Creating More Accurate Media Representations of Stigmatized Identities

Greta recently wrote about Yes, We’re Open, a new indie film about a couple in an open relationship. She wrote:

A lot of why it was frustrating can be summed up in the question I asked the filmmakers in their post-film Q&A: “Given that the template of San Francisco poly culture is that it’s hyper-ethical, hyper-processing, talking everything to death… why did you choose to make the poly couple in this movie so skanky, and not particularly ethical?”

They clearly understood the question, and the context for it. They agreed about poly people, if anything, tending to be hyper-ethical to the point of relentlessly over-processing everything, and hyper-honest to the point of being TMI and never shutting up. In fact, one of the filmmakers is himself non-monogamous. But they were making a comedy, they said, and unethical people are just funnier. For a long-format story, anyway.

She later says:

I don’t want every poly character in every TV show or movie to be a perfect paragon of sensitivity and high-minded ethics. I’m okay with them being flawed and human. The need for role models isn’t a need for one perfect hero: it’s a need to see that you have options, other than the ones your culture is unfairly slotting you into. (Not to mention the need for the rest of the world to see that as well.) I don’t think every producer of pop culture has an obligation to single-handedly fill that entire gaping hole. And again, I don’t want propaganda. Propaganda is boring.

But given that there are so few poly characters in pop culture, and even fewer who don’t fall into the stereotype of unethical seducers and skanks with no self-control, I think producers of pop culture do have an obligation to not actively perpetuate that stereotype.

I left a comment there but subsequently realized I had way too many Thoughts for just a comment, so here we go.

It’s true that creators of pop culture are (and should be) primarily concerned with telling a good story, not teaching us morals or otherwise educating us. When the latter goals take priority, you end up with the insipid morality tales that comprise much of children’s media.

However, when media presents a false or misleading portrait or a group that is already stigmatized and misunderstood by the public, that’s a negative externality that should be dealt with. But how?

I think that one way the entertainment industry falters in presenting characters who have a stigmatized identity is by making their entire character all about that identity.

Sometimes they do this by having the character confirm a stereotype. In the film Greta wrote about (which, full disclosure, I haven’t seen), the poly characters are unethical and obsessed with sex. Another film might have, say, a flamboyant gay best friend or an uptight Asian student who’s obsessed with her grades. Even if that character also does a bunch of other stuff, the prevalent stereotypes keep the audience focused on the character’s polyness or gayness or race.

So that’s one way. It’s the most obvious way, so many people rightfully attack it these days. A less obvious way is making that character’s entire story arc–or, indeed, the entire film or show–all about that stigmatized identity. That’s what Yes, We’re Open is. It’s not a film that happens to have poly characters or that references polyamory in some way. It’s a film about polyamory.

Because of that, the central conflict of the film has to be about polyamory, too. And that means that the filmmakers have to exaggerate. After all, if you made a documentary about my open relationship or that of one of my best friends or all the other poly folks I know, it’d be boring as hell. Making it interesting requires making it unrealistic, and because most people don’t spend much time reminding themselves that entertainment is not reality, they’re going to watch the film and think, “Oh, so this is what polyamory is like.”

The same thing happens to a lesser extent with any film that’s primarily about relationships. Romcoms are unrealistic because their writers have to create an unrealistic amount of conflict in order for the film to be interesting and funny. So you see massive failures to communicate, glorification of abusive relationships, and other crap.

The most realistic portrayals of romance in film tend to be the stories that are mostly about something else. For instance, Eric and Tami’s marriage in the show Friday Night Lights has been praised for its realism. Eric and Tami love each other and their children and work to improve their relationship, but there’s still conflict in it. It’s just not enough conflict to base an entire show on, which works because the show is primarily about a small-town Texas football team, not about the relationship between two characters. That’s one of the reasons it’s realistic.

That’s why I believe that the best way to improve representations of stigmatized individuals and misunderstood identities in the media is actually to make the story about something other than those identities. Make a spy thriller where one of the main characters happens to have two partners. Make a sci-fi film in which the main character turns down a potential love interest because the main character happens to be asexual. Present these possibilities as just a part of life.

This approach won’t fix all of the problems. It also doesn’t have to be applied universally. There should be films out there are are about polyamory or homosexuality or whatever, although they need to be made by people who know what they’re talking about. These films can serve their own purpose.

But in order to really normalize a lifestyle or identity, you have to present it as realistically as possible, and that means presenting those characters as fully-formed individuals who are not defined by that particular identity. If the subject you’re addressing (polyamory, homosexuality, etc.) is the only source of conflict in the film, you’ll end up having to exaggerate that subject for the sake of entertainment.

When something like this happens in movies that address very common and accepted things–such as, in the case of romcoms, monogamous heterosexual dating–misrepresentation is still a bit of a problem, but at least people can draw on their personal experiences and those of friends and family, as well as on their knowledge of the dozens of other films and shows that address that experience, in order to evaluate whether or not the film is realistic.

But when it happens in movies that deal with unfamiliar and misunderstood experiences, like polyamory, the audience is much less likely to have other sources of information about that subject readily available. So they end up with glaringly inaccurate ideas about that subject.

The Role of Feminist Criticism

In one of my recent pieces, I criticized a particular aspect of the love stories often found in popular books and movies. Whenever someone critiques pop culture–especially from a feminist perspective–it raises a lot of questions for many people. Questions such as:

  • Does it really matter that this work is “problematic”?
  • Can you even have media that isn’t problematic in any way?
  • Am I a racist/sexist/etc. if I find a racist/sexist/etc. joke funny?
  • Would people really take this seriously?
  • What’s the point of talking about this?
  • Am I a bad person if I enjoy this book/movie/show?

Of course, people rarely come right out and ask these questions; they usually couch them in objections instead: “You’re just looking for flaws,” “It’s just a movie,” “There’s nothing that would make you feminists happy.”

But if you read between the lines you’ll usually find questions like the ones above, and all of them eventually condense into the same question: What is the role of feminist criticism? In other words, what’s the point of picking cultural artifacts apart and finding their flaws and analyzing them?

In my view, the role of feminist criticism is not to prescribe what you should and should not read, watch, listen to, wear, or otherwise consume. It is not to say which things are “bad” and which are “good,” since, as some detractors have pointed out, everything seems to have flaws. It is not to create some list of 100%-feminist-approved media and boycott everything else.

Rather, it is to use cultural artifacts as a way to analyze our prevailing norms and values and see how they might be harmful. For instance, in my earlier post, I used the romance genre to show how people are encouraged to maintain abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationships because that’s the “romantic” thing to do.

In this situation, I’m definitely not saying that you shouldn’t consume those books, films, and TV shows, because then you wouldn’t be able to criticize them. I’m not even saying you shouldn’t enjoy them, because ultimately I don’t care what you enjoy and what you don’t. That’s up to you.

Sometimes, though, it might be more ethical to avoid something “problematic” entirely. The role of feminist criticism is also to remain aware of what we consume so that we’re able to draw the line when it’s gone too far. For instance, I don’t eat at Chick-Fil-A and I don’t purchase any music from Chris Brown. Others may draw their personal lines differently, which is okay. But I wouldn’t have been able to decide that this business and this musician do not deserve my money had I not kept myself informed of what they do and what the criticisms of them are.

For me, the most important insight that feminism has given me is that we do not live, love, consume, and decide in a vacuum; we do so under the influence of society. That doesn’t mean we don’t have “free will” (and I do hate to get into that debate), but it does mean that we might not always be aware of all of the reasons for which we want (or don’t want) to do something. We will probably never be able to disentangle ourselves from the influence of society, and that’s fine. What’s important to me is to be aware of what some of those influences might be.

To use an example that’s slightly off-topic: makeup. Many women like to wear it, and many women are, unfortunately, under the impression that feminism opposes the use of makeup unilaterally. Hence the “I’m not a feminist, I wear makeup and dresses” thing that you get sometimes. (Maybe second-wave feminism did oppose makeup, but no feminist person or piece of writing that I’ve ever come across has said that.)

Again, in my view, feminism doesn’t prescribe whether or not women should wear makeup. What it does is ask questions:

  • Why does makeup exist?
  • Why are women expected to wear it and considered lazy, ugly, or unprofessional if they don’t?
  • Why aren’t men expected to wear makeup?
  • Come to think of it, why are men shamed if they do choose to wear it?
  • Why do some professions require women to wear makeup to keep their jobs?
  • Does wearing makeup ever actually make a woman better at her job?
  • Why do makeup ads show women who are considerably more flawless than any foundation or cream could actually make you look?

And so on. Answering those questions for yourself is enlightening, a bit disturbing, but also (in my opinion) kind of fun.

In my own case, becoming a feminist and learning about feminist criticism of makeup and the beauty industry didn’t change my makeup-wearing habits at all. I still do exactly what I did back when I wasn’t a feminist: sometimes I feel like wearing it so I do, and sometimes I don’t feel like wearing it, so I don’t.

What feminism has done for me, though, is to silence that petulant voice I get in my  head on days when I choose not to wear makeup–the one that tells me I’m being lazy, that I’m not a real woman, that people are going to judge me, that I look bad. Before I’d stubbornly choose not to wear makeup on days when I didn’t want to but then have to deal with that voice in my head all day. Nowadays it’s gone. Maybe people do judge me for not wearing makeup sometimes, but I no longer give a fuck.

So feminist criticism hasn’t kept me from doing things i want to do or forced me to do things I don’t; it’s merely given me a framework for understanding some of my own desires, fears, triggers, values, and so on.

The same sort of thing applies to feminist criticism of pop culture. I still enjoy popular movies and TV shows (except How I Met Your Mother, perhaps), but I understand how some of the assumptions they contain are inaccurate and harmful. Thinking through these things helps me think about our culture as a whole and how it might be improved. It also helps me construct a blueprint for how I want to live my own life, raise my future kids, and so on. (For instance, I will never tell a daughter of mine that if a boy treats her like crap “it’s just because he likes you.” That’s the most dangerous bullshit I’ve ever heard, and He’s Just Not That Into You is with me on that.)

And on that note, feminist criticism has one more role–showing us ways to improve the stories we tell. It reminds us that casts should not be all-white, that the Bechdel Test should be passed with flying colors, that glorifying violence against women (or anyone, really) is not okay. We can’t produce better books, movies, and shows unless we criticize the ones we have thoroughly.

In summary, feminist criticism is important because:

  1. It allows us to analyze problematic aspects of our culture.
  2. It lets us know when we should consider avoiding something entirely.
  3. It helps us understand how culture influences our behavior.
  4. It points the way to better media in the future.

It’s unfortunate that some people think that feminist criticism “ruins” everything or that feminists are here to take all the stuff you love away. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are ethical ways to consume problematic media, and I’d say it’s easier to enjoy something when you understand exactly why you sometimes get uncomfortable feelings about it.

I’m sure many feminists would disagree with a lot of what I’ve said, but I’d probably respect their views nonetheless. The view I definitely do not respect is that we should just ignore critiques of the stuff we like because it’s boring and not fun and who cares that the stuff we read, watch, and listen to is selling us a version of reality that we might despise if we actually thought about it.

Why I Don't Like "How I Met Your Mother"

Everybody seems to be obsessed with the CBS show How I Met Your Mother, so I decided to give it a try. I watched a few episodes, which I enjoyed to some extent. However, I soon found myself completely unwilling to keep going.

The reason for my premature abandonment of the show is one of the main characters, Barney Stinson. Widely considered the star of the show and the reason for its popularity, Barney is the consummate womanizer (or douchebag, for those who prefer the vernacular). His entire raison d’être seems to be to sleep with as many attractive women as possible, forgetting their names afterward.

Despite his superficiality, Barney isn’t a flat character, and he does have many other traits–many of which I can appreciate much more than the womanizing. But there’s a huge part of me that simply cannot be amused by a guy who treats women like shit. It’s just not funny to me.

Maybe in another century or two, the idea of a man who tricks women into sleeping with them only to discard them at the earliest opportunity will truly be hilarious, because our cultural scripts for dating and sex will have evolved. People who only want casual sex will be able to openly pursue it without being labeled “sluts” or “players,” and people who want serious relationships will be able to simply avoid getting involved with those who don’t.

In such a society, Barney’s ludicrous schemes to get women into bed with him might seem like a charming relic of another time. But today, I don’t see what’s so funny. People who lie, deceit, or otherwise pressure others for sex are all too common, and my own life has been affected by them, as have the lives of virtually all of my female friends. Barney’s stories might be several orders of magnitude more ridiculous than anything you’d hear in real life (see this for examples), but they’re still based on the idea that lying for sex is okay.

Barney’s character has been so successful that he’s even “authored” two books, The Bro Code and The Playbook, that regurgitate the same type of humor that the show does. Of course, I don’t believe that anybody would actually take these books seriously (although I might be wrong). The problem isn’t that people take this seriously; it’s that they find tired stereotypes about men and women so funny.

Indeed, Barney’s victims/partners are usually portrayed as helpless, dumb girls who are so mesmerized by an attractive, well-off man in a suit that they buy all of his bullshit. But in the real world, of which HIMYM‘s creators are certainly aware, women are rarely so one-dimensional.

Now, I’m sure that there are nevertheless many great things about HIMYM, so I’m not going to condemn the show in general. There’s a reason I titled this post “Why I Don’t Like HIMYM,” and not why you shouldn’t either. But I do think that the question of why we think it’s so fucking hilarious when men manipulate and exploit women* is one that you should ask yourself if you enjoy the show.

I don’t necessarily think that any womanizing male character ruins a television show. For instance, Community‘s Jeff Winger is also known for manipulating women (and people in general). However, Jeff is a much more complex character than Barney is, and he starts to change from the very first few episodes. Barney, on the other hand, seems to remain essentially the same throughout the show’s seven-and-counting seasons, despite a few attempts at actual relationships. Notably, even when he wants something serious with a woman, he still sees no problem with tricking her in order to get it.

No matter how unrealistic and ridiculous these situations are, I just can’t laugh at them. Maybe someday when I’m happily married, I’ll be able to. But not while I’m still surrounded by metaphorical Barneys.

*I am quite aware that women are most certainly capable of and often do exploit men as well. However, since this show is about a (male) womanizer, I’m confining this discussion to that.

Mental Illness as a Spectator Sport

Step right up, ladies and gents, see the amazing inhuman hoarders here!

Our culture seems to have three ways of relating to people with mental illnesses–either they’re pathetic losers who need to “snap out of it”, or they’re crazies who need to be locked away (think schizophrenia in popular culture), or they’re here for our pleasure and entertainment. That last one is a relative newcomer, and that’s the one I want to write about here.

Just look at our celebrities–specifically, the ones with substance abuse problems. When it comes to them, it’s all fun and games till someone dies. While the late Amy Winehouse was still alive, blogs and magazines loved to publish photos of her visibly drunk, putting her up for public ridicule. Sure, everyone knew she could use some rehab–she sang about it herself–but there was never an ounce of compassion in how we, as a society, related to her.

And take Charlie Sheen, clearly a troubled individual. I don’t even remember how many days went by that articles making fun of him littered my Google Reader feed. With him, there isn’t even any ambiguity regarding the diagnosis, but he was still treated like a circus animal, and everyone sat back in their seats, made some popcorn, and watched.

Take TV shows like A&E’s Hoarders, Intervention, and Obsessed. These shows literally turn mental illness–and the treatment thereof–into entertainment. You can laugh as the poor OCD sufferer cries when forced to touch a gas pump nozzle with her bare hands, or gag as that creepy hoarder guy reveals his apartment full of old snack wrappers and rotting food.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to inform people about the lives of those with mental disorders. What I’m saying is that this informing should be done in a compassionate, humanizing way, and reality TV isn’t always the best format for that. For instance, the show In Treatment, which describes a (fictional) therapist and his clients, is a far cry from the carnival sideshow-like feel of the reality shows. I’m not exactly a big fan of reality TV in general, but as a medium for educating the public about mental illness, it’s even worse than usual, because it creates an environment in which people view their fellow human beings as freaks to be gawked at, not as peers to be sympathized with. (A counselor quoted on Everyday Health calls it “exploitanment.”) This happens on virtually every reality show–think how much the people on Jersey Shore and American Idol get made fun of. The difference is that the people on Jersey Shore and American Idol (arguably) do not have a serious mental illness.

Ultimately, all media companies want to provide stuff that sells, and in the case of magazines that publish photos of drunken celebrities (with witty commentary, of course) and TV networks that produce shows putting people with mental disorders up for display, the money’s definitely talking–people love it. But the quality of mental healthcare in the U.S. will never improve while our culture continues to treat people with mental disorders as amusing distractions and not as people.