It’s been a little while since more recent or older movies and TV series get watched with current standards. The last victim is Gone with the wind, that has been suspended from HBO catalog and will reappear with disclaimers for “ethnic and racial prejudices” and “product of its times”. But even popular and apparently harmless shows like How I met your mother and Friends had been criticized for their (alleged) sexist, homophobic, transphobic messages and/or fat shaming.
On the one hand it’s totally fine to analyze and re-interpret productions from the past, to understand differences and similarities between societies. On the other hand, the politically correct censorial wave, which stems from movements that are fundamental for our collective growth, sometimes has no solid bases. Sometimes we just have to understand the temporal and narrative context, giving pure entertainment the proper value. Basically, there isn’t just one, univocal truth.
One premise. Radical change, whether it’s violent, like French and Russian Revolution, or non violent like most movements for emancipation, need a time frame before they reach a balanced settlement. The same goes for politically correct, not everyone understood why, when or how to use it. Those who use it to control language are extreme as well as those who refuse it no matter what, to maintain the right to insult. The fact is that considering each case individually costs more efforts than just saying “never say this or that”.
So, we can say that we are experiencing this settlement phase, from a society to another, from many kinds of discrimination to hasty justicialism that involves even entertaining TV series.
Shows like How I met your mother and Friends are more or less twenty years old, not much compared to Gone with the wind (1939). Society wasn’t that different from these days, but certain topics weren’t totally discussed or solved. Or, at least, making some kind of jokes wasn’t taboo.
Beside the temporal context, we have to consider the rules (or suggestions) of comedy. A screenplay works better is there is some kind of conflict, if characters are three-dimensional – the good vs the evil rhetoric works for Mickey Mouse and superheroes. Sometimes comedy conveys the message by contrast, getting to some kind of “moral” by laughing at its opposite. That’s also cathartic, or we remain in a hideous moralism, which might work for reality but not in fiction.
For example, in one of the incriminated Friends episodes, Ross doesn’t want to hire a male baby-sitter, as he thinks that it’s a job for women, he even insinuates that the guy might be a homosexual. If we take this out of its context, it sounds awful.
But: the other characters don’t care about the sex of the baby-sitter, he is good and skilled, that’s it; the episode, in the end, goes against the stereotype of sensitive male = homosexual; Ross himself changes his mind.
Watching a show in which a guy applies for a job, he gets it because he is good and everyone find it normal is just boring. Why losing time with that? And just stopping at Ross’s initial homophobia, without considering the evolution, is simplistic.
The same goes for the fat shaming. Monica was overweight as adolescent, mocked by her peers, and in an episode a parallel reality is imagined, in which she doesn’t lose weight. In the end, she gets engaged with Chandler anyway, because the moral is: physical appearance isn’t the only yardstick.
Transphobia: Chandler is ashamed of his father, who changed sex and performs as a drag queen in Las Vegas. Who would accept easily such big news? Plus, the job is surely honest, but a bit trash – regardless of the sex change operation. Plus, once again, without conflict there’s no interest in entertainment.
Many Friends defenders also remember how the show spoke, in its light and funny tones, about topics like same sex marriages and surrogate motherhood. That doesn’t go only for Friends, it’s a general discourse, same logic for any show. A creative process needs to be considered in a different way, it’s not reality. The line is subtle, still there is one.
The debate on how entertainment influences the public will go on for a long time. But without a constant and in-depth exercise of critical abilities, from a personal perspective before a collective one, we won’t go far.
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