I fully consider myself a feminist. However, I realize that many of the aspects of pop culture that I enjoy, such as movies, music, books and TV shows, are far from what most would consider “good” feminist media. I love “Game of Thrones,” rap music and Kevin Hart’s standup, just to name a few.
As I learned more and more about the feminist movement and became more involved, I also became more aware of the glaring flaws in the content I was consuming. Am I allowed to like these things and still call myself a feminist? Is it fair to overlook sexism, racism and other issues just because I enjoy something for other reasons? Do women need to choose between “The Bachelor” and their principles?
Unfortunately, a clear-cut answer doesn’t exist. Finding a form of pop culture that has absolutely no problematic elements is impossible, largely because pop culture is a microcosm of the “isms” plaguing society as a whole. If you choose to only consume shows and books that avoid any misogynistic undertones with 100 percent accuracy, you will never be able to listen to or watch anything. Even the critical darlings of TV lauded for their progressive portrayal of women, such as “Orange is the New Black” and “Broad City,” have made their blunders from time to time.
This idea of enjoyment warring with progressive social movements is applicable in many spheres; the same questions are raised for materials with homophobic, racist, ableist and transphobic undertones and overtones. And often, these issues intersect, and media tends to do wrong on multiple counts. Many of us are still able to choose whether or not we will consume a product even if it’s against our principles and morals. As a straight, white-passing cis woman, I generally have the choice to care about issues or turn off that bit of my brain when watching a show, while people of color, the LGBTQ community, etc. don’t have that privilege.
Quite a few of the things I like are heavily problematic. In terms of music, rap is a genre that I thoroughly enjoy, but I am also shocked at some of the blatant misogyny I hear. Rap is often singled out as the “problematic” genre, but country, rock and pop all suffer from the exact same issues (I’m just not a big Brad Paisley fan). “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy are some of my favorite movies and books. However, the series is graced with the presence of roughly three important female characters, all of whom are portrayed in somewhat problematic ways, whereas there are dozens of male characters (not to mention a complete lack of anyone not white). “Game of Thrones,” a personal favorite of mine, has enough sexist undertones to launch a thousand think pieces.
So, what should I do? Should I stop listening and watching? Is it selfish to consider the pleasure I derive to be more important than my values?
I don’t believe that liking “The Bachelor” or Quentin Tarantino movies means you are a bad person who deserves to have her feminist card revoked. Women have been struggling with reconciling consumer enjoyment and their feminist ideals for years. You don’t need to feel guilty if you enjoy “Say Yes to the Dress.” It’s okay to occasionally quiet the part of your brain that points out the sexist elements of the wedding industry and the patriarchal history of marriage, and just be entertained by a bunch of white women pondering whether a mermaid or ball gown silhouette embodies a country-rustic-meets-chic theme better.
I don’t believe that tuning out all the red flags is a general solution that should be applied, as it implies we should always accept misogyny. However, on a sort of case-by-case basis, I think you can be both critical of something and enjoy the aesthetic. What I and everyone else can do is call out the sexism and other issues in pop culture, push for improvements and be critical consumers. You don’t have to stop watching the shows or movies that you love, but you can try to hold the creators and actors accountable.
An example would be “Game of Thrones,” which is still problematic, but did improve. After heavy backlash from critics and the public regarding its treatment of women in earlier seasons (the problems ranging from constantly sexualized nudity to the use of rape as a plot device), the writers and show runners made a concentrated effort to better the show. Female characters showed more autonomy and power—they weren’t just passive receivers of beatings and rapes, but characters with agency.
You don’t need to stop dancing and exit the room out of guilt every time a misogynist song comes on in a club, and no one is telling you not to love Kanye, but it’s crucial to understand what the problematic aspects of his music are, and why you should be aware of that. I need to be a critical fan, and be open to feminist critiques of the things that I like.
Perhaps one of the best options for this tough, complicated issue is to expand your repertoire and find some of the more feminist options to watch, read and listen to. While certainly not as plentiful as the sexist ones, there is quality, women-driven and women-produced material to consume instead. Want to find rap music by female artists? This Tumblr is a great resource: http://femalerappers.tumblr.com/. Like comedy? Try Issa Rae’s “Insecure.” Dystopian drama? Give “The Handmaid’s Tale” a go.
Bottom line: No one is out to get you if you nod along at a tailgate to an old country song about a man seeking revenge on his wife. You aren’t a “bad” feminist for enjoying parts of pop culture that are sexist. What is important is that you recognize the artists, movies, books and shows that are misogynistic and can identify why that is problematic and bad. I think that being a feminist is about recognizing these problems, understanding the issues they bring up and hopefully pushing for them to change.