You Are What You Watch: Guilty Pleasures, Problematic Faves, and the Shows that Save the Day

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In the weeks since the university semester ended, I spent a great deal of time binge-watching all six seasons of “2 Broke Girls”. During the first episode, I didn’t think I’d make it through one season, let alone six. The humour was problematic, the comedy was cringey, and I spent most of the time I was watching it telling myself ‘This is trash.’ I believed that if I was aware of how bad the show was, it justified the time I spent watching it. I persevered, told myself the problematic jokes would ease up eventually, that it was a product of its time — people were less socially aware in 2011 than they are now.

I don’t know why I kept watching it: maybe because I’m a sucker for female friendship and innuendo-based humour, maybe because I couldn’t be bothered to find something better to watch. Admittedly, it was less troublesome by 2017, although by that point some of the earlier problematic jokes had become a running gag. There were less instances of offensive jokes involving new characters, but there were still height jokes about Han, the Korean boss. There were still jokes about sexual harassment/assault in the workplace by Oleg, the Ukrainian chef.
The homophobic jokes had graduated to transphobic ones, and each episode would leave a bad taste in my mouth.

The quality of the show was average at best, most of the characters aren’t likeable (except you, Candy Andy. You deserved a different ending!). It’s the kind of show I would never admit to watching (apart form a brief twitter rant about the season six finale! #CandyAndydeservedbetter), I would never recommend it to a friend. For the first time I can remember, I had a guilty pleasure. I usually scoff at the idea of guilty pleasures. My view is that if you like something, you should own that. I love romantic comedies, and “The Hunger Games”, and Taylor Swift, and I spent years of my life being ashamed for not having ‘high brow’ taste in art and culture. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my Film & Television degree, it’s that anything can be serious if you’re serious about it. Critiquing, studying, and enjoying popular culture is no less valid than critiquing and enjoying so-called high art.

When I watch romantic comedies, I watch them wearing two hats. I wear the hat of the hopeless romantic, but I also wear the hat of the intersectional feminist who will call out problematic themes. I love romantic comedies, but I can see their flaws. A thing that particularly irks me about romantic comedies is the notion in films such as “When Harry Met Sally” that guys and girls can’t be ‘just’ friends. When I watch that film I always want to scream ‘Oh, come on!’ at the ending, because platonic male/female friendships are beautiful and fulfilling — why can’t there be a film about that?
I can enjoy a genre or a film and still acknowledge the places where it falls short.

A lot of the romantic comedies I love have problematic aspects, but I would not consider them a guilty pleasure. I’m not ashamed to admit that I watch “Love Actually” every Christmas, or that I can practically quote “Bridget Jones’s Diary” word for word. But I am ashamed to admit I watched “2 Broke Girls.” There are many ways to create comedy, and a show that relies on disrespecting marginalised people for its humour has fallen way below the bar of what’s acceptable.

Yet I watched approximately 130 episodes of this show. I got invested in the characters’ growth, I tweeted up a storm about Caroline and Candy Andy not getting together in the finale. And it made me wonder: am I allowed to enjoy a show that I fundamentally disagree with? Is it okay to be critically engaged with a television text, and still put that aside to experience it as a passive audience?

A few days after I finished watching “2 Broke Girls”, I began watching the second season of “The Bold Type.” It was like a breath of fresh feminist air. I watched three episodes within the past week, and couldn’t find anything problematic in them. When I watched the first season, I was expecting something light: a show about pretty people with little substance. But it proved to be the opposite. It deals with real issues faced by women every day, its characters are strong, confident, competent women who actually communicate with each other and are living their best lives.

It has a female boss who isn’t a villain. It shows ambitious women climbing the career ladder. It has LGBTQ+ women, women of colour. It is diverse and it is beautiful, and I am completely in love with it. I particularly love it because I am an ambitious woman, and it inspires me to work hard and chase my dreams. “The Bold Type” is doing it right, and it’s shown me that I shouldn’t settle for watching mediocre television.

It took me a while to find my niche when it came to my taste in television, but within the past year I have discovered what I love most are sitcoms and comedy dramas featuring women at the forefront. My all-time favourite TV series is “Jane the Virgin”, a satirical masterpiece of a telenovela, that uses every cliche in the book (multiple times!) and never ceases to be original. I relate to the character of Jane, because she is a writer, and makes lists to organise every aspect of her life, and is an all-round brilliant character. But the one I adore most is Petra.

She’s somewhere between a villain and anti-hero, her character development is on fire, and she’s probably the reason that I now stress-eat pickled gherkins. I have a special place in my heart for intelligent, successful 30-something-year-old women who know what they want, and Petra is so deliciously ambitious and manipulative that she makes sure she gets the outcome she desires. Petra Solano is one of the best written characters on TV today. I will always be more of a Jane than a Petra (and I own that about myself), but I love Petra. What’s more, I love this show. With its fast-paced narrative and inventive use of cliches, it inspires me to be a better writer. It’s the ultimate embodiment of learning the rules so you can break them.

I’ve watched several brilliant TV series this year: “Broad City”, “The Good Place”, “Jane the Virgin”, “The Bold Type,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”… But one that has a special place in my heart is “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” My best friend recommended it to me a little over a year ago. I watched the first season last June, and binge-watched the rest when I returned from travelling in August. I started re-watching it from the beginning this week.

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is an ensemble cast sitcom, about a precinct of New York City detectives, based in (you’ll never guess!) Brooklyn. It is a typical sitcom in many ways, but it stands out because it’s so brilliant for representation of race, gender, and sexuality. Of its nine main characters, two are black men, two are latina women, and two of those four are LGBTQ+. Unlike in “2 Broke Girls”, those characters’ races and sexualities are never the butt of the jokes.

What I’ve been fascinated by whilst watching it the second time around is the plethora of depictions of non-toxic masculinity. Six of the nine main characters are men. Not including Hitchcock and Scully (because they are written to be gross and weird), there are four male protagonists who embody a range of representations of manhood that subvert stereotypes and expectations. There is Captain Holt, who is composed, efficient, and by-the-book. He is notorious for his unreadable expressions and apparent lack of emotions. In spite of the jokes that he is a robot, Holt is a nuanced character, and the standards he holds himself to are impeccable. I bet he’s a Capricorn. Then there is Terry, the giant muscular man who could crush your skull with this fist but is probably using those hands to braid his twin daughters’ hair. Terry, the Big Strong Man who is obsessed with yoghurt, cries over his daughters, and frequent comes out with gems such as “Terry loves love.” Terry reminds me of my drunk personas, because I can guarantee that Drunk Eliza has said “Eliza loves love” on multiple occasions. Then there’s Boyle, who’s obsessed with cooking, has a culinary themed blog, and is clumsy and often the cause of physical comedy throughout the show. He openly admits to playing Pocahontas in a third grade musical because “all the girls were too big.”

But the character who most defies tropes of toxic masculinity is, in my opinion, the show’s protagonist: Jake Peralta. Jake is an immature man child with little respect for authority. Jake is something rare on TV and in real life, in that he is an immature man child without being sexist or racist or homophobic. He’s the kind of person who would drive you nuts if you had to work with him, but he is also good and moral, the kind of man who punches one of his heroes in the face for making a homophobic comment about his boss. Jake Peralta challenges perceptions of what it means to be a certain type of man, because he shows that you can be immature without being offensive.

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is succeeding where so many sitcoms have failed. It continues to show that comedy doesn’t have to be offensive, that you can make jokes without them being at the expense of someone’s race or gender or sexuality. Furthermore, it has set an impeccable standard for representation. This was particularly exemplified in the most recent season, when one of the main characters came out as bisexual. So many TV shows shy away from using the word bi, and there is such an epidemic of bi-erasure within television. But “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” embraced the topic and depicted this character coming out in what was perhaps the most moving episode of all the show’s seasons. It highlighted the beauty of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, in that this show is a comedy that makes space for compassion, rather than exploiting people’s differences in the name of humour.

Do the TV shows we watch say something about who we are as a person? Am I defined by the fact that I sat through six whole seasons of problematic ‘humour’ from “2 Broke Girls”? I don’t know. What I do know is that the media we consume is a choice. It is a choice to watch TV shows with positive representation, it is a choice to watch TV shows with women writers, it is a choice to watch TV shows with feminist themes. The media we consume is an ethical choice, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Just like we make a choice whether or not to watch films directed and produced by known abusers, we make a choice whether the television we watch is progressive and representative of equality and the world we want to live in, or whether we continue to engage with texts that set a low standard for on-screen representation of race, gender, and sexuality. We, as consumers, set the demand for what kind of shows will be made.

When I watch “2 Broke Girls,” I cringe just about every time Oleg opens his mouth, because my first thought is ‘You can’t say that!’ In light of recent events in the entertainment industry (and you know, the lives of every woman ever), so much of the so-called humour in that show is in poor taste. I can watch it and see how it is frozen in time, how even seven years ago people were less socially aware. But to justify it by saying it was made seven years ago is a flawed argument. Look at “The Big Bang Theory”, a show that I personally detest. It is sexist and it is racist and it is still on TV today. Whilst there are many progressive shows like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” or “Jane the Virgin” or “The Bold Type,” problematic shows are still being renewed for season after season.

When I watched the season premiere of “The Bold Type” after weeks of watching “2 Broke Girls” I felt like a weight had been lifted. I could watch the show and enjoy it without having to justify anything to myself. I could watch the show without having to make excuses and apologies, and it made me realise that that is the type of show I want to watch. It is inevitable that the media we consume impacts our expectations about the world, and about ourselves. When I watch “The Bold Type,” I see myself in those women, and they inspire me to work hard and chase my dreams. When I watch “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, I see myself in Detective Amy Santiago. She’s smart and super competitive, like me. And every scene where she tries to get Captain Holt to be her mentor is practically an exact replica of what I’m like when I talk to my favourite lecturer. When I watch “2 Broke Girls,” I don’t see myself in Max or Caroline, and I never wanted to. They’re not characters that I identify with in any way. They’re selfish and mean and disrespectful of others; they’re not people I would ever aspire to be like.

Representation of gender/race/sexuality/disability/nationality,etc, in television is important on the basic level that people should be able to watch a TV show and see people who are like themselves, without those people being reduced to stereotypes. When I watched “Stars Wars” or watched part of “Lord of the Rings” I became frustrated by how few female characters there were. Movies and TV shows with barely any female characters are my pet hate. This is me saying that as a white, abled bodied woman. Imagine if you’re a black, bisexual, nonbinary person with a disability. What are the odds of finding a single character on TV who represents you? And if such a character were to exist, what are the odds of them being represented fairly rather than being used as the punchline in some joke? Representation is important, because it makes people feel like they matter in the world.

It’s said that we become like the 5 people we spend time with the most. If you are a person who spends a lot of time watching television, then presumably those five people could be fictional characters. This is another reason why representation matters. If you spend the majority of your time watching a TV show about five straight, white, British or American, able-bodied, cisgender men (and you yourself fall into that category), this show will not advance your world view. It won’t educate you. It won’t expand your way of thinking. Furthermore, if you continually watch a show like “2 Broke Girls” or “The Big Bang Theory” which often uses racist/sexist/homophobic ‘humour’, that will become normalised to you. It will seem acceptable, because it is what you are constantly exposed to. Perhaps that’s why I told myself ‘This is trash’ every five minutes whilst watching “2 Broke Girls”, because I didn’t want to get to the point where I thought it was justified.

It’s okay to have problematic favourites. It’s okay to watch a show and enjoy it without endorsing it. But don’t let it be the only thing you watch. Don’t let its contents become normalised. Watch shows with positive representation, recommend those shows to all your friends, spread the word about the shows which are doing it right, because they are so important. We live in a world where media plays a huge role in our society, and we must be conscious about the decisions we make regarding our media consumption. We must be aware of our privilege when we consume media, because if not, we will continue to promote and perpetuate the ideals of an unequal society that we should be trying to move beyond.

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