Queer viewers are all very familiar with TV breaking our hearts and sending us into rage spirals. Sometimes it’s writers or showrunners tripping over tired cliches, or playing into harmful tropes; sometimes it’s writers and showrunners refusing to take responsibility for the fact that pop culture perceptions play an enormous — some would even argue the most influential — role in shaping public perceptions, and therefore politics and policy and just general quality of life for minorities in the world; sometimes it’s writers and showrunners simply refusing to listen. In this TV Team roundtable, Carmen Phillips, Natalie, Valerie Anne, Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Riese, and I are going to dig into how we handle the TV that lets us down, who’s getting it right, and what our breaking points are.
Heather: Are you able to personally enjoy TV shows, even if they have problematic elements?
Riese: I wrote “absolutely yes” and then realized that, well, there are probably exceptions. I mean I hate the word “problematic” but I feel like every show at some point goes there, and there tends to be a significant disconnect between The Discourse and Hollywood. I prefer to focus on the truly important things, like what happened to Kat’s luggage when she went straight from a cab from the airport to an event and how auditions actually work at prestigious theater conservatories like the legendary NYADA. Like I know there’s been some backlash at The Handmaid’s Tale this season for how gratuitous the violence against women has become, but the show itself is just such a work of art I can’t stop watching. If the entire premise is messed up, like 13 Reasons Why, it’s hard for me to stick around. But, sometimes I still do. Every show that’s on for more than two seasons is gonna screw up.
Carmen: The violence in season two of The Handmaid’s Tale really broke me! I couldn’t get past it.
Natalie: As the saying goes, “all your faves are problematic,” so I’ve just come to accept that nearly every show I love will have some problematic element (or elements) in it. Shows are crafted within the minds of humans who, however well-intentioned, will have blind spots or just screw up sometimes. As a critic, or even just as a fan, you have to decide where your line is, how many “screw ups” you can oblige before you just walk away.
I watched UnREAL‘s first season and loved it, but by season two, the show had so exceeded the bounds of what I could abide that I had to stop watching. Conversely, for years now I’ve been bothered by Jane the Virgin’s treatment of Luisa’s character, but my discontent about that has been mitigated by everything else that show does right so I can justify continuing to watch.
Kayla: I super agree with the sentiment that all your faves are problematic. TV shows pretty much never entirely transcend the racist, patriarchal, heteronormative institutions that they’re made within. I have the same issue with the way Jane The Virgin treats Luisa, but there’s so much I love about the show that I would never jump ship over that either. Of course I want progress and I want the shows I love to constantly strive to do better, but I also think that a lot of the time, the line is just so personal for people. I can’t watch Game Of Thrones anymore, but I am not going to tell someone that they’re wrong to still watch it/enjoy it. Sure, I might engage them in some sort of critical conversation, but I’m a TV critic! That’s what I do!
Valerie Anne: I think it depends on the problematic elements? There are so many shows out there now that I feel comfortable being a bit more discerning with what I choose to watch. For me, comedies are the shows I’m most likely to drop because of problematic jokes — if a show things even low-key homophobia, racism, or fatphobia is funny, we’re probably not compatible. But if a show is doing a lot of things right and does one thing wrong, I’m more likely to forgive than not. I think I have an unwritten three-strike style rule.
It also depends on how a show talks about an issue behind the scenes; if a show is saying “we fucked up” or “we realize now we could have done that better,” I’m much more inclined to give it a second chance than if they shrug it off or don’t address it. And also, if done right, some things that are bad on paper still work for me. Like my current problematic fave, Killing Eve.
Carmen: I was struggling how to answer this question, there are just so many competing variables that go into whether I can watch something “problematic” or not, but I think Valerie really hit the nail on the head for me! If a show makes a major blunder and can acknowledge their mistake, I am much more inclined to stick with it and encourage them to grow. I keep thinking back to Orange is the New Black. Poussey’s death is unforgivable. There is no excusing that, but the fact that Jenji Kohan and the writers’ room doubled down on making excuses as to why her death was politically necessary was cruel. It ruined the show for me.
And also, I’m talking about large scale mess ups. Television microaggressions mostly roll off of my back. There’s always a bigger fish to fry, you know?
Heather:I reached a breaking point last year with the kind of social media activism that loudly and incessantly insists that writing or talking about TV shows that have problematic elements — even if you’re clear-eyed and articulate about them— is a betrayal to the community, that we should just shut out (and shut up about) all TV that wrongs us in any way. And the reason I couldn’t abide that any longer is that most TV critics are straight white cis men who aren’t even seeing these problematic storytelling elements; certainly they’re not naming them in their reviews and recaps. I think it’s my responsibility to participate in these conversations, to be smart and funny and engaging inside of them, because being shut out of that circle of criticism cuts me off from ever trying to make change. How do y’all feel about that as critics?
Riese: I agree, I think it’s absurd when people think us not writing about a show is like an important protest vote or something? Seriously, that’s not how TV criticism works! That’s how a personal Tumblr works.
Kayla: AGREED. I didn’t get too much backlash, but there were some folks on Twitter who were not happy with me for recapping The 100 for Vulture. To which I say: First of all, I have bills to pay??????????? Second, don’t you want to have a queer woman of color who understands the context of this show’s missteps contributing to the conversation?
Valerie Anne: I agree, we have to keep talking about things. Boycotting entire TV shows isn’t going to make as much of a difference as discussing it critically and publicly. Boycotting reads as “oh some people didn’t like this” whereas discussing it can lead to “oh I didn’t realize why that might be harmful” and actually help others make better choices in the future.
Natalie: I agree with all of you. Honestly, I’m kind of mystified that this kind of thinking still exists. Maybe if we were still in a time where we were starved for representation, I’d understand that need to be overprotective, but, for where we are now, this just feels tremendously self-defeating.
Marlene King (the showrunner of Pretty Little Liars) is probably a bad example, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that she was the type of showrunner who responded well to constructive criticism. Imagine that she, after killing Maya St. Germain, didn’t dismiss the backlash as upset ‘shippers. What if she seriously considered that she had, however inadvertently, employed these awful tropes? Tropes that are rooted in an effort to minimize the role of LGBT people and people of color. If she had taken this lesson from the criticism over killing Maya, maybe she’s a bit more vigilant about avoiding harmful tropes going forward – maybe the mess surrounding Cece Drake wouldn’t have happened.
My interest, both as a fan and as a critic, is to push writers towards creating more authentic representation and away from recycled tropes. I’m interested in taking a writer’s work seriously — I imagine they put a lot of work into it — and offering a critique from a well-intentioned place. I hope more writers and fans learn to take it that way.
Heather: This is a great example, Natalie! Most people don’t know that you and I went from kind of knowing each other a little in TV recap comments to becoming internet acquaintances to becoming coworkers and friends because when Maya died, I was recapping Pretty Little Liars as a freelancer for a different website, and I also wrote it off in what you helped me see was a deliberately obtuse and callous way. I will never forget the message you sent me about it. It was smart and generous, but also really honest. It changed everything about the way I thought about my job. As soon as I had the ability to hire TV writers myself, I came to get you. If you had just quit me and my writing back then and not engaged with me or urged me to be clearer-eyed, there’s a good chance neither you or I would be doing what we’re doing right now! You should never have had to do that labor on me, but you did, and it changed things for both of us.
Carmen: Oh my God! I don’t really have anything to add, but that is the cutest and the best story!! I love knowing how we all found each other in this world.
Heather: Are there times when you’re willing to forgive TV for its mistakes and let it back into your good graces? Or, like Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, is your good opinion once lost, lost forever?
Valerie Anne: My aforementioned three-strike rule works like this: I’ll forgive and not forget a few times, but once I do get to the point of fully quitting a show, I don’t think I could ever go back. Maybe that’s why it takes so much for me to actively quit a show, because I know it’s forever, and I want to make sure I’m really, really done with it. The character assassination and then the literal assassination of Leslie Shay on Chicago Fire hit me so hard that I never even watched other shows in the franchise. I dropped it right then and there and never looked back. So I think my answer is yes I’m willing to forgive, but once a show is lost to me, it’s lost forever.
Carmen: I’m the exact same way! It takes a lot a lot for me to quit a show, but once I’ve cut ties I can’t go back.
Natalie: In most situations, I leave open the possibility of forgiveness. But that forgiveness isn’t just be given, it has to be earned. Forgiveness comes through acknowledging the screw-up and/or making amends for it in future storytelling. Like Valerie said, there are also just sometimes when you’ve got to cut bait and run. Sometimes the mistake is so egregious that it can’t be forgiven, like UnREAL’s second season, or where I have zero confidence in the writers’ abilities to right their wrongs, as with the aforementioned Chicago Fire (I don’t care how many times they try to entice me with a Sarah Shahi guest appearance, I will not do it).
Heather: You know it’s bad when even Sarah Shahi can’t tempt a queer audience to come back! Can you think of any good examples of shows that let you down but that ultimately righted its wrongs? Or got enough stuff right to make up for their wrongs?
Riese: I think Transparent really evolved because Jill Solloway is very tapped into The Community and I think did a good amount of balancing listening to feedback with trusting their own instincts. But Transparent never really let me down, so to speak, aside from the obvious off set issues. I think its authenticity is part of why people felt close enough to it to notice some of its problems and raise them. Jill and (I think) several of their family members are trans and/or queer, so they were just very willing from the start to imagine a world of majority queer people, even on a show focused on one family, and that will win me over every time. (Everyone being queer!)
Beyond that, basically I just want, I guess, every show that I like to have a lesbian or bisexual character. So I’m pleased when that happens. Like Jane the Virgin kinda sidelined Luisa, but then they made up for it with the Petra/JR thing. Glow and Riverdale added queers and made some present characters more queer, which delighted me. Honorable choices, those shows!
But if I’m only mildly sold on the show anyhow and they kill or otherwise bury a queer female character, like The Arrangement did, I’m done.
Valerie Anne: One of the most obvious examples I can think of is when Arrow literally unburied their gay. Sara Lance came back to life and went on to become the badass bisexual of our dreams and leader of her own band of time-traveling misfits. Also Legends of Tomorrow itself started off rocky, but then pivoted to make Sara the lead instead of Rip Hunter. It was a bold, but necessary move and truly improved the show. And it’s too early to say for sure, but Supergirl may be righting its wrongs. The last few episodes of the season seemed to be directly addressing its biggest flaws and I have newfound hope for next season.
Natalie: As I mentioned in our last roundtable, I think The Bold Type really tried to address questions that the audience had (myself included) about the way that Kat was written. They owned up to their mistake and tried to address it in episode 202. While I thought that episode was terrible, the fact that they addressed it at all was a positive step. This week’s Bold Type episode, I thought, took a step beyond that. So, not only had they heard the criticism, but they really learned from it. I think that’s just the ideal situation and I hope that other writers and showrunners really learn from the example The Bold Type has set.
Grey’s Anatomy is another show that I let go of for several seasons, after the disappointment of watching Erica Hahn disappear in the Seattle Grace parking lot. I’d lost a character who I’d come to see part of myself in – and who gave me one favorite scenes of television, ever. She’d been ousted and replaced by a younger, perkier model. It just felt wrong to indulge in it, no matter how much I still loved Callie Torres. Eventually, I found my way back because it was clear they were still invested in telling Callie’s story and… well… they let Sara Ramirez sing on primetime TV.
Carmen: Let me just pop right back in here, because we can’t talk about Sara Ramirez in the Grey’s Anatomy musical episode without me showing up to squeal about it a little. It’s my bat signal. SQUEAL!!! SARA RAMIREZ IS SO TALENTED AND DESERVES EVERY GOOD THING IN THIS WORLD!! Yes, that was in all caps. I don’t care. She deserves EVERY GOOD THING. Okay, as you were.
Heather:I’m actually not very much of a come-back person, in real life or in TV life, but I think that’s because it takes me sooooo long to finally lose my patience with something or someone — like you gotta really push and push and push and push for me to snap — and once that finally happens, I’m like, “Okay, well, forget it FOREVER.”
Kayla: Haha, I almost always come back! What does that say about me!!!! I think the most extreme example is American Horror Story, which I have said I will “never watch again” probably at least seven times over the course of its run? And yet, I always come back. And not even because they fixed anything! Ryan Murphy just dangles Sarah Paulson in front of me, and I’m like SOLD. (The only season I didn’t finish was AHS: Hotel.) But as for shows that have kind of addressed previous problems, I agree that The Bold Type is making some strides. Grey’s Anatomy always brings me back, too, somehow.
Riese: Oh yeah, AHS. Freakshow and Hotel I both quit because the gore and the violence and the sexual assault was more than I could handle. But each season is its own beast so I usually give each new one a chance. Unless, say, it’s a season about a witch coven THAT SOMEHOW HAS NO QUEER FEMALE CHARACTERS IN IT.
Carmen: I’m probably going to yelled at in the comments for this, but I think Once Upon a Time finally got their act together in their last season. Not only did they fix the show’s glaring whiteness problem by casting an Afro-Latina actress, Dania Ramirez, as their new Cinderella and incorporating Princess Tiana into the show’s main cast, they also finally wrote a compelling main character gay romance. I could have watched five more seasons of Robin Hood and Alice of Wonderland falling love. They were adventurous and quirky and kind to each other. They were everything that the show had previously done so well with their successful straight romances, proving what I knew all along – the writers could do it, if they only had tried.
I know that a lot of Once’s queer fandom was #SwanQueen or bust, and I respect that. Also, the timing of when they fixed their problem reeks of “too little, too late.” There’s no getting around it. I don’t think it was ultimately enough to right their many seasons long legacy of wrong, but they did eventually get there. I think it’s an important asterisk on that show’s legacy.
Heather: What are your absolute TV deal breakers?
For me, if a male showrunner or writer talks over me to try to tell me or any other queer woman how it is, I’m out. I will never forget this one show creator emailing me to tell me how naive I was because he’d had a lesbian friend, okay, and according to her, lesbians do, in fact, die, and so that’s why this character died because it happens in real life and I was a child if I didn’t acknowledge mortality. I also agree with what Valerie said earlier about comedy. I don’t watch shows that make minorities the butt of their jokes, ever. Violence against women is also something I can’t deal with — which is a real pickle as a critic because prestige TV shows sure do like rape.
Riese: Not having lesbian or bisexual characters, first and FOREMOST. I mean, there’s a lot of shows I watch for queer storylines and if they stop having queer storylines, even if the queer character is still there, I often drop off. Also, consistently bad storytelling. Though I might not have a real deal breaker!
Valerie Anne: I don’t know if I have any hard and fast, “you do this you’re 100% out” deal breakers. Except for the types of jokes I mentioned before. I track my TV shows on Sidereel (nerd) and I do have a list called “half-heartedly quit for now” for shows that I’m just so far behind on that catching up feels like a chore because they stopped bringing me that excited joy of having a new episode of a show I love. And it’s not usually because of a thing they did; usually it’s things they DIDN’T do. Like Riese said, not having queer characters is one reason I might drift off a show. Also sorry/not sorry but Too Many Dudes is a non-starter for me.
Natalie: It’s hard for me to pinpoint just one thing; it’s one of those things that you just know instinctively when you see it. That said, I am growing increasingly tired of the male savior trope and of writers who subject their characters to awful fates just so other characters, and by extension, the audience, can learn something. Nope, nope, nope. I’m tired of it, and there’s too much good TV on for me to continue to subject myself to these god awful tropes.
Carmen: Ha! Would it be wrong for me to shout out Orange is the New Black here? Oh well, I’m gonna do it anyway!
Kayla: I’m not really sure I have a concrete deal breaker (other than just like, something that’s really terribly written?), but I do have limits when it comes to sexual violence. Two shows that I have successfully stopped watching are Game Of Thrones and UnREAL. I’m not sure what the latter could do to get me back, but as for GOT, the only way in hell I would watch the final season (and the seasons I’ve missed before it) is if all six of the final episodes were written AND directed by women, so… it’s never gonna happen.
Carmen: My biggest deal breaker by far is what I call “the sad, angry white male anti-hero.” I’ve never seen Breaking Bad or Mad Men and I have no interest thank you. (Wait, I have seen parts of Mad Men that related to Christina Hendricks or Elizabeth Moss, but that’s it.) I watched and loved The Sopranos and that was pretty much my fill of the entire genre. That means I miss a lot of “prestige” television, but guess what? I’m fine with that. I’d rather be told a thousand stories about women, and I schedule my television priorities accordingly. Also, I’m like so many other folks in this roundtable, I can’t abide strong violence against women. I’ve never seen Games of Thrones and I never will. While I think the work that they’re doing is important, it would take a lot for me to stomach going back to Handmaid’s Tale
Heather: What TV shows have let you down the most?
Riese: The L Word, obviously. My first love. You’re always gonna have a special spot in your heart for your first love and all the mixed-up feelings they gave you, and how they hurt you. It was the first show I watched and wrote about as a critic — I was surprisingly very uncritical of it before it became my “job.” Still, there’s so much I didn’t notice or criticize that I would now, although I also love it dearly, and always will.
Then, you know. You know! Glee.
And finally, Orange is the New Black. I loved it so much and there’s so much talent on that show, so many queer characters, so racially diverse. Killing Poussey how they did and for the reasons they did was just a really terrible move. It also further cast light on a lot of issues the show already had about race. I still watch it, but nobody else does anymore! We actually asked about what shows people watched on our reader survey last year, and included an option for “I used to but I don’t anymore” and 52% said they watched OITNB and 36% said they used to but not anymore! The next-highest “I used to watch this but don’t anymore” was Pretty Little Liars (28%), then Grey’s Anatomy (25%) (but I mean it’s been on for so long, it shouldn’t count), The Fosters (21%) and then nothing else was over 15%. So that’s a lot! How did I turn this into a data conversation?
Carmen: Riese! One of my favorite things about you is how you can turn any conversation into an Autostraddle Data Conversation! That’s one of your superpowers! (Also, I still watch every single show on that “Used To Watch List”, or at least I watched them until their final series finale. I really don’t break up with television easily. That’s something to know about me.)
Valerie Anne: There are a lot of shows that really let me down in the last season(s). Pretty Little Liars, Warehouse 13, Glee. One of my biggest heartbreaks was Once Upon a Time. The first season of that show was so fun and original and then slowly, but surely descended into garbage.
Heather: Riese, one of the most formative moments in my life as a critical thinker about TV was when you started writing about how messed up and also just factually inaccurate Max’s pregnancy storyline was on The L Word. We were definitely in a time, as a culture, when it was realllllly tricky to criticize the very few shows putting queer women on TV, but you were just like, “Okay. Enough. This is honestly dangerous at this point.” And you did it when you were just starting out; you didn’t have the clout and prestige you do today as the leader of Autostraddle.
For me, it’s Pretty Little Liars and Skins. My attachment to those shows was personal because I wrote about them, but more than that, I had so many conversations with the people who made those shows and I know for a fact the writers read so much of what I wrote, so the fact that they understood where they were messing up but continued to do so, it breaks my heart. Also I’ll echo what everyone has said about Orange Is the New Black. Killing Poussey was already egregious but what came after — both in PR and storytelling — was beyond the pale.
Carmen: I’ve name dropped them a thousand times, but I do not care, my answer to this question forever and always will be Orange is the New Black. If I think too long about it, I still can physical stomach pains over what they did to Poussey. And that was, like two years ago now? I’m still not over it and I probably never will be. We’ve written a lot about why those storytelling decisions were so awful, so I won’t rehash it all here (but feel free to read it for yourself: here, here, here, and here). I will love that cast forever and will support them in whatever they do, but Jenji Kohan is going to have one hell of a hill in getting me to watch one of her shows ever again. I still haven’t seen Glow.
I haven’t broken up with it yet, but Queen Sugar has made some awful decisions surrounding erasing Nova Bordelon’s sexuality in its second and third seasons. This one is more of a personal burn for me, because there are heartbreakingly few shows with a majority black cast and black audience to include a queer woman protagonist. Queen Sugar is breathtakingly directed and written, it can hold its own against any other prestige television show. But it gets very little media shine, because it’s a black production on OWN. I gave it my whole entire heart (my love for it was so epic that it became the show that got me this job on Autostraddle). It’s still all of those things, but the decision to have Nova not even reference her sexuality in the last two years is a very big pill that they keep expecting me to swallow.
Natalie: Yes, Carmen, PREACH! What Queen Sugar is doing with Nova has been the bitterest pill, especially since the character wasn’t queer in the source material and they specifically made her that way to create visibility for black queer women. Now, it’s gone. Ava, you just won a GLAAD Award, what are you doing?!
Heather: Who do you think is getting it right?
Riese: When it comes to shows w/queer characters? One Mississippi BEFORE IT WAS CANCELLED. Okay I won’t talk about other cancelled shows, I just remembered that one suddenly and my heart hurt. Currently: Vida, One Day at a Time, Fresh Off The Boat. I think Transparent does, mostly, although we all well, yes. Okay. High Maintenance! Don’t sleep on that show, y’all. Pose. Although I wish one of the women on the show was a lesbian or bisexual. Just saying. (It’s a Ryan Murphy show, so it’ll happen eventually. I really want Angel to be bi!) I feel like one thing you can count on, along with planets rotating around each other as they will, is Degrassi usually getting shit right.
Valerie Anne: It should surprise no one that the first show that came to mind for this is Wynonna Earp. The Bold Type is getting a lot of things right. Orphan Black got it right. Legends of Tomorrow. Brooklyn Nine-Nine. All the ones Riese mentioned. (And I want to specifically call out Fresh Off the Boat because I feel like not enough of you are watching that one and you SHOULD BE.) Have I mentioned Wynonna Earp? Because Wynonna Earp.
Kayla: I think Vida’s first season was goddamn near perfect. And I know we talk about it a lot here on Autostraddle but I wish it was being more talked about at large, and I really wish it would get awards play but I am worried that it won’t!!!! I second all the shows Riese and Valerie said but also want to throw Superstore into the mix!
Heather: I don’t think it’s any surprise that the shows getting it most right are doing so because of queer and trans women and women of color. One Day at a Time, Vida, Pose, Fresh Off the Boat, Master of None (specifically I am talking about the Thanksgiving episode, of course) and even Brooklyn Nine-Nine, because even though Stephanie Beatriz isn’t a writer, her real life coming out and then openness about her bisexuality is what compelled the writers to reach out to her to help them craft a coming out story for Rosa. You see that on Madam Secretary with Sara Ramirez too, right? These women who are out, who are dialed in, and who are ready to take responsibility for the fact that stories shape the public perception of minorities, and those perceptions have an enormous impact on our political and cultural realities.
Natalie: That’s a great point, Heather! I think all those writers’ room excel at telling complex, intersectional stories because so many of the writers’ lead lives that exist on those intersections. There’s an impulse among writers to believe that because they’re creative, they can imagine the stories of women, LGBT people or women of color – and 99 times out of 100, it just doesn’t work. As creative as Ryan Murphy is, he could never in his life have crafted the world Janet Mock and Our Lady J have built for the trans women on Pose. That show, Vida, One Day at a Time have all shown us that to tell authentic stories, we should empower writers who have lived the lives of our favorite characters.
Carmen: I’m calling it now, 2018 is the year of queer and trans women of color on TV! The list just keeps growing: Vida, One Day at a Time (who have both also put their money where they mouth is in terms of off-screen activism as well, so I will never stop singing their praises and doing whatever I can to keep them on air), but also Pose and as Heather mentioned even B99 and Madam Secretary. We are out there in the world, telling our stories, and every time it happens my heart bursts wide open all over again.
We’d love to hear from our esteemed readers in the comments! No one knows queer TV better than you. How do you handle it when TV lets you down? Who has successfully turned it around? Who do you think is getting it right?
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