It’s okay to like pop culture with dubious social elements

I really enjoy Game of Thrones. 

Game of Thrones is filled with racism, misogyny, disablism, and hugely dubious social themes. It’s not progressive television by any stretch of the imagination, and I absolutely own that. My enjoyment of it doesn’t magically erase these issues just because I’m a critical viewer and thinker. Neither am I going to attempt to justify my enjoyment in an attempt to ensure that my viewing habits meet some kind of purity test — I’m also not going to try to cover it up in order to avoid letting people know that the things I love are anything less than perfect. I watch Game of Thrones, I like watching it, there’s a lot I love about it, like the complicated storytelling, the stunning settings, the beautiful costumes, the complex references and tie-ins with history while it also deviates wildly into the realm of fantasy.

There’s a tendency among certain circles to take situations like this — enjoying media that we recognise is seriously rife with social problems — and do one of three things with it:

  1. Pretend we’re not consuming it
  2. Turn it into a ‘guilty pleasure,’ framed as ‘I know I shouldn’t indulge, but’
  3. Attempt to justify it with a lengthy and complicated analysis to convince ourselves and others that the work has social merit — for example, that Sansa’s rape scene was included as a complicated metaphorical commentary on media, pop culture, the handling of rape, or any number of other things

All of these responses are ridiculous and they don’t serve any good other than making people feel better about the media they consume. The notion that all people must be perfect all of the time is inherently flawed and it leads to putting people on pedestals and holding them to unreasonable standards, which in turn creates devastation when clay feet crumble and people realise that those around them are just human beings, no more, no less. Some people may be surprised to learn that I watch Game of Thrones, play Cards Against Humanity, engage with other media that’s deeply, deeply flawed.

I do so because I genuinely enjoy it, and I also critique all these media aggressively — I’m not going to shrug off their problems and engage with them uncritically, and I talk about their issues quite openly as a fan. Cards Against Humanity, for example, has some serious issues with racism, something people who dislike the game have pointed out and something that people who play the game should also acknowledge and discuss. It’s possible to really enjoy something while also recognising that some things about it are deeply not okay. I flinched when watching Sansa’s rape scene because it was totally not okay, and I didn’t attempt to convince myself and others that it was anything other than unacceptable. I am under no illusions about the media I consume.

Sometimes I do feel genuinely betrayed by creators because they have an excellent track record and I’ve really enjoyed the elements of thoughtful awareness in their work and then they pull the rug out from under me. George R.R. Martin is not one of those creators. I know exactly what to expect coming in, and I have to accept that price or opt not to watch the series based on his books — many people prefer not to watch Game of Thrones and I can see why. I don’t browbeat people into watching it, or into retracting their entirely valid and important critiques, many of which I agree with.

Acting like we don’t consume pop culture that’s issue-laden is a disservice. It’s a part of us, for better or for worse, and being open about it creates a room for conversation. We should know who is consuming things and why, and it shouldn’t be shameful to admit enjoying something that has a seriously troubling relationship with consumers and the world around it. Some people really enjoyed Glee and liked watching it while also recognising that many elements of the show were really harmful. Talking about the show and tuning in for it every week didn’t make them bad people — going underground and not engaging with these things at all would be a bigger problem, as fans are often in the best position to critique media and identify problems, because they know the work so intimately and they’re so invested in it.

Identifying something as a ‘guilty pleasure’ is also wrong. No pleasure is guilty, it’s just a pleasure. Pleasure should be value neutral. There’s nothing wrong with eating chocolate cake and liking it, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying romance novels, there’s nothing wrong with watching police procedurals. People can engage in all of these activities without being terrible people, and they can criticise them to greater or lesser degrees depending on their mood, tastes, and relationships to them. (Incidentally, cake, romance, and procedurals all run a broad spectrum between fantastically complex, layered, and engaging to delightfully fluffy and provided for mere entertainment value, and all of these things are valid.) Don’t make people feel guilty for enjoying things, and don’t apologise for what you enjoy. This can create really harmful social structures and it doesn’t serve anyone.

And then there’s the retreat to analysis: You’ve accepted that you like watching something and you want to be open about it, you’re not going to apologise for it, so now, you must justify it. That means a snarled discussion about the work in which you strive to convince not just others but also yourself of its merits — ‘Blurred Lines’ is a complicated social critique, police who falsify evidence are doing it in an environment where it’s not presented uncritically and where viewers are supposed to dislike them, even when they’re main characters and generally positively portrayed protagonists. These actions too are a disservice, because they elide valid critiques: You can think ‘Blurred Lines’ is catchy and like dancing to it and also point out that it’s super-rapey. You can enjoy a police drama and still note that the reliance on falsified evidence and coerced confessions speaks to serious problems within the law enforcement community.

It’s okay to like media that’s not socially progressive. Just own it, that’s all.

Image: We’re All Ghosts in the Theatre, Justin Kern, Flickr