This is an observation. I’ve noticed something in the last couple of years regarding our reactions to depictions of women in the media. It’s something I’m not completely comfortable talking about, so I want to make one think clear out front. This is not me suggesting I have the answers to what I’m going to write about, or trying to tell society -let alone women- how they should react to these things, but rather me trying to start a conversation on a subject I am very eager to understand better.
Now, the last few years have been invaluable in addressing and correcting certain weaknesses of the second wave feminism. Feminism experts please feel free to correct me, but the way I understand it, the feminist wave of the seventies, while being a huge stepping stone in the fight for women’s equality, was rather narrowly focused on the experiences of a very specific type of woman. Broadly speaking, one could describe this woman as white, educated, and upper middle-class.
In the past few years, we’ve seen the rise in popularity not only of feminist causes, but of intersectionality, thanks to which we understand that social causes don’t exist each in a separate vacuum, but are connected to each other. We, as a society, are making an effort to understand the plight of different groups of women. The experience of being a black, latino, asian, gay or trans women is similar in many ways, but each group has struggles of their own. We are striving to understand what makes each struggle different and worth discussing. The reception to creative works such as Lemonade, Insecure, Jane the Virgin, One Day at a Time, Tangerine, and Transparent all suggest we are willing to have these conversations, and I think this is great.
Now, let me talk about something that, it seems to me, is an unfortunate by-product of the conversation about intersectional feminism that we seem to be having. Before I get into it I want to make clear, once again, that I am not writing this with the intention of telling anyone how to be a “good” feminist, let alone a “good” woman. I just want to point out something that is bothering me. If you are a woman reading this, and have something to say about the subject, please reach out to me in the comments or in any other form of social media because I am very interested in having a conversation and learning more about how the people most affected by what I’m writing about are feeling.
With that out of the way, here it goes: The other night I was watching HBO’s new miniseries Big Little Lies, which stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as rich women living in Monterrey California. The show has something to do with a murder mystery, but it seems most interested in exploring the inner lives and relationships of these women (the cast also includes Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz and the great Laura Dern). I enjoyed the first episode quite a bit, but when I went looking for reviews of the show, I encountered a very large number of critics who were dismissing it as silly, trashy, shallow, etc. These comments rubbed me the wrong way, as they do every time a piece of media is dismissed as unworthy of discussion for being for and about women.
It is true that we have a lot of voices sticking up for many other shows and movies starring strong women, but I also see a pattern as far as which shows get praise and which shows are dismissed. The shows (or movies) that get praise either A) fit in traditionally masculine genres, by which I mean genres which have a history of male protagonists. Examples of this include Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Or B) fit in with the intersectional discussion, like Insecure. There is obviously nothing wrong with sticking up for these shows and movies, which I love, but what about shows, movies, and music that appeal, for the lack of a better term, to “basic” white women?
Society seems to be unable to find room for all women at once. Every time a type of woman is elevated by culture, another must be put down. We are at a point in which art about diverse, unique, different types of women is being embraced more than ever, and still, we seem to insist that one type of woman is acceptable while another is not. I feel like it’s become increasingly acceptable to dismiss art centered on the lives of white women as disposable, not serious, basic. I’ve experienced this push-back a lot, being a person who has stuck up for Taylor Swift’s music as a worthy expression of teenage womanhood and the first Fifty Shades of Grey movie as a subversive tale of female empowerment (which is sadly undone by its sequel).
Before you take out your pitchforks and chase me out of town, please let me say that I in no way think that it’s women that are responsible for this or anything like that. I don’t think it’s women who are putting each other down. I think the fault, as with so many things wrong in this world, is with men. Or the patriarchy, which is always content to move along as long as women don’t get too much power and respect.
What I hope to see is a reevaluation not only of these shows, movies, and music that appeal to white women, but of the kinds of conversations that we have about them. I believe every piece of art that is looking to engage with the reality of being a woman is worth exploring and analyzing. This doesn’t mean that we should always praise them, but that the conversation should be had. This goes into another subject that is bothersome to me, which is our insistence that everything has to be either the best or the worst. Many of this “white woman” media is problematic, yes, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other worthy things about it.
It bothers me when I say I like Taylor Swift and someone says “I hate that bitch”, or I say I enjoy watching Girls and everybody in the room groans in disgust. There is much to talk about and analyze in both cases. Yes, Taylor Swift’s understanding of feminism might be problematic, but isn’t it more interesting to think about the nuances of what does and does not appeal to young women about her music than to just leave it at “I hate that bitch”? And yes, Girls has a very real problem with its lily-white depiction of New York (especially in earlier seasons), but it doesn’t mean Lena Dunham doesn’t also have interesting things to say about the way women relate to each other.
I will write my magnum-opus on why I think Girls is a great show after it airs its finale a couple weeks from now, but in the meantime, why not take the time to tell me why I’m totally wrong about this, or share whatever other comments you have on the subject. I really want to hear from you.