“But I Won’t Feel Blue”: The Case for Purposeful Fluff

Mamma Mia

When my friend asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday later this month, I told her all I really wanted was go to brunch and see Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again—for the third time since it came out last week.

Why the sudden, overwhelming interest in sitting in a movie theater and watching a bunch of actors sing ABBA songs? Is it the gorgeous Grecian landscapes? The spunky choreography? The presence of icons like Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Cher?

All of those things have contributed to my latest pop culture obsession (especially Cher), but my love for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again goes beyond my love for catchy pop songs and iconic actresses.

I love this movie because it’s happy. It exists to do nothing other than make you leave the movie theater feeling better than you did when you went in. And in a world where it can be really hard to feel good most days, that’s a downright heroic mission statement.

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Fangirl Thursday: Look for the Hope

It’s been an emotionally draining, depressing, and frustrating few weeks in various fandoms. It seems TV show after TV show has been doubling down on the idea that shocking deaths make for good television, without thinking about what certain deaths might mean for large groups of their fans. And even if characters aren’t dying on your favorite show, chances are it’s still gone into darker territory this season. It seems almost every show I watch has dealt with heavier material this year. Even the usually light Brooklyn Nine-Nine ended with an atypical life-threatening cliffhanger this week. (Even though I think we’re all 99.9% sure Holt’s going to be fine.) And the offerings at movie theaters aren’t much better lately, with superheroes fighting each other all over the place.

In short, if you feel a little beaten down by the media you’re consuming lately, you’re not alone.

There’s a tendency to judge the quality of a piece of media by how serious it is. Most of the “prestige dramas” we hear so much about are incredibly heavy and often bleak. So people often stick with television shows that make them feel hopeless and upset more often than not because they think that’s what “good” television is supposed to do. They think that walking away from a TV show when it starts to feel oppressively negative says bad things about them as a viewer instead of bad things about the show that made them walk away. Because a good drama can never be “too dark,” right?

WRONG.

It’s not just okay to walk away from a TV show when it starts negatively affecting your emotions on a consistent basis; it’s smart. There’s nothing wrong with putting your mental and emotional health above a television show’s ratings or your reputation as a fangirl or fanboy. Even if you loved a show for years, if it’s making you feel miserable or triggering you in some way, you’re not less of a fan if you stop watching something that’s not good or healthy for you anymore.

This trend of prioritizing shock value above quality character development needs to stop. This is especially true when the shock value comes from killing or traumatizing characters simply to show that no character is safe and that the world they inhabit is awful. If a character dies, that death should mean something—and not just that anyone can die. And if a character is put through a traumatic situation, it should be treated with care not just in that moment, but in all the moments that follow it. Death, beatings, torture, and rape shouldn’t be added to stories only to get people talking or to show how horrible a person or a society is. They should resonate thematically; they should carry weight not just in one episode, but throughout the rest of the series. They should matter.

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Fangirl Thursday: The Case for Crying

do you cry

Hi, my name is Katie, and I’m a crier.

I cry all the time. I cry when I’m sad, when I’m happy, and sometimes when I’m really angry. I cry when I’m overwhelmed, when I’m scared, and sometimes when I’m really proud of myself or someone I love—or even someone I don’t know. And I cry all the time when I watch TV, go to the movies or theater, or read a book.

I think I’m supposed to be ashamed of that. I’m supposed to think that makes me weak and that I need to try harder to keep my emotions below the surface. But that’s never been who I am. And I’m done feeling bad about that.

I was only nine when a movie made me cry for the first time not because I was scared, but because I felt so deeply. It was an animated movie about cats in Old Hollywood called Cats Don’t Dance, and I cried so hard when it looked like the main cat was going to have to give up his dancing dreams to move back to his hometown that my mother had to turn the movie off and tell me things were going to be okay.

I feel things deeply; I always have. However, we’re taught from an early age that it’s dangerous to feel things deeply. We’re taught to be afraid of intense emotions. But the intensity with which we feel things and the ways we express how we feel are some of the most important parts of our collective humanity. Our emotions—even when they’re strong and sometimes overwhelming—are part of us. And that’s not something to be afraid or ashamed of. Instead, it’s something to understand.

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Embracing What You Want and Need from Television and Quitting What You Don’t

Hi everyone, this is Heather filling in while Katie enjoys a well-deserved vacation.

A few weekends ago, the first season of Outlander came to a spectacularly graphic end. The third season of Hannibal started last Thursday with its artistically dark and twisted viewpoint. This weekend, a brutally dark season of Game of Thrones will draw to a close. Each of these shows has sparked discussions about when the violence and darkness becomes gratuitous. This season of Game of Thrones has been especially prone to such conversations. Two episodes in particular, sparked such outrage and unhappiness that some viewers (myself included) have simply chosen to walk away rather than subject themselves to more of the seemingly increasingly violence.

These vocal choices that some have made came with an equally vocal set of assumptions about the way these viewers have previously interacted with the series. Whether those assumptions come out of defensiveness or passion for a favorite show, the result tends to be that the group who stops watching feels like their reactions are being dismissed or are somehow incorrect. While I can’t speak for everyone who has made the decision to stop watching, I can offer up my own perspective on my personal viewing habits and what I am asking for from a television show.

It’s not that we’ve suddenly found ourselves shocked by the horrors of this fantastical world. Those who are still around in season five have watched Ned Stark’s beheading, have made it through the Red Wedding, and have seen Ramsey destroy Theon and raise up Reek in his place. We’ve seen these characters become paralyzed, lose family members, be raped or threatened with rape, and inflict any number of smaller cruelties against each other. There is no doubt that Westeros and Essos are harsh, dangerous places to live or that this show has never shied away from portraying the darker side of humanity.

It’s not that we wish to deny that our world, in both past and present times, can be cruel place. There is undoubtedly darkness and evil. We see it on the nightly news or read about it in newspapers and online. To pretend as though any fictional universe could exist in a land that is free of all the problems of our own would be dishonest and frankly, probably a little boring. People are always going to struggle. Someone will inevitably do something terrible to someone else. They will face seemingly insurmountable obstacles and not all will make it out in one piece.

To pretend that the darkness is all that exists, however, to me seems equally dishonest. In previous seasons of this show, we’ve seen genuine connections between these characters and the goodness of which many are capable. These moments may not have ever been the most prominent feature of the series, but they were always there. Even in this season, we saw Varys placing his hope in Daenerys’s ability to bring about a better world. All I’m asking is for more of that sort of hope and more of the genuine connections of which I know this show and the world it is set in possess.

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A Matter of Opinion

Am I imagining things, or has the Internet been excessively vitriolic lately?

I’m no stranger to fandoms bickering among themselves and critics trying to stir up trouble by claiming their opinions are the right opinions, but it’s reached epidemic proportions during the last few weeks. And it’s getting exhausting.

I’ve always believed that the beauty of fiction is that it’s open to interpretation. We all view fiction through the prisms of our own experiences. As such, our interpretations say a lot about who we are. We often reveal more about ourselves in talking about fiction than we do when we try to talk about our own life experiences.

There’s an inherent vulnerability in talking about the fictional works, characters, and relationships that mean the most to us. That’s why respect is so important when it comes to discussing fiction. If someone has a different opinion, that doesn’t make them “idiotic,” “crazy,” or “delusional” (all words I’ve seen casually thrown around in the last few days). It simply means they see the world—and, as a consequence, a piece of a fandom—differently than you do.

In my experience, I’m at my most vulnerable as a writer when I talk about the characters, relationships, and works of fiction that I love the most. In the increasingly negative culture of Internet-driven fandom, it takes real bravery to admit to loving, being inspired by, or feeling an emotional attachment to something. Sadly, it’s those sincere admissions of emotional attachment that I’m seeing torn down and ridiculed the most. I’m never going to argue that the media doesn’t need people to look at it critically, but there’s a clear line between criticism and condescension, between discourse and degradation—and that line is one I keep seeing people cross without even a second thought.

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Ladies Celebrating Ladies

Courtesy of the official Parks and Rec Twitter account.

Courtesy of the official Parks and Rec Twitter account

Happy Galentine’s Day, everyone! This wonderful fictional holiday was created by my personal hero Leslie Knope as a day to honor all of the beautiful and talented women who make our lives special. Valentine’s Day may be traditionally about romance, but Galentine’s Day is all about female friendships.

The idea behind Galentine’s Day—ladies celebrating ladies—is still such a rare thing in the media. I was looking back through my Top 3 Female Friendships on TV that I compiled last year, and I was saddened to see that two of those three are no longer really a part of their respective shows due to cast departures. And there aren’t very many friendships I would add to that list, either, despite the huge increase in the number of shows I watch nowadays.

For most of the mainstream media, it’s still common practice to feature one woman who’s friends with a group of men (see The Mindy Project or the Harry Potter series) or a female friendship that exists solely for exposition purposes in terms of the show’s romantic relationships (see Donna and Rachel on Suits or Lanie and Beckett on Castle). There aren’t too many examples of women forming deep, lasting relationships with other women based on factors other than needing a sounding board for their romantic problems. And that needs to change.

Women are often seen as superficial, backstabbing, petty, and prone to jealousy towards members of their own gender. If you were to make assumptions based solely on the media (a horrible way to form opinions, if I’m being honest), female friendships are mostly a series of interactions between “frenemies” instead of the supportive, inclusive, and warm relationships they usually are in the real world. Female friendships are all-too-often portrayed as being far less meaningful than the ultimate relationship goal: romance. Having friends is great, but what would a woman talk about with her friends if there were no romantic prospects to discuss?

The answer: Quite a lot, actually. You see, women can and do actually have conversations about things other than their romantic relationships (or lack thereof). We can form meaningful relationships with people of our own gender that often last longer and fulfill us on more levels than romantic relationships at any given point in our lives. As I said in my review of Parks and Recreation’s ode to friendship, “Ann and Chris,” our first soul mates are often our best friends. Women (especially young women) don’t have to be catty, petty, and suspicious of other women just because the media says that’s how we often are. Instead, let’s change the narrative and celebrate the fact that women are often incredibly generous, affectionate, and supportive towards other women. We don’t have to be each other’s biggest rivals and enemies; we can be each other’s biggest cheerleaders and most trusted confidants.

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Love What You Love: Some Thoughts on Guilty Pleasures

We all have our guilty pleasures.

For some people, it’s Nicholas Sparks novels. For others, it’s romantic comedies. From the high school melodramas of ABC Family to the sexiest scenes on Scandal, everyone has a secret indulgence programmed on their DVRs, sitting on their bookshelves, or waiting for them on Netflix. We can claim to have the most discerning taste when it comes to media. But each of us—no matter how astute we pretend to be—has a guilty pleasure.

What’s my guilty pleasure? Reality TV.

Yes, I love the competitive reality shows that actually do earn some critical acclaim. I obsess over So You Think You Can Dance every summer. I thoroughly enjoy The Voice and used to thoroughly enjoy American Idol as well back when it was in its heyday (which has long since passed). Top Chef is one of my favorite shows on television.

But I also love the “trashy” stuff. I will watch any Real Housewives series (except Atlanta and Miami), including the marathons Bravo is so fond of airing. I will also watch basically anything else Bravo throws at me—from Most Eligible Dallas to Don’t Be Tardy. I religiously watch Dancing with the Stars every season for reasons beyond the sparkly costumes and shirtless male dancers; I actually like the performances. And I adore The Bachelorette.

Yes, you heard that correctly: I adore The Bachelorette. I watched and re-watched Meredith’s season back when I could only do that on a VHS tape. I cried when Ashley married J.P. last year. I fell in love with Jef probably even more than Emily did. And I watched the season premiere last night ready to spend my summer Mondays with Desiree and her suitors. Monday nights are one of my favorite nights of the week in the summer. I curl up on the couch, open some Starbucks ice cream (preferably Java Chip Frappuccino), and watch one lucky girl be romanced by a bevy of beautiful gentlemen.

I don’t want you to think that I believe I’m watching great television. I know The Bachelorette and The Real Housewives of New Jersey aren’t exactly comparable with Game of Thrones or Parks and Recreation. But that doesn’t mean I have to look at everything on TV the same way. I like some shows because they make me think; I like others because they allow me to turn my brain off for a little while.

And I’m not so sure I should feel guilty about that.

Why should we feel the need to add “guilty” to some of our pleasures? Does everything that makes us feel happy, relaxed, or emotionally invested have to be critically-acclaimed? Can’t we just like something because we like it, because it’s fun?

Yes, I consider The Great Gatsby my favorite book, but Bridget Jones’s Diary is also high on my list. Yes, I love watching Casablanca and The Empire Strikes Back, but I also love The Wedding Planner and Tangled. My iPod has Mumford and Sons on it, but it also has One Direction. And I don’t feel particularly guilty about loving any of those things.

The media we enjoy—whether it’s reality TV, romantic comedies, sappy county songs, or anything else—should be celebrated, not hidden away in case someone judges us for loving what we love. If something makes you happy, it shouldn’t be a guilty pleasure; it should just be a pleasure.

Grab your ice cream, your wine, or your chocolate. Open your romance novel, turn on E!, or grab your DVD of Dirty Dancing. Let’s all take some time this summer to enjoy media that makes us happy—critics be damned.

NGN’s Best of 2012: Everything Else

Earlier today, I posted my favorites from the world of TV in 2012, and now it’s time for me to take a look at the best of the rest: the music, movies, books, and pop culture phenomena that made this year so memorable.

Favorite Song: “Call Me Maybe” (Carly Rae Jepsen)
I know it’s a cheesy pop song, but it is one great cheesy pop song. When I think back on 2012 years from now, this will undoubtedly be the song I remember. It was fun, it made me want to dance, and it was the kind of song that never got out of your head until you found yourself no longer minding that it was stuck in there.

Runner-Up: “Some Nights” (FUN.)

Favorite Movie: Silver Linings Playbook
Anchored by career performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, this film was a surprisingly uplifting and yet realistic look at mental illness and the many different ways we can cope and heal. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it made me feel hopeful. It was the most fascinating love story I’ve seen in a movie theater in ages because it was grounded in both humor and a whole lot of heart.

Runner-Up: The Avengers

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Perfectly Imperfect

Unrealistic expectations are a fact of life. From the fairytales we were told as kids to the TV shows (and commercials) we watch as adults, we are more than familiar with media-perpetuated standards that don’t quite exist in the real world.

I can’t speak to the experiences of the male half of the population, but I know that, as a woman in today’s media-saturated society, I’m constantly bombarded with images of what a “perfect woman” is supposed to be. From Victoria’s Secret ads featuring models with bodies I’ll never have to movies featuring action heroines with courage I’ll never possess, it’s enough to make a girl feel like she should just throw in the towel in terms of finding relatable images in the media.

In a (well-intentioned) effort to give young women positive media role models, there has been an influx of “strong” female characters in the last few decades: women who can beat up bad guys (while wearing heels!), outsmart the craftiest villains, and play the lead role in their own stories—all without showing a shred of weakness. These characters don’t make mistakes; they don’t have anxieties or insecurities or character flaws. They are—for all intents and purposes—perfect.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find perfect characters a little depressing. How are we as women supposed to learn to love and accept ourselves as we are if we are constantly reminded of the things we should be but can never be, simply because we’re beautifully fallible human beings? And how are we supposed to gain respect for ourselves through all of our messy growing, living, and learning when it seems like the media likes to depict women as one of two things:

1.) Emotionally unstable, overly dramatic weaklings who need a good man in their lives to complete them
2.) Flawless automatons with beauty, brains, and none of those pesky emotions that are often signs of “weakness”

I like to think that I exist closer to some kind of middle ground between these two extremes, and in my experience I think most women exist there as well. We’re all a little flawed; we’re all a little messed-up, but that’s what makes us human. And that’s what I want my heroes and heroines to be—human.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Bella Swan: A Woman’s Place in the Modern Media

It’s a confusing time to be a young woman in America.

Whether or not we want to admit it, much of what we believe about ourselves and our place in society comes from the media. And right now, the media is a minefield of mixed messages when it comes to what we as women are supposed to be.

Be strong, but don’t be bossy. Speak your mind, but don’t be a bitch. Act sexy, but don’t act like a whore. Work hard to get a good job, but don’t be a cold, spinster “career woman.” Be proud of your femininity, but don’t be too “girly” or “high-maintenance.” Strive to be skinny, but don’t lose your womanly curves in the process. You are more than your body, but it is your most powerful asset. You don’t need a man to validate you, but every happy ending involves a Prince Charming.

It’s enough to make even the most confident, well-adjusted woman’s head spin.

Young women have more stress, body image issues, and doubts about their self-worth than ever before. They also have more options when it comes to media consumption than ever before. Is that just an unpleasant coincidence?

You would think that more options would lead to a more balanced depiction of women in the media, but it often seems that more channels, advertisements, and social media outlets are in fact leading to the increased reinforcement of damaging ideas about the female gender.

Sometimes it seems like it’s better to become complete hermits, taking the media and its negative stereotypes completely out of our lives. But eventually we reach a frightening conclusion: For as frustrated as we get with the media, we simply can’t live without it.

The key to developing a healthy sense of self as a young woman in this media-driven society is to remember something that we all-too-often forget: We have a choice. We can choose what media we consume, and we can choose to educate ourselves about the impact the media has on our lives.

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