Media: A Love/Hate Relationship

So all y’all really need to step up your game. I got one whole response to my question post. ONE. But my dear and wonderful Barrett asked me about my opinion on something and who am I to deny my single, wonderful, amazing, lone commenter her request?

Barrett asked me about media and how I interact with problematic media/do I have any suggestions of non-problematic media. Oof. Big question. Well first of all I think it’s almost impossible for there to be non-problematic media because all the producers of media are human and there is probably no single human on this planet who has completely unproblematic beliefs. HOWEVER there are a few things that I can suggest that treat difficult topics with integrity.

First of all I can think of very few fictional creations that are kind or understanding to atheists. If any of my readers have suggestions, please suggest away, but I’m drawing a bit of a blank. Tim Minchin is fab of course if you’re looking for standup, but I can’t think of many books or movies or TV shows that are atheist friendly. I mean there are a huge number of movies and books that simply don’t touch on the religion of their characters at all, but I know of very few that explicitly address atheism and do it in a positive way.

One area that’s done far better is media that’s better to women. Joss Whedon is generally pretty damn good (a classic of course), and lately I”ve been on a major Once Upon a Time kick (I might expand upon why I think this is such a great show for women in the near future). Generally I like shows that allow women to flourish in a variety of roles. My Little Pony is actually fantastic about this. I also find that in general documentaries are a bit better at being non-exploitative than traditional movies and so on. As for books, I think that Tamora Pierce is GREAT for kids and teens, Mercedes lackey (although I haven’t read her in ages) has a wide range of women if I remember correctly, and JK Rowling. I think there’s a lot of resources for feminist friendly media, so I’m not going to go too far into it.

Mental illness is a much harder one to find good media. In general mental illness is treated HORRIBLY in media. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the best I’ve read, and most of John Green’s work as well (particularly The Fault in Our Stars). Oddly enough, I’ve found young adult fiction is actually often the most sensitive to mental health concerns because that’s a time when lots of individuals struggle with some depression, anxiety, or other issues. In terms of TV I can’t think of a single show that I’ve seen that deals appropriately with mental health. I’m not a big TV nut though, so if anyone else has ideas let me know. In terms of movies, Rachel Getting Married is AMAZING. It portrays addiction and mental illness in a disturbingly real fashion, but does so without a lot of judgment.

I’m not really qualified to speak on race or homosexuality or any other minority, so to find media that is positive about those demographics you’ll have to go elsewhere (sorry). But that’s just the first half of the question. The second half is how I deal with problematic media. Well that’s an easy one. To be clear straight off the bat: I am still figuring this out. I’m relatively young, and still trying to understand a lot of things about social justice, media, and society. So these are mostly preliminary thoughts that I’m still trying to work out. ALSO they do not apply to everyone in every type of marginalized group, nor are they necessarily suggestions for all of you. SO, without further ado: what do I do with problematic media?

So first of all I’m not going to deny that I consume problematic media. I like media, and as someone with a mental illness, oftentimes a little escapism is the only way I can make it through the day. I’ve always loved books and I’ve started to get very TV show addicted as of late, so I consume a fair amount of media. This means that a fair amount of it is problematic. I do try to avoid the worst things, the things that I think are actively promoting negative conceptions of women, of mental illness, of people of color…so I avoid most magazines, I avoid Spike TV, I watch very few primetime and super popular TV shows (partially just because I don’t like most of them), and I avoid 50 Shades of Gray and Twilight. Now that being said, I do watch things like Say Yes to the Dress, I watch some reality TV shows, I watch Project Runway, I enjoy teen lit which is often problematic in its portrayal of relationships, I watched Make it or Break It for a long time, I watch Dance Academy (oh so addicting), and I do see mainstream movies fairly often. I love Ender’s Game, I love Lord of the Rings, I love Dr Who…I love all sorts of things that I know are problematic.

So what do I do with that? Well first of all I try not to get pissed at myself. I think that any time we try to make ourselves ashamed or guilty, we’re not helping at all. I accept that I want to engage with media, and I accept that media is almost always problematic. The first and most radical thing that we as minorities can do is take care of ourselves. I firmly believe that. The personal is always political, and if I can be someone who is female, struggles with mental illness, and is an atheist, but still manages to be healthy and happy and break some of the stereotypes of those roles, I will have done a lot. So I accept that this is part of what I need to feel happy. But I also try to engage with them critically. When I’m watching things like Dr Who, I let myself enjoy it, but afterwards I discuss with people and reflect to myself about what messages it was sending, to try to dissect them and keep myself safe from any bad ones that might sneak in.

So I generally try to separate my enjoyment of the media from my critical mind, which I engage after or at a different level from the media. Because I think I deserve to be able to enjoy things without always being critical. I think that’s ok. But I also then go on to talk to people about what I like about those things and what I dislike about those things. I think it’s really important to be vocal and to be involved when you’re consuming problematic media: to both tell yourself and to tell others what you’re worried about with that media. I try to engage with it critically. I try to write about it, to discuss it, to hold it to high standards because I enjoy it.

I also try to learn from it when I’ve done poorly at being a critical consumer of media. Looking back, I can see that my teenage obsession with America’s Next Top Model did not serve me well. By no means did it cause my eating disorder, because no amount of media can do that, but it certainly helped push my neuroses in a particular direction, and it certainly gave me images of thinness to aspire to. It taught me that what someone looked like was incredibly important, and that competition was important, and that if you could be the prettiest, nothing else mattered. Looking back now, I don’t like to watch that show. I don’t like to promote the show. I would ask others why they like the show. I’m going to be a lot more discerning about similar shows in the future. I’ve learned. And I’ve also learned to be as careful as possible about similar shows, for example The Biggest Loser (which I refuse to watch, and which I’ve told many people is hugely problematic for many reasons).

Now I know that I should go a bit further and try to engage the producers of the media in the discussion, let them know what I dislike about the way they’re producing. If I was going to be truly responsible I would send letters and tweets, I would boycott all the bad products. But here’s the thing: if I’m going to advocate for women and atheists and people with mental illness, I also have to advocate for myself because I am all of those things. And the first way I can advocate for myself is by doing things I enjoy. And engaging with media without freaking out is highly enjoyable to me. I do enough freaking out. I get into facebook discussions often enough. I write angry blogs often enough. I tweet in a pissed off manner often enough. I’m ready to say that I am co-opting the shit out of that problematic media when I let it be a balm to the wounds of my life.

So that’s my relationship with problematic media. I use it as best as I can to treat myself well, and where I can’t, I criticize and I avoid. It may not be the best method, but it’s the best I can muster right now. My relationship with problematic media is far more about myself than about the media. And maybe that’s selfish, but I am strongly of the opinion that all minorities can afford to be a bit more selfish right now. And if that means allowing ourselves the personal time to enjoy shitty media, then more power to us. As long as we also take the time to point out that it’s shitty, then why not?

All of that said, I try to hold reporting to higher standards because it’s not there for our enjoyment it’s there to be accurate. I will write about it and call you out if you report something in an offensive manner, I WILL turn off Fox news because it sucks at portraying any minority well, and I WILL get pissed off if you say something about “anorexics”.

11 thoughts on “Media: A Love/Hate Relationship

  1. Tim Martin says:

    “I would ask others why they like [America’s Next Top Model].”

    It’s entertaining ๐Ÿ˜›
    It’s also an interesting show (as someone who doesn’t know much about the modeling world), and I think it’s great the way Tyra seems to really care about the contestants. Some reality shows only care about the contestants inasmuch as they provide entertainment. I believe they also had a biologically male contestant one season who identified as a woman, which was a progressive thing to do (although I haven’t watched any of the episodes with that person, so I can’t comment on how she was treated).

    • oj27 says:

      Haha good answer ๐Ÿ™‚ Although I am gonna have to ask: doesn’t it bother you that they seem to be only interested in the girls’ bodies? I’ve seen them tell a girl that she was getting too pudgy and needed to eat less. Do you think the modelling industry is at all problematic? Does the show give you insight into that or normalize it for you?

      • Tim Martin says:

        I’m not sure what you mean by “only interested in the girls’ bodies.” They critique the girls for their faces, bodies, lines, and artistic choices during filming, and for their attitude, presentation, punctuality, and other attributes during other parts of the show. Part of what makes the show interesting to me is that it takes a lot to be a model, and before watching I just thought it was about “looking good.”

        As far as the body component goes… it is modeling. They are trying to sell a product. So what they’re doing makes sense in the context of the show. Of course I think the modeling industry is problematic from a physical and mental health standpoint (or maybe it’s human psychology itself that is problematic…) That hasn’t made me not want to watch the show.

        As for your last question, I don’t think the show gives me insight into what’s problematic about modeling. Nor am I sure how much it normalizes it for me. I’m not attracted to many of the models, especially with how frikkin thin they are, so I’ve stopped thinking that model = pretty person. I’ve come to think of the models as artists, cultivating a niche visual aesthetic.

      • Tim Martin says:

        More importantly, why is the blog clock set 4 hours ahead of EDT? Where ARE you?

  2. oj27 says:

    I have no idea why my clock is wonky. I suppose I could change it, but it’s more fun to confuse you all ๐Ÿ™‚

    I get what you’re saying about the show, but I do think they put most of the focus on physical beauty (that’s what I meant by bodies, bad wording, sorry), and that’s worrisome to me. Do you find the show problematic at all? How do you deal with problematic media?

    • Tim Martin says:

      I don’t find much problematic about the show itself. I kind of don’t know what could be problematic about it.

      Take, for example, what you said in your post about media that’s “good to women.” Lots of fictional stories use women as props – i.e. they are bad to women. In many of those stories, women *could* have been great characters – they just weren’t written that way. So it’s simply a matter of changing the content.

      ANTM, on the other hand, is a show about getting into the modeling industry. You can’t just rewrite the show to not care about physical beauty – that’s what the show IS. If anything, the state of the modeling industry is more troublesome to me than the existence of a show that reflects it.

      Also, I’m looking at what you dislike about the show, and I don’t get it:

      It taught me that what someone looked like was incredibly important, and that competition was important, and that if you could be the prettiest, nothing else mattered.

      Right… in a modeling competition. A modeling competition isn’t real life.

      As for how I deal with problematic media in general… I’ve never really thought about it. I suppose there are some things I wouldn’t want to watch. There are some things I write about. For example, there are a lot of BS body image things I’ve written about on FB (though I don’t think any have made it into my blog yet). And there are things that I watch somewhat disappointedly, like “man, did the guy have to be the hero here?”

  3. oj27 says:

    So as far as what could be problematic about the show itself I think there’s a lot to say there. First, I think that as a man you have a very different perspective on this than I do. It’s a lot easier for you to look at it as an isolated incident of a particular industry that very obviously revolves around bodies and then excuse the fact that they focus primarily on looks because that’s part of the industry. Unfortunately women don’t get to make it a singular incident because all of our lives are governed by the rule that in order to get ahead we should look good. So we simply come in with different expectations and understandings of bodies.

    In addition, when I was viewing this show I was about 15. Now as an adult it’s easier to look at the show and say “well this is one area, I don’t need to take it to heart”, but the show is aimed towards younger girls who may hear “you need to look more beautiful” as a general suggestion. That’s certainly how I took it. When I was 15 I didn’t have the critical media consumption skills to be able to question where these ideas are applicable.

    And you have to take ANTM in context: it’s not a single show that says “in this arena women need to be attractive”. It’s in the context of a LOT of media that says this to women, and a LOT of media that picks apart women’s bodies and pits those bodies against each other. I think that any show which encourages female on female hatred and competition, which encourages the mentality that women must be against each other and that women must be prettier than each other to succeed (even if it is in a particular arena) contributes to the larger societal message that that’s how women should interact.

    Finally, even if it IS a modeling show, it is not simply about portraying a business. It is about entertainment. They wouldn’t have created the show simply to portray the industry: they dramaticize it, they put in people they feel will be strong personalities. All of those things. So even though modeling is very likely a body focused/competitive industry, this show is not the modeling industry and we should hold it to the same standards we hold anything that comes directly into our house and is considered entertainment. It’s even considered to provide role models for young girls, when these role models are essentially people who are beautiful (I’ve watched the show and the young women are not portrayed as intelligent, compassionate or deep individuals. I”m sure there’s more to them than wanting to beat each other, but that’s pretty much all we see of them).

    So I think that the place that ANTM plays in the larger scheme of media is why it’s problematic. It contributes to the idea that it’s ok to dissect how a woman looks and judge her for it. It’s also not synonymous with the modeling industry, even though it’s related to it. And if you have a problem with the modeling industry, I don’t entirely understand how you could not see any problems with a show that glamorizes that industry and that makes it easy for young girls (myself included) to imagine themselves and dream of themselves as a model, in that industry, acting in those ways.

    Finally, I think that the image of “beautiful” that is presented on ANTM (and it is called beautiful over and over even if you personally don’t find it beautiful) can be damaging. It is very thin, it is often very white, it is very young. It says “this is beautiful and no one else is” and while you may interpret that as “within the modeling industry”, the show is not trying to add that addendum (because it’s trying to sell things and the best way to sell things is to make people insecure). So…that’s about all I have on my problems with it. But I think there are problems with it.

    • Tim Martin says:

      I see. I think you misunderstand me a bit in your first and third paragraphs: I am plenty aware of the context. But you didn’t ask me about the context; you asked me about the show. I’m not sure that my answer should have been any different given the question.

      Which gets into, what is the point of calling a show “problematic”? What are we trying to accomplish here? Obviously in terms of making people feel bad about themselves, ANTM is just one contributing factor out of many. If all you want me to do is acknowledge this, then I gladly do. But if you want to fix something, you need to fix a lot more than ANTM. Digital manipulation of commercial images would be a great place to start. Also, change the focus from women’s looks to other aspects of them.

      If you could change most of the important contributing factors to this problem, everyone would be better off. But in the end, you’d still have models who aspire to *some* kind of beauty standard, which means you’d still have a reality TV show in which models compete (albeit in a much less poisonous culture than before). So again, I’m not sure what your question is designed to get at. The show is probably harmful, but that’s mostly because of the culture in which it is broadcast. It seems we’re in agreement.

      A few nit-picks…

      “it is often very white”
      Really? Given the show’s usual cast sizes, they need just 2 black contestants and 1 asian contestant to meet or exceed those races’ representations in the general population. Sure, that makes the cast still mostly white, but what do you expect them to do – use 3 girls of every major race?

      “It contributes to the idea that itโ€™s ok to dissect how a woman looks and judge her for it.”
      I’m not sure what you mean by “ok” here, but I have no problem in principle with judging how someone looks. I do it everyday! I judge my hair and face to decide if they’re ready to leave the apartment. And then I judge lots of people I see on the street, which is actually an important part of finding a mate. I don’t have sex with people I’m not attracted to.

      • Barrett Vann says:

        Tim, I’d recommend checking out this article for a general overview of reasons why ANTM can be problematic:

        I say this as someone who does watch and enjoy the show as something of a guilty pleasure, mostly because I’m interested in the photoshoots from an artistic standpoint. I tend to fastforward through the housemate drama and tearful confessions to Tyra about why winning this means everything to them.

        Yes, very few of these problems are unique to ANTM. They’re also symptomatic of the larger culture of a) fashion, or b) reality television, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be recognised. A particular example which occurs to me was, in one of the recent seasons, the girls did a photoshoot clad in dresses made from nothing but empty water-bottles, in… Iceland, I think it may have been? Somewhere extremely cold, in any event. They went out and stood in the snow and the wind, basically naked, and some were shaking and crying by the time they got back inside. In the judging, many were criticised for letting any discomfort show in their eyes. This sort of thing does happen in the real fashion industry; most recently, Kate Upton posed for Sports Illustrated in a bikini, in Antarctica. She has gone on the record saying that she was so cold doing the shoot, her body was actually shutting down. Either way, the message is that beauty is more important than safety or comfort, that women should *always be beautiful* even when they are in extreme pain, that showing that pain is unprofessional.

      • Tim Martin says:

        Cool, I’ll check it out.

  4. nadith says:

    humorously off topic, iceland and greenland are a sort of misnomer, you’d probably do better to think of each the other way around. Which is not to say it isn’t cold in iceland, but…

    Hmm, is it okay to say it alright to treat people poorly because that is how a sect of people do it? I am all for raising awareness, but I don’t know if that is necessarily what the show is about. More, I feel it is a contribution towards than a commentary on. That said, I must admit I tend to miss these types of media.

    I don’t think the issue is guy/girl either, though I imagine ANTM is female oriented? I think the crux really is the sensationalism, what you may be looking for in something more… appropriate, or less problematic I suppose may be something which is more neutral. I personally am a feminist, but I don’t dance around females are the greatest and the same for atheism. In my day-to-day it really isn’t a topic of keen interest to most people. There are periods when it comes up, but that has never been too dramatic truly. Misunderstood perhaps, try explaining how I like to care, appreciate and express my appreciation for people every day, rather than on specific days for example.

    Tim, the show may take a certain context as its preface, but what it does with it and how it works with it is the nature of the show. What is focuses on, how it sensationalizes and what they consider the values to be is really the nature of the beast. Though admittedly the lines can be blurry, I think ANTM is more purporting the notion and idea(l)s than handling them or actually evaluating/judging/critiquing the nature. This though I should preface as I tend to agree the concepts of Terry Gilliam on the nature of TV, movies and media, which is not to speak out, but more to say I understand it is not the common thread and give a sense of where I come from.

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