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Can You Be a Fem­i­nist and Watch Trashy TV?

Yes Mo­hale Mashigo

Writer, nov­el­ist Twit­ter: Bl­ck­Porce­lain

No Jen Thorpe

Fem­i­nist writer, ed­i­tor of Fem­i­nism Is Twit­ter: Jen_Thorpe

I am a fem­i­nist – let’s get that out of the way. When peo­ple ask what fem­i­nism is to me, I tell them it’s ‘a per­sonal

lib­er­a­tion project’. It’s a lens through which I view the world – a world that, for a long time, told me there is only one ac­cept­able way to be a woman. Trashy TV* is fake, and re­lies heav­ily on misog­yny, colourism, slut sham­ing, ex­ploita­tion, drama, misog­y­noir, etc. I’m a fem­i­nist who watches trashy TV – and I dare you to re­voke my mem­ber­ship of the Sis­ter­hood of the Trav­el­ling Equal­ity (For All) Pants.

Ricki Lake was my first in­tro­duc­tion to trashy TV, keep­ing me en­ter­tained dur­ing school hol­i­days. Even then, as a Baby Fem­i­nist, I knew some­thing was wrong with the nar­ra­tives, and how women – es­pe­cially poor/work­ing-class black women – were por­trayed. I can now name the things that made me un­com­fort­able, be­cause of fem­i­nist writ­ings and teach­ings. Does it make me en­joy Love & Hip Hop or

The Bach­e­lorette less? Per­haps – but it’s be­cause I un­der­stand the dy­nam­ics at play. Same goes for rom­coms, beauty pageants, soapies and porn – and I still in­dulge in those forms of es­capism.

Trashy TV is prob­lem­atic – but so is the ques­tion ‘Can you be a fem­i­nist and still…?’ The fact that this is even a ques­tion tells me we ex­pect ab­so­lute per­fec­tion from fem­i­nists. I’ve just es­caped the per­fec­tion-as-fem­i­nin­ity myth be­ing ped­dled by pa­tri­archy. I’m not fall­ing for it again. My fem­i­nism does not owe you per­fec­tion. It is full of con­tra­dic­tions, and it saved my life. So I’m go­ing to ask you, very nicely, to keep it down while I find out which new hip-hop star is sleep­ing with which has­been pro­ducer while claim­ing to be the Queen of ‘Noo Yawk’.

Rox­ane Gay puts it per­fectly in the in­tro of her book (of es­says), Bad Fem­i­nist: ‘I am a bad fem­i­nist be­cause I never want to be placed on a Fem­i­nist Pedestal. Peo­ple who are placed on pedestals are ex­pected to pose, per­fectly. Then they get knocked off when they f*ck it up. I reg­u­larly f*ck it up. Con­sider me al­ready knocked off.’ * ‘ Trashy TV’ is just as bad as call­ing lit­er­a­ture writ­ten by women ( for women) ‘chick lit’. It’s coded lan­guage used to be­lit­tle women for en­joy­ing, and tak­ing part in, some­thing deemed to be in­fe­rior. That’s a story for another day, though.

No. Just stop do­ing it right now, or the fem­i­nists will re­voke your mem­ber­ship, and you will be ex­com­mu­ni­cated to the

pa­tri­archy. Okay, jokes. Let’s recog­nise that there is more than one type of fem­i­nist, that the idea of a sin­gle ‘fem­i­nism’ is not use­ful (and never was), and that there is room within the fem­i­nist move­ment for self-def­i­ni­tion and choice. Pre­scrip­tion of per­fect fem­i­nism is not my thing or my goal, but for me the an­swer to this ques­tion is another ques­tion: if you’re a fem­i­nist, why would you choose to watch trashy TV? I ask this be­cause be­ing a fem­i­nist has im­pli­ca­tions for the way you en­gage with the world, in­clud­ing the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of women in the me­dia. Be­ing a fem­i­nist im­plies you watch TV and movies and lis­ten to mu­sic with the un­der­stand­ing that a) cur­rent gen­der norms are a hot mess and women of­ten lose in this mess; b) the por­trayal of men and women on TV will af­fect how the next gen­er­a­tion will think men and women ‘should’ or ‘can’ live; and c) we need to have di­verse rep­re­sen­ta­tions of women (in terms of age, race, class, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, pro­fes­sion, gen­der per­for­mance, re­li­gion, etc) in or­der for ho­moge­nous ideas of ‘the ideal women’ to shrivel up and die. Shows such as The Bach­e­lor, The Swan or Keep­ing Up

With The Kar­dashi­ans tend to equate women’s value to their looks, or of­fer them fi­nan­cial and so­cial re­wards on that ba­sis. They en­cour­age women to be­lieve that if they don’t have the love of a man, they are noth­ing. These types of shows of­ten nor­malise misog­yny, rank women based on bizarre cri­te­ria (such as the size or shape of their body), or por­tray women who act in op­pres­sive, racist, clas­sist and misog­y­nist ways as ‘em­pow­ered’. These shows nor­malise the idea that women are ei­ther one thing or another, and don’t al­low for di­verse ideals of suc­cess, sex­u­al­ity, beauty and power.

We live in a world where there is al­most in­fi­nite tele­vi­sion at our fin­ger­tips. There are many shows with in­ter­est­ing fe­male char­ac­ters who are not sub­servient to men, who aren’t all het­ero­sex­ual, thin or white, and who show other ways of be­ing a woman in the world. These are the shows we should be con­sum­ing – the shows that chal­lenge us and our ideas of what women are and can be. I’d rather choose them.

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