Fighting with the Sky

How Much Sexism Is Too Much?

Posted on: January 9, 2010

A couple weeks ago I received a great email from a reader that posed many thoughtful questions.  I want to start by addressing one of them here.

This reader brought up the fact that in one of my posts about Glee I stated tht I wasn’t sure if I would continue to watch the show if it weren’t for the musical numbers because of the amount of sexism, ableism, racism, etc. apparent in the show.  So, when does the sexism of the show outweigh the positive or entertaining aspects of the show?  How much sexism is too much?

Because of the society that we live in, there is at least some sexism (and other -isms) in all tv shows.  And I watch a lot of television, so I “put up with” a lot of sexism.  So why do I continue to watch all these shows even though there is apparent sexism in them?

First of all, I am interested in how pop culture reflects the values of society.  So even though I enjoy these shows, I am always critiquing them — analyzing what they are saying about society.

But we still have to come to terms with the fact that I enjoy these shows — they are entertaining to me — despite the fact that they promote values that I disagree with.  Of course there are some aspects of certain shows that promote feminism, but they are certainly in the minority and still have sexist aspects to them as well.

For example, Secret Life of the American Teenager goes back and forth between healthy and unhealthy attitudes towards teen (and adult, sometimes) sexuality.  There is the teen who in one episode thinks that the fact that she had sex with her boyfriend whom she loves killed her father, then has a conversation about masterbation with her mother in another episode.  And Bones can have a great portrayal of bisexuality in Angela and then can portray stereotypes in heterosexual male-female reationships (Bones and Booth).  And there are some many other examples that I could go into.

But there are still many shows that I enjoy that have very few positive feminist aspects (How I Met Your Mother, Gossip Girl, Grey’s Anatomy, etc.).  When does the sexist factor outweigh the entertainment factor?

Honestly, I’m not quite sure.  I think it depends on each person and each show.  There are certainly a lot of shows that I don’t watch.  And that might be becuase their sexism and oppressive norms outweight the entertainment…or that the premise of the show just doesn’t interest me.  But I don’t really think there is a set line that can be used as a template for all shows.

I know this isn’t really an answer to the question.  But I can speak to my personal preference in continuing ot watch shows.

First of all, I have a tendancy to get invested in characters and storylines.  Shows that are good at storytelling tend to keep my interest.  Also, characters that I can either identify with in some way or see as an escape from my life can keep me interested in the show.  For example, I use Gossip Girl as an escape from my life because the lives of the characters are so different from mine…but I can still see some of my personality traits in some of the characters.  If the show can’t keep me interested in the storyline and invested in the characters, then the sexism will start to outweigh the entertainment factor for me.

So…how much sexism is too much in television?  I don’t know.  It has to be considered with the storyline and characters of the show…at least for me.  I might have a higher tolerance for shows that have apparent sexism than other people.  But, like I said, even if the storyline and characters are enough to keep me interested in the show, I am still always critiquing and analyzing what the show is saying about society and the sexism, racism, ableism, etc. that is in the show.


3 Responses to "How Much Sexism Is Too Much?"

Ooh, great post. I was thinking about this last night because I went to see The Taming of the Shrew. The play in and of itself is entirely cringeworthy to me because of all the “women must obey their husband” and the virtual selling off of the daughters. But still, it’s Shakespeare – is it entirely unredeemable? I could enjoy the play on a purely superficial level, having a laugh and enjoying the way the presented something that has already been seen a thousand times. That doesn’t stop me from critiquing it in the back of my mind.

We’re living in a world in which sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism and a thousand other oppressions are entrenched and the entertainment we see reflects that. I suppose we have to look at it as a sliding scale, just because one film might display a great approach to gender politics doesn’t mean it can’t still fail in terms of its disability politics or on some other level. And I suppose the degree to which it’s just too much to sit through will be different for everybody.

Great post! I’ve been thinking about this too, with How I Met Your Mother. Every single episode part of me debates whether or not it’s even worth watching anymore, considering it pretty much makes my head explode every week. But then again…it’s so funny that I keep watching it. Sigh.
You know what bugs me most about that show? (Yeah, there’s so much, it’s hard to pick.) It’s the fact that they include these two great female characters–fleshed out, no more caricatured than the male characters (and heck, it’s a sitcom, they’re all caricatures to a certain extent), and so it SEEMS deceptively feminist…until you see the total disdain (both on the part of the writers and the characters) of almost every single other women on the show. (Especially the women Barney sleeps with, but Ted’s girlfriend’s fit this to a lesser extent as well) They draw this great big line between “women who are intelligent individuals worthy of friendship, love, and respect” and “women who are ridiculous, crazy, gullible, and completely deserve our derision.” It bothers me to no end.

“girlfriend’s”? Did I really just do that? Lol.

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