, he’s an angel of God inhabiting the body of Jimmy from Indiana), but, by the rules the show has established for its world, Castiel works.
  3. Is the writing/story/idea good? Is it genuinely good writing, or are we just doing a hack job that treads over the same tired old ideas? This is why I like Community instead of Two and a Half Men. This is why I gave up on Up All Night and Suburgatory. This is why, I think, I find myself drawn more to sci-fi type shows because it’s very easy to create a new world than to retread the same old dramas.
  4. Of the social stereotypes and tropes it culls from (because every show has them) is it self-aware enough to know that that is what it is doing? This is the entire reason I watch Community. It is aware of how each of its characters are roles, are stereotypes of people brought into create this perfectly diverse group of people within the study group. But it subverts that, it plays with it - they’re very aware of the stereotypes that turn characters from real people into tired old retreads, and they work within those ideas by subverting them at the same time.
  5. Do I enjoy watching? This is a question that is most important but that does not necessarily trump all the others. It’s tricky. There are shows that, when I realize how incredibly problematic they are, I find myself having to stop watching simply because I’m not okay with the negative messages they choose to portray. The final straw on New Girl, for example, was an incident when CeCe, the “model friend” of Jess, essentially told one of her male roommates that a girl actually means yes when she says no. That’s a problem.

Criticism does not have to mean no fun or even boycotting. It can simply mean that one engages a show on a different level than merely entertainment, and that is a good thing. Rather than sticking our heads in the sand, we need to engage with our media in order to push it toward something better.