One on One: Finding television’s political takeaways

“Consume consciously,” urged actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox during her talk in Lisner Auditorium last week. She was referring to television, radio, fashion – anything with potentially deeper, more controversial meanings than whatever appears on the surface.

In this edition of “One on One,” two Hatchet columnists discuss the idea of socially conscious television-viewing in the context of some of their favorite programs: “Looking,” “Girls” and “How To Get Away With Murder.”

All three of these shows portray people who have recently graduated college – hence our interest in them. And, for all their differences, they have one thing in common: They each, often subliminally, explore political and social issues that can drive campus conversation.

JUSTIN PELIGRI: Jaggar, you’ve told me that you watch too much television for your own good. And while I don’t consume quite as much entertainment TV as I’d like to, it might actually be for the better. Recently, I’ve found it seemingly impossible to watch a show without politicizing its plot in some way.

My roommates will tell you: I have often gotten up and walked away in the middle of an episode of HBO’s “Looking” – now canceled because of poor ratings – after becoming frustrated with unchecked homophobic commentary.

JAGGAR DEMARCO: I’ve watched “Looking” as well and agree with many of the critics who say it’s pretty boring. I couldn’t really find myself relating to any of the characters.

As for the homophobia, you’re referencing episodes like the one in the first season where the lead character – played by Jonathan Groff – makes self-deprecating remarks about having a laugh that’s “too gay,” or the one in the second season where he’s critical of people who use medications to prevent the spread of HIV.

It seems like the creators of “Looking” think they’re more sharp and nuanced than they actually are. As political communication students, we often think about political messaging, but in this show, it seems like the political commentary falls flat on its face.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

JP: It falls flat because there isn’t a character on the show who is aggressively pointing out the other characters’ flaws. That’s my problem: People just watch that and think, “Oh, it’s OK to participate in self-hate.”

There’s nothing wrong with taking HIV medication, having an interest in gay activism or being in an interracial relationship – but the lead character thinks there is. And he gets away with his bigotry.

JD: “Looking” is one of the few shows explicitly dealing with gay issues, and I think that’s driving your angst about potentially damaging messages. This is one of the only representations the community has, and it’s pretty ignorant. But others have labeled shows like “Girls” problematic, too.

JP: It’s one of my favorite shows.

JD: Same. The thing about “Girls” is that we all know people like Hannah Horvath and her uppity friends – or, at least, we know that’s what some of our friends will turn out to be like in a few years. But it’s not the only show out there that has profiled this demographic: Take “Sex and the City,” which is often compared to “Girls.”

JP: Or Comedy Central’s “Broad City.”

JD: The point is that there are a ton of different representations out there for television consumers to gravitate toward and find social messages.

JP: Right. And on the subject of “Girls,” I think a scene that sums up the ethos of the more recent seasons perfectly is the one excerpted in the show’s latest ads. Shoshana, upon graduating from New York University, asks – like the naive person she is – why nobody tells recent graduates why the real world is so hard.

And Marnie, perpetually bitter, exclaims, “Yes, they do. That’s all they ever tell you.”

Admittedly, these biting jokes come off better on the screen. But the reason this show is so watchable – and doesn’t trigger my political sensibilities as much – has nothing to do with a lack of controversial themes.

In fact, this show is extremely controversial. Look no further than an episode from the most recent season, where a character decides to have an abortion without consulting her boyfriend. It raises ethical questions about how to deal with such personal choices when one has a significant other.

The show can also be seen as socially problematic in some ways, since it pigeonholes recent female college graduates into a very pretentious, self-consumed category.

Maybe I’m not as bothered by the offensive nature of the plot because the script is so perfect. It seems like every joke or political point lands.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Jaggar DeMarco

JD: And in my eyes, nobody can say anything bad about Lena Dunham, who plays Hannah. She’s brilliant as an actress, producer and writer – and regardless of whether you like her or hate her, I think we can all agree on that point.

Let’s turn to another show that I watch religiously: ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” which recently rounded out its first season. This one is worth bringing up for many reasons – including how it portrays promiscuity among young adults.

JP: Practically everyone in the show – regardless of age – is sleeping around.

JD: Right, but that doesn’t mean every character is portrayed equally. A few months ago, you told me you had a problem with the way the only gay character – Connor, played by Jack Falahee – was represented in his sexual interactions.

He’s the one who is ever called out for being promiscuous – and he’s the one who has an HIV scare. Spoiler alert: He was negative. We know that HIV does not discriminate based on sexual orientation, so why aren’t any of the other characters who have casual sex facing this fear?

JP: So maybe this is an example of a public service announcement gone awry – an attempt to have some sort of eye-opening social awareness moment about HIV. In reality, however, it ends up failing and instead reinforces negative stereotypes about gay men.

At the end of the day, maybe a show should stay away from political themes, like the issue of HIV, or the examples we’ve seen in our other favorite shows.

JD: I disagree – that could have a chilling effect. The drawbacks of shows failing in their attempts at political messaging does not outweigh the benefit of the shows that get it right. For example, “Girls” manages to discuss sex-positive themes in smart ways and has a multitude of voices to provide more than one perspective on tough concepts.

When TV shows depict communities fairly, accurately and without gender or sexuality-based stereotypes, they can really help a community and contribute to changes in public opinion.

It’s not going to be perfect, but there should be some attempt to make political statements and help educate people who aren’t aware. We should applaud shows that make the effort – and watch them even though they’re not perfect.

Justin Peligri, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet senior columnist. Jaggar DeMarco, a junior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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