Feminist Fandom: part 6 of 6

This week concludes the series of dissertation posts I’ve been doing this past few weeks (part one, part two, part three, part four, part five). Here’s the conclusion:

Feminist Fandom: Exploring the precarious relationship between third-wave feminism and television with reference to Sex and the City and The L Word (Part 6 of 6)

Problematic Elements and Conclusions

Throughout this essay, the texts are undoubtedly approached from the perspective of a loyal fan. However, I do not wish to overlook the criticisms of either series in my wish to justify my viewing pleasure, nor disregard the elements that cause me to take umbrage. There are moments of containment wherein the subversive aspects of both TLW and SatC are kept in check; there are also elements that are downright problematic, challenging my claim that both texts have third-wave credentials.

Firstly, given third-wave feminism’s focus on the intersectionality of oppressions (i.e. that oppression on the grounds of gender is linked to oppression on grounds of race, class, sexual orientation etc.), the lack of energy given to these issues on either show (particularly SatC) provides feminist viewers with a major stumbling block. This is particularly disappointing considering SatC’s sexually emancipatory values. Women of colour are in particular need of positive media representations of their sexuality – as Friedman and Valenti argue, “[f]ew bodies are more closely policed…than those belonging to women of color”.[1] Similarly, both texts disproportionately reflect “the choiceoisie of liberal feminism”[2]:

…emphasis on the freedom to play with lifestyles often neglects very basic questions about access to opportunities to consume.[3]

Another matter that from a third-wave perspective is almost unforgiveable is the poor treatment of bisexuality on both programmes, which stands in direct opposition to third-wave and queer ideas on the fluidity of gender and sexuality. Both texts marginalise this already-misunderstood identity and sustain dichotomous classifications of sexual orientation.

In SatC episode 3.4 (“Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl”) Carrie’s relationship with Sean, a bisexual man, results in a very problematic conversation in which Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte deny the very existence of bisexuality. Fairyington posits that one of the reasons our culture polices the boundary between homosexuality and heterosexuality so enthusiastically is that bisexuality “poses a threat to straight people, first and foremost, who feel secure behind an impenetrable wall of heterosexuality”.[4] TLW also upholds a binary definition of sexuality in its treatment of Alice’s character. Alice, who initially identifies as bisexual, is frequently tormented by her best friend Dana:

Though…Dana’s aggressive attempts to make Alice “choose” are reflective of how many lesbians see bisexuality, the fact that Alice’s main opportunities to discuss bisexuality occur in defensive situations mean that bisexuality is almost always cast in a negative light.[5]

It is easy to see how this would be a cause for concern for third-wave feminists who typically embrace fluid, post-structuralist notions of gender and sexuality.

The presence of regressive touches in these texts is disconcerting at best, and serves for third-wavers as a sharp reminder of the limitations of popular culture’s feminist potential. However, to dwell too much on these shortcomings risks stating the obvious, as Johnson points out:

There is still work to be done in the direction of raising consciousness and instilling media literacy, but for those of us who already get it, we want to know, what else is there to say? What is the most useful work for feminist media critics nowadays?[6]

The big question posed by SatC and TLW is this: what kind of feminism is palatable to a mainstream audience? Neither series would be nearly as successful if it weren’t for the idealization of the characters and setting, and neither series does much to challenge this. There is perhaps not much we can do about this – the psychological functions of film and television almost demand fantasy and visual pleasure in order to have a broad appeal. Popular illustrations of feminist values such as TLW and SatC are undoubtedly revitalizing feminism, but we must admit that “to grant legitimacy to forms of popular feminism entails giving up some forms of feminist authority.”[7]

Hopefully SatC and TLW are not one-offs and we will begin to see more and more progressive television shows that engage explicitly with third wave feminism. For some viewers it can be their only exposure to feminist values, and these programmes broaden their horizons and act as a form of consciousness-raising as illustration of feminist concepts takes place. For others who are already familiar with third wave and queer theory, there are significant pleasures to be found in exegesis and analysis of the texts.

There is a greediness among current feminist media scholars for a forum in which to discuss visual pleasure and fandom without shame or self-deprecation…Even if we ultimately decide that shows like…Sex and the City, and other popular original series are not feminist, the narrative arcs and visual rhetoric of these texts provoke rich, energetic conversations about feminism—over drinks at professional conferences as well as in the everyday feminist classroom.[8]

 


[1] Friedman & Valenti (2008: 11)

[2] Johnson, Merri Lisa (2007b) ‘Ladies Love Your Box: The Rhetoric of Pleasure and Danger in Feminist Television Studies’, in Johnson, Merri Lisa, ed. (2007a). Third Wave Feminism and Television. London, I. B. Tauris:2

[3] Hollows (2000: 133)

[4] Fairyington, Stephanie (2005) ‘Bisexuality and the Case Against Dualism’. The Gay and Lesbian Review [online]. Available: http://www.glreview.com/issues/12.4/12.4-fairyington.php. Las accessed 23rd March 2009.

[5] Lo, Malinda (2005). ‘The L Word’s Vanishing Bisexual’. 19th December 2005. AfterEllen [online].  Available from World Wide Web: http://www.afterellen.com/archive/ellen/TV/2005/12/thelword.html. Last accessed 17th November 2008: 2

[6] Johnson, Merri Lisa (2007b) ‘Ladies Love Your Box: The Rhetoric of Pleasure and Danger in Feminist Television Studies’, in Johnson, Merri Lisa (ed.) (2007a) Third Wave Feminism and Television. London, I. B. Tauris: 14

[7] Hollows (2000: 203)

[8] Johnson, Lisa (2004). ‘Way More Than a Tagline: HBO, Feminism, and the Question of Difference in Popular Culture’. The Scholar & Feminist Online [online]. 3.1, p.1. Available from World Wide Web: www.barnard.edu/sfonline/hbo/intro.htm. Last accessed 19th November 2008.

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