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TV/Film The cognitive dissonance in our comfort shows

Feb. 3, 2021
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I discovered Friends two weeks before I started my sophomore year of college. And though this was enough time to finish the entire thing—granted that I’d be eating and sleeping less frequently—I sadly had the attention span of a housefly. So I ended up spreading out all ten seasons over the next ten months. I’d sneak in an episode or two while on cab rides home, in line at the nearby McDonald’s, and at “study sessions” with classmates that always ended with them ditching their textbooks and watching over my shoulder. At some point, I even turned into the kind of fan who had heated discussions in public regarding what “being on a break” entailed.

These were the moments I missed most during the first few weeks of lockdown, so I turned to Chandler’s sardonic wit and Phoebe’s nonsense compositions as a form of both escapism and nostalgia. Thankfully, my coping mechanism of choice wasn’t as strange as I thought. According to research conducted by Nielsen, Billboard, and MRC Data, this endless time loop we’re in has skewed our consumption habits, with 54% of respondents preferring reruns of their classic favorites over new releases. Now that we’re living in a disaster movie, it’s no surprise we cling to endearingly predictable programs that remind us of better days.

But doing so doesn’t always guarantee comfort, especially if the show in question is a couple of decades old. What we now consider morally questionable was simply used for quick laughs back in the day, and seeing these programs make light of such situations could easily sour even the most pleasant viewing experience. For instance, I started my quarantine Friends marathon with Season 9—my favorite as a Joey and Rachel advocate—and frequently burst into fits of laughter until I reached the sixth episode, in which Ross repeatedly accuses a prospective male nanny of being gay when he simply enjoys taking care of children.

Now, some people might not see a problem with this. Studies have suggested that we as viewers have a tendency to take the information presented to us as is instead of assessing it further. This is how sitcoms get away with a predominantly white and heterosexual cast, and promoting toxic relationships, racist and sexist stereotypes, and body-shaming. After all, in 2018, The Office and Friends were first and second respectively in Netflix’s list of most-streamed shows. But this is the 21st century we’re living in. Thanks to our unprecedented access to information, the average binge-watcher is not only critical of how media adheres to current norms and standards: they also encourage their peers to think and do the same.

Because of this, our comfort shows have become a litmus test for our decency as humans. What we pay attention to seeps into our subconscious and shapes our perception and behavior, thus reinforcing the idea that we are what we watch. Judiel, a 17-year-old student and human rights activist, tells me she stopped watching Community completely because they couldn’t stomach the misogynistic undertones. “The battle against bigotry is stronger than ever since we now have more avenues to exercise our freedom of speech,” she explains. “If we want to eradicate it completely, then we should stop supporting anything that perpetuates these backward ways of thinking.” 

But how feasible is this if these shows have been an integral part of our lives? 

I spoke to my friend Raya about this a couple of weeks ago since I didn’t understand how she could love How I Met Your Mother, root for the misogynistic Barney Stinson, and be a raging, outspoken feminist. “I was thinking that it might be nostalgia. I’ve watched the show a lot since I was in grade school and I followed it until it ended,” she told me. “In fact, [the characters] set the standard for the kind of friend group I wanted to be a part of.” When we’ve grown alongside a show’s characters, letting go is easier said than done. But publicly going against what a show stands for to save face while consuming it in private is hypocritical at best.

Maybe it helps to keep in mind that these TV shows serve as reflections of the time when they were made: when wokeness had yet to be considered a form of currency and concepts such as cultural appropriation and racial microaggressions were unheard of. We’re offended by Sex and the City’s take on bisexuality and The Office’s portrayal of workplace diversity because our collective beliefs and values have evolved, and will continue to do so over time. It’s human nature to challenge the truths we uphold, and call attention to problems we may not have noticed in the past—it’s how we grow!

What’s important is that we watch these programs with a keen eye and open mind, and make sure our awareness translates into action. “If levels of critical media literacy among the viewership of these shows allow us to understand and contextualize these problematic depictions of race, gender, and sexuality, then that is surely a good thing,” says Dr. Hannah Hamad, a professor from Cardiff University who specializes in feminist media studies. “I personally feel glad I have the ability to understand the nature of these representations and enjoy the skill of the comedic performances. These two things do not cancel each other out for me.” 

At the end of the day, both sides present a strong case, making it hard to impose a singular course of action. So even though I’d hate to be that person who passes the responsibility, it really is our decision as viewers. We shouldn’t let external factors determine our choices but instead, be guided by our own moral compass. When it comes to this topic, we face a double-edged sword anyway: others will always have something to say whether we choose to support or skip on a classic.

And while it’s crucial that we acknowledge our individual responsibility as audience members, the industry at large has a role to play as well. The very least producers can do is pull a Warner Brothers and include a disclaimer in each episode, warning viewers of any outdated ideals that no longer represent the company’s values. “[To do otherwise] would show that the creators or the company itself fail to hold themselves accountable for their actions and imply that we still view these things as acceptable. It’s an outright sign that we haven’t progressed,” says Aldous, a 21-year-old student and fellow Friends fan. 

Although it seems like the right thing to do in retrospect, production companies should also refrain from repurposing controversial shows to cater to a more socially aware and culturally diverse audience. One example lies in Gossip Girl, which is slated for a reboot that promises more Black, Brown, and LGBT characters. “The problem isn’t going to be corrected by going back and replicating them with better representation,” says Brandi, a 32-year-old copywriter and supporter of the original Gossip Girl. “[Minorities] don’t need anything gifted to them. They need space to tell their own stories.” Thankfully, there are many working toward proper inclusivity and representation both in front of and behind the camera—some top-of-mind examples include Sex Education, Euphoria, and I May Destroy You.

The bottom line is that it’s alright to continue revisiting our old favorites with full knowledge that they have grown problematic with time. Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with looking back at something we once loved and letting go because it no longer resonates with us. Regardless of which path you choose, it’s non-negotiable that we listen to the valid concerns of those who are affected and offended, and engage in constructive dialogue instead of instinctively tone-policing or skirting around the issue. After all, if there’s one thing that will never change about media, it’s the power it holds to start critical discourse.