Believe it or not, watching TV with a feminist lens can be fun, and it doesn’t have to be hard. When it comes down to it, it’s just critical thinking, asking questions about the media you’re looking at.
If we aren’t looking at media critically it can exercise undue influence on our views about people from different backgrounds, on what products we choose to buy, and on what behaviour we consider appropriate or inappropriate. The messages and images it contains can reinforce or subvert stereotypes that underpin inequality.
For example media can encourage us to feel insecure about our looks because we can’t live up to the beauty ideals in ads. Or it can show us new possibilities for our society, like Star Trek does (see the more Star Trek-specific version of this article at Trekkie Feminist).
When someone critiques representations in media, it’s not about them hating on your favourite show. In order to critique something to the level that I’m doing with Star Trek, you really have to love it and care about it enough to think it’s worth your time to try and change it for the better.
I operate from bell hooks’ definition of feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” I also believe that we can’t achieve equality for all women without addressing concurrent forms of inequality and discrimination, such as racism, homophobia, trans phobia, ableism and classism. That influences the types of questions I ask and how I interpret the messages I see on TV.
Here are the types of questions I ask when I’m doing feminist media analysis.
- Who are the main characters? What are their demographics (gender, race, age, sexual orientation)?
- Do any of them have unique abilities or disabilities?
- What are their major character traits and what are their interests and hobbies? Do they reinforce or challenge stereotypes about their gender, race, etc.?
- How much power do they have as individuals and within their intimate relationships, social group, workplace or organization?
- How is their wardrobe used to define them?
- How does a character change and evolve over the course of a series?
- Watch the background of scenes: How diverse are the extras?
- Do any of the characters or plot lines embody tropes and do particular tropes show up repeatedly? According to tvtropes.org: “Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” Tropes are not necessarily bad, but several (e.g. the “Damsel in Distress”) are problematic, especially when used repeatedly.
- Who is the intended audience? What assumptions does the content make about their interests?
- Who created the show and why? Who is paying for it and who is materially benefiting from it?
- How does the show and particular scenes make you feel? How might someone from a different background feel while watching? For example, how might someone who has experienced sexual assault engage with a show like Law and Order: SVU differently than someone who hasn’t?
At Trekkie Feminist I chose to run every episode I watch through the Bechdel test.
In case you’re not familiar with it, here are the criteria a piece of media needs to meet to pass the Bechdel test:
- There must be at least two [named] women characters;
- Who talk to each other;
- About something other than a man.
It’s not a test of whether a piece of media is feminist. But if a show or movie can’t even meet that basic standard it can be indicative of a lack of women characters or that the ones who are there might be tokenized, stereotyped, or one-dimensional.
That gives you a pretty good idea about what I’m looking out for when watching and reviewing TV episodes. Most of this can also be applied to other forms of media, from movies to comic books, with medium-specific additions.
Are there any questions you’d add to the list?
More Great Media Literacy Resources:
- Jennifer Pozner’s “Reality Bites Back” book and website
- Women, Action, & The Media (WAM!)
- Miss Representation
- Women’s Media Center
- SPARK Movement
- Feminist Frequency
- Media Smarts (Canadian media literacy organization)
(Photo in the public domain as a work of the US Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.)