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March 19, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Problematic Favourites

I decided to rewatch all 10 seasons of Friends recently, just for the heck of it. I was trying to knit three large and complicated teddy bears for my three tiny and uncomplicated new nieces, and I needed something to play in the background to soothe me, so I didn’t end up rage quitting and throwing needles and wool out the window. Friends fit the bill. Romance, kooky hijinks, Chandler can-I-BE-any-more-sarcastic Bing — oh yes, good times.

But even though I was distracted, tangled up in yards of bright pink yarn, and accidentally stabbing myself with a tapestry needle every five minutes, it didn’t take long for me to notice that something, this time, was different.

Friends is a TV show that is often praised as standing the test of time. Unfortunately, however, as of 2018, Time’s Up. For the first time in my life, Joey and the gang made me sincerely uncomfortable with their sexism, racism, homophobia, fat-shaming, and oddly limiting notions of masculinity.

No, no, I get it. It’s a joke, right? Consistently hitting on the woman married to your best friend, even though she really isn’t interested, and keeps batting you away — it’s funny! Constant sexualisation of every woman that crosses your path, including your mates’ mothers and your closest female friends — hilarious! Hiring an unqualified younger man to be your assistant because you want to date him — brilliant punchline! Firing a male nanny because he’s too sensitive, and therefore not “masculine” — what a hoot! Never letting your friend forget that she used to be fat, as if she should be ashamed — you got me!

The problem is, I’m just not laughing anymore. Over the past year, we seem to have gone through a cultural shift that started with Hollywood and has now permeated most of society — we no longer accept discriminatory treatment as the norm, and this in turn has started shifting how we view popular media.

The biggest example of sexist-comedy-gone-wrong comes in the form of the 2005 hit tv series, How I Met Your Mother. I LOVED that show. I would watch it again, and again, and again — until one day, I couldn’t stand it anymore. The attitude of all five main characters towards women, placing sexual attractiveness as the essential quality to have above all else, was difficult to stomach for 9 straight seasons. Even the two female characters of the gang sometimes seemed desperate to prove their desirability, with Robin using a sundress to get Barney to concede her hotness, and Lily throwing a fit when Barney didn’t find her hot while pregnant. But it’s okay, because she’s going to be va-va-voom when she starts breastfeeding!

Barney Stinson was easily the breakaway star of the show — a notorious womaniser, with a decent heart and a vulnerable side, à la Joey. But unlike Joey, what Barney was doing in order to sleep with women was ethically questionable. Rape by deception, where one party lies, tricks, or cheats their way into sex, is a crime in many places in the world. Although there have been movements by the legal community to make it so, as of this moment, this is not a recognised crime in New York. Barney would have been legally safe from vengeful beauties suddenly realising that he is not, in fact, first man on the moon Neil Armstrong.* But he is definitely not morally sound.

Many people believe complaints similar to mine to be a product of the “Millennial PC Special Snowflake Brigade”, a band of crybaby wafflers, narcissistically demanding that the whole world turn into their trigger-warning filled safe space. But please, people, can someone explain to me why we’re endorsing criminal behaviour with laugh tracks and “the bang song”**?

To make matters even more complicated, there’s also the question of the people behind the media we consume. The universal condemnation of Harvey Weinstein opened what feels like floodgates, and the torrent of sexual assault accusations haven’t let up since. Matt Lauer, Aziz Ansari, Louis CK, Dustin Hoffman, Ed Westwick, even Christ Savino, creator of my favourite TV Show “Loud House” (I’m a nanny, don’t judge me!), have all been accused, with varying results. Some, like Westwick, who staunchly denies all allegations, have been replaced by other actors before their shows are released, or their characters have been written out, like in the case of Kevin Spacey. Others, like Gary Oldman, accused by his ex-wife of violently abusing her in front of their kids, have gone on to win awards at the Oscars, despite all recent ceremonies focusing on and celebrating the #MeToo movement.

This all highlights the current problems in our culture, even after the #MeToo shift. As a community, we have not yet learned to balance the difficulty of investigating such crimes, the importance of listening to victims, and the right of the accused to a fair trial before being condemned. But let’s set aside all these problems for a moment, and talk about one that affects us more directly as consumers: At what point does art cease to have links with its creator, and simply becomes art?

The biggest case study in this question is undoubtedly the much beloved Woody Allen, who allegedly molested his 7-year-old daughter Dylan Farrow, before leaving his wife for their adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Details have been thrown backwards and forward by family, friends, and the media for years, with no conclusion. Many people believe that he committed the crime, many others equally believe he is innocent, and all treat him accordingly. If we as consumers believe that he sexually molested a 7-year-old under his care, do we then have a responsibility to stop consuming his work, and thus stop supporting him and everyone who defends him? Do we not watch every movie Weinstein has produced? Do we avoid all Louis CK’s comedy now? Will doing so detract from our own lives by depriving us of “great art”?

Google “Woody Allen”, and you’ll get a sense of exactly how convoluted this debate is. The top two news articles around his name are a review of his most recent movie, Wonder Wheel, and an article in which Michael Caine declares he’ll never work with the famed director again. Scroll down, and you’ll find his Wikipedia entry, listing all his awards and accolades. Scroll down further, and you’ll find a separate Wikipedia entry dedicated to his sexual assault allegation. Hollywood can neither condemn, nor vindicate this man, and it feels so easy to simply keep consuming and ignore these debates altogether.

That is, until you google the harrowing open letter written by his daughter, Dylan Farrow, detailing the molestation and her reactions to it. By supporting Woody Allen, she says, Hollywood has been actively silencing her. By supporting Allen, we have been re-traumatising her. By supporting Weinstein and CK and Lauer and chefs Mario Batali and John Besh and directors Brett Ratner and Morgan Spurlock and actors Kevin Spacey and James Franco and YA authors James Dashner and Jay Asher etc. fucking etc., we force victims to live in a world where their lives and wellbeing are worth less than “art”. And we tell the world that we endorse a culture in which having talent excuses you from being a decent fucking human being.

Look, there’s no easy answer to this question, really. If you impose a Weinstein ban in your life, you’ll be giving up the good work of Meryl Streep, Quentin Tarantino, Salma Hayek, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Lawrence, Gwyneth Paltrow, and John Travolta. That’s a travesty. It’s inevitable that bypassing certain works will exclude you from certain, much needed conversations. And maybe, it’s not your responsibility. Maybe it’s beyond time for Hollywood to put in place their own checks and balances, that result in the production of crime-free media. Maybe you’re just one person, who just won’t make a difference. Maybe you really don’t care. Well okay, that’s your call. And maybe you’re right.

But at the very least, don’t we owe it to society to know what we’re buying into, what we’re supporting with our eyes and with our dollars?

Personally, I haven’t watched a single Woody Allen movie in my life, and it hasn’t hurt me. And I don’t think I will, going into the future. I believe Dylan Farrow, and I can’t endorse a man who would molest a child. But if I ever really feel the need to watch Annie Hall, for my “cultural education” or whatever… look, I’m not endorsing piracy. But… piracy.

As for Friends and HIMYM — I will keep watching them. I made three large teddy bears while binging on Joey and the gang, and they stopped me from losing my sanity (though I never want to see another ball of wool as long as I live). I understood that it’s a sitcom from another time, and that allowed me to temporarily suspend my modern sensibilities and vaguely enjoy the cheap laughs. Judging old media by modern standards will never work. Taking it for what it’s meant to be — a lighthearted sitcom — is the way to go. Keeping dialogue up around what we expect, and what we no longer endorse, is essential to making better media in the future. And maybe, one day, I’ll be able to make fluorescent teddy bears without any homophobia in the background.  

 

*The general attitude on the show was that women who were too stupid to not see through Barney deserved to be duped into sex. I’d like to remind everyone that stupidity does not invalidate rape.

**Google it. If you haven’t heard it, listen to it. It’s been stuck in my head all week, so it might as well be stuck in yours too.

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