At my home planet of Racialicious, I recently started up a True Blood roundtable, where five of us weekly go to town on the various racist-sexisms of everyone's favourite vampire show. As the grumpiest of the bunch, my opinions on True Blood are vastly more negative than positive, especially when the episode is heavy on violence against women—which increasingly seems to be the theme for True Blood's newest season. So sometimes we get commenters who ask us, why the heck do y'all watch this show anyways?
When my fellow Racializen Tami asked us all this question during our first roundtable, we didn't come up with any great reasoning. I talked about how in the past, I had quit watching the show over the persistent rape motif, only to be drawn back in. Others blamed the interesting plotlines and comparably good writing for keeping them watching.
It seems like radical, anti-racist feminist pop culture critics are not alone in this phenomenon—that is, the phenomenon of subjecting ourselves to hurtful viewings. Apart from exposing myself to regular doses of vampire sex violence, I also have a soft spot for bromances. And I've noticed a trend in bromances of late (or maybe it was always there): the rape-or-sexualised-humiliation-scene-as-comedy.
This year's Hot Tub Time Machine features a scene where a group of strangers circle two grown men in a bathroom and force one man to give the other a blowjob, while they both sob. Also from this year: in Get Him to the Greek the main character is forced by his friends to go off with a woman who tries to (or maybe does? the camera cuts away) put a dildo up his bum while he cries and begs her not to. And in the mother of all bromances, The 40 Year Old Virgin, a group of friends put a porn movie on surround sound and then lock their sexually shy friend in the room alone and refuse to let him out. Note: all of these scenes are supposed to be funny. Not funny with a bitter edge, just straight up, laugh out loud funny. In other words, the target audiences of these films are asked to identify with a group of characters on a quest, and then guffaw when said characters are sexually humiliated. That's some deep shit.
Radical anti-racist feminist pop culture critics separate themselves from the target audiences for bromances who laugh raucously at such scenes of sex-torture and post clips of these scenes to their friends' Facebook walls. But while there is an enormous difference between watching pop culture to take it apart and understand how it defines our interactions with each other, and simply consuming it wholesale without pause, is there is something similar in the initial draw that brings any group to a piece of culture that demeans them?
When I started out thinking about the recurring scenes of sex-torture in recent bromances, I figured that—apart from being reinforcements of homophobic culture on overdrive—they must have some kind of cathartic function for audiences. The entire bromance genre is based on heteronormative adult men's inability to express love and affection for each other. Consciously, writers write sex-torture as comedy because they think sexual violation is funny. Unconsciously, I think we can argue that these scenes exist because our culture of masculinity uses the threat of non-consensual sex to punish men for natural feelings of affection and admiration for their friends.
Sex-torture comedy is cathartic for heteronormative adult men because it provides comfort that other adult men experience the same humiliations or humiliating feelings, all packaged in something that you can laugh at, where laughter is a way to create distance between your sophisticated self and those poor shmoes on screen.
But to bring it all back to us radical anti racist feminist pop culture critics—the more I do this, the more I wonder if we are really that different from "regular viewers" that we elevate ourselves past. Sure we write long blog posts about our viewings, we read really thick books about it, we maybe even have academic degrees in it... but what initially draws us to pop culture that is different from what draws everyone else? What is cathartic for us in watching whatever it is that we watch?
Because as much as it may disturb me to ponder it, there's got to be some kind of psychological release that we get from consuming TV, films, and music that hurts us (and is often low quality, everyone who watched the Hills series finale, please raise your hand)—otherwise why would we continue so doggedly to do it? Why do I still watch True Blood, even though every episode disgusts me?
I figured my first post for Bitch Media, the mecca for all cranky pop culture connoisseurs (and I mean cranky in a loving way), would be a good place to ask this question: Why do we watch what we watch, when what we watch is hateful or hurtful to the communities that we love and belong to?