It’s no secret that mainstream media has many representation problems. The lack of diverse characters, as well as the reluctance to face certain issues, have resulted in a limited vision of the world, which only presents a remarkably small amount of the population.
The stories we tell are shaped by the world around us; but we must never forget that those narratives are also shaping our realities. Whether we are aware of it or not, stories help us understand our surroundings. That’s why there are children books, foundational mythologies, and religious books such as the Bible or the Quran.
For as long as there have been stories –starting from those early-on tales–, women have been used as a story-telling device. They have been an instrument in someone else’s journey, as the male heroes acted upon them.
Women have been paying attention to this problem for decades, and have developed ways to combat it (such as the Bechdel test, the reversal of gender roles in several cult classics, or the production of realistically diverse media, such as that of Shondaland).
That’s why I’m flabbergasted by the incredible success of shows that portray toxic masculinity it all its gory glory.
In the recent years, shows that have been amongst the more revered titles are True Detective, Mindhunter, You, 13 Reasons Why; or documentaries like The Ted Bundy Tapes.
People –actually, most of the viewers are women– enjoy sneaking a peek into the most gruesome murder cases, even in that violence is shown in extremely explicit ways.
Now, it’s one thing to aspire to a true representation of reality, which calls into question the institutionalized misogyny, and the corresponding behaviors of toxic masculinity. But the popularity of these shows does beg several questions: how many of the viewers question the masculinity of True Detective; how many people recognize how similar Holden (Mindhunter)is to the killers he interviews? Do teenagers recognize that the 13 Reasons Why is not only about high school bullying, but also about abuse and experiences around gender? Are people comfortable with the stalking in You?
The overwhelming success of this kind of media makes me wonder if we have confused representation with voyeurism.
I’ve read before that women enjoy this shows because they ‘understand what living with fear feels like so much better than men’. This is essentially incorrect, because as we project ourselves into these fictions we are not empathizing with the victims, but rather, with the people who act around them, and upon them.
We are using their fear to remind ourselves that we are not she. We revel in the fact that we are not the object of an oppression that we perceive as purely fictional. We are ‘voyeurs’, peeking behind the curtain, satisfying our curiosity on how toxic behaviors affect people different from us.
However, no matter how safe we might feel as watchers, we are still facing that oppression in the real world. What these shows are portraying is the escalating violence towards women, which is indeed a very tangible reality, recognized as a public health problem.
Most media is not concerned with accurate representation or with challenging the patriarchal narratives and expectations. They are produced as to appeal to our voyeuristic side, so we can en joy them without really having to stop and ask ourselves if this things are happening around us.
There’s a fine line between portraying something for visibility, and showing it to appease certain urges in the viewer. For instance, it’s not the same to portray a lesbian couple as complex people, protagonists of their own story, than to show them completely sexualized in order to appeal to the hetero male gaze.
Today, viewers are rapidly turning into voyeurs, getting desensitized to other people’s struggles and suffering. That’s why most of these shows won’t make you truly uncomfortable. They just suggest some kind of uneasiness, but don’t dare cross the line into true disgust.
This voyeurism may very well spark a dialogue around certain topics, but it is also just as probable that it is making people increasingly comfortable with the notion of violence against women. It’s so present in our daily lives that we have normalized it completely.
As a feminist, and an empath, I have stopped consuming this kind of media. I long for creators to tell complex stories, in which women can take center roles without becoming a victim, and in which women can act, rather than be acted upon. I trust there are people out there with a vision, capable of writing the new narratives our world so desperately needs.