This article is so awesome that it has actually made us re-think the way we approach fictional entertainment. Ms. Mlawski, TVWriter™ thanks you for your insight into our beloved medium of TV!
Our favorite woman from GIRLS
by Shana Mlawski
Express even a modicum of distaste for the extra-rapiness of HBO’s Game of Thrones and you’ll inevitably hear this kind of comment: “But there was plenty of rape in the Middle Ages! It’s realistic! Deal with it!”
The same thing happens if you comment on the show’s sometimes cringe-worthy racial politics: “There were no people of color in Medieval Europe! I’m being realistic! Deal with it!”
Let’s put aside for a moment that the second comment isn’t even close to true. Here’s a thought-experiment for all the realism-referees in the audience. Seven percent of girls and 3% of boys in grades 5-8 in the U.S. report having been sexually assaulted. Do you want to see between 3 and 7% of the kids on TV sexually assaulted?
Don’t you dare say you’d prefer not to. Don’t suggest it might be exploitative or simply cruel. Don’t ask if such scenes are necessary to the story. ’Cause if you do, here’s what I’ll say: Shut up. It’s realistic. Deal with it.
Maybe you think my analogy is unfair. Fine. A less incendiary one: Have you ever watched Girls? Have you ever seen Lena Dunham strip and have sex with people? Have you ever complained about her nudity? Well, you can’t. Women who don’t look like supermodels take off their clothes and have sex all the time. So stop whining. It’s realistic. Deal with it.
What I’m saying is that appeals to realism are not applied across the board. I have no statistics on the matter, but it seems they’re often used to shut down criticism that comes from “haters,” a.k.a. marginalized people who hope to bring attention to TV’s backward politics. But when a show dares offend the sensibilities of a certain type of fanboy, suddenly we’re not talking about realism anymore. Suddenly the conversation is about what “people” do and do not want to see on their screens.
But appeals to realism aren’t only used to shut down criticism. They’re also used to damn and to praise. This movie is bad because the science is inaccurate. That movie is good because the period details are spot on. This show is bad because the dialogue is heightened. This show is good because there are no plot holes.
It often makes sense to use these arguments. If you’re judging a work of hard sci-fi, it’s reasonable to put a magnifying glass on its technology and physics. If we’re watching a thriller and a plot hole destroys your ability to suspend disbelief, nothing I say is going to make you like the work. Nitpicking TV and movies for fun isOverthinking It‘s raison d’être, so far be it from me to tell you it’s always wrong.
It’s just weird when I enter forums and comment threads about Game of Thrones, and I find myself back in the 1800s, and everyone’s Émile Zola—except this Zola’s applying the rules of naturalism to a story featuring dragons. It’s like everyone got together before the first episode and decided Westeros was a real place and its history real history, and any naysayers are idiots ignorant of the Way Things Were.
It’s equally bizarre when these would-be Zolas apply their rules to works of surrealism. Take those who have burned my dear Hannibal with a dire brand reading “unrealistic.” Unrealistic?! This brazenly surrealistic bit of Grand Guignol?! Why, I never expected this of Bryan Fuller! I’d better renounce my fandom.
When did appeals to realism become a trump card in pop culture criticism? And when did we agree that a certain kind of Internet commenter is the final arbiter of what is real and what is not?
I have some unverifiable theories.