Though it’s often acknowledged that we’re living through a particularly rich period for television as an art form, the fact that TV criticism is also having a huge moment is perhaps less frequently discussed.
It’s not just that our TV critics are “good,” though they are; what sets the current generation of critics apart from previous ones is the way in which they’re radically transforming the popular conception of what a TV show is supposed to be.
The major revolution here has been the way critics have brought social issues to the forefront of critical discussion. Though craftsmanship, acting, drama, storytelling are all still important to the critical discourse, “representation”—most often with regard to race and gender, specifically—has been put forth as one of the criteria we should scrutinize most diligently when considering a TV show. Are women and characters of color represented? If so, how? Are they allowed complexity, voice, and agency? Put generally, are our narrative cultural products reaffirming stereotypes, or subverting them? In the context of America’s politically troubled pop cultural history, to even ask these questions is a tremendous advance.
Yet the social approach to criticism has begun to transcend even these significant gains. As of very recently, it appears that social obligation, rather than one consideration among many, is actually becoming, in some respects, TV’s central concern—at least in the eyes of some of its most prominent critics.
Consider this week’s remarkable piece from Maureen Ryan (one of our foremost TV critics, to be sure), nominally about the new FX show Tyrant, but more fundamentally about the way writers and directors have historically tended to depict sexual assault and its victims—namely: very, very badly.
Ryan argues that there are two central problems with TV rape. Let’s call the first “the artistic problem.” Ryan writes that rape has become a cheap, pre-fabricated device for painting “a gloss of darkness” onto a character, or to conveniently “add complexity” to a storyline without doing real work. More often than not, it is deployed thoughtlessly and sloppily: Ryan calls rape-as-complicator “the laziest kind of shorthand.”
Then there’s the second problem, which I’ll call “the social problem:” that the (usually female) victims of rape on TV rarely get any additional screen time or character development beyond their moment of violation. In the context of the rape scenes in Tyrant (but also ostensibly applying to many shows and films), Ryan writes that “we don’t know the woman’s name, or if we do know her name, we don’t know much about her. The women in these scenes are devices—they are there to create an atmosphere of danger or to move the plot along.”
Though rape-as-cliche is obviously rampant today, and irritating for artistic and storytelling reasons, it was Ryan’s discussion of the second, social problem that really gripped me—both because of her specific argument, but also because of the broader implications for TV it assumes, but leaves unsaid.
The best way into this issue might be through the extraordinary injunction Ryan issues to television towards the end of the piece:
If a show is going to depict a sexual assault—which is any show’s right—it should follow through on the ramifications of that experience for the survivor, male or female. If a drama is not interested in the person who was attacked, that show needs to find other ways to amp up the complexity or the “danger” factor.
This, to me, points towards an entirely new* conception of what a TV show, or a work of art more generally, is supposed to be. Though throughout the piece Ryan describes how rape is used poorly, from a storytelling perspective, here she explicitly prioritizes social responsibility above whatever artistic concerns might be in play in this or that particular scenario. At least when it comes to rape, she seems to suggest that giving the victim a voice is the most important thing, regardless of the specifics of the show or film.
On the one hand, this seems like an eminently reasonable position. To deny rape victims agency or fullness of character is to repeat in the filmic frame what happens all too often in the actual, lived world. Victims of sexual abuse are so frequently forced to live in silence, either concealing their pain or being shamed and ostracized for bringing it to light. The idea that our art has a duty not to replicate the world’s injustices makes perfect sense.
Yet it is also an idea which is neither intrinsically obvious, nor should be taken for granted. Ryan’s injunction to fully develop the characters of rape victims issues forth not primarily from artistic considerations, but from specifically social considerations. “Don’t use rape as a cheap plot device” is an artistic directive. “Always develop the characters of victims of sexual assault,” on the other hand, is a social directive, possibly jibing with the narrative structure of whatever hypothetical show it’s applied to, but possibly not (evidently the writers of Tyrant, such as they are, didn’t feel such character building would add anything). The point is, it doesn’t matter if it jibes: for social reasons, it must be done this way. Victims of rape must not be silenced in drama the way they are silenced in real life. This is an issue not of aesthetics, but of ethics.
I want to emphasize how fundamentally this position reorients the way we conceive of art itself. You may agree with Ryan, or you may not, but what is most interesting to me about this whole discussion is the way it implicitly conceptualizes TV and film as primarily social mediums, and, at least in this respect, only secondarily as artistic mediums. TV shows, on this account, are art forms that show us things but also teach us things; that depict worlds but also endorse worlds. They are not neutral, or autonomous, but are ethically bound by the social reality to which they refer.
This may all sound obvious, but it truly isn’t. Many of history’s most influential critics would harshly denounce this conception—to take an extreme example, consider Oscar Wilde, who provocatively declared, “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book.” I don’t want to do that here, nor do I even necessarily agree with Wilde and his ilk. I only want to note that the social-obligation conception of the artwork is becoming the dominant critical paradigm—led in particular by TV critics, but also appearing with increasing frequency in music and film writing—and that is something to consider seriously, to question, and to examine the implications of.
*Actually, this idea has ancient roots. But that’s a subject for another post.