I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies when I watch TV lately. And that’s new.
I’m pretty savvy to how TV treats gender and sex, mind you, but I’m also a believer in the suspension of disbelief. So I guess you could say it’s been my viewing posture to generally “go with the flow” of the American TV aesthetic—its genres, its (sometimes pretty bad) special effects, and how “normal” looks—at least while I’m watching. Later, when I’m reflecting and critiquing, I’m happy to deconstruct or otherwise call out the ideologies at work in just about anything.
This has been my bargain with myself for maintaining some pleasure in front of the boob tube while still working as a cultural historian and critic: Think later and while the TV is on, try not to be distracted by the seams that show in how stories are put together.
But now I’m distracted.
It started when I binge-viewed the Belgian detective series Salamander a few months back. I’d just given birth to my second child. There are few times in a gal’s life as ripe for guiltlessly watching too much TV than when managing the homebound, relatively sleepless early months of newborn care. I quickly burnt through what few American offerings I was interested in via Netflix’s streaming service and so I turned to foreign TV.
As I mentioned in my Salamander review, I noticed the bodies. The middle-aged bellies, the average sized middle-aged women, the narrow-chested men, the un-Botoxed faces. One of the things I found myself appreciating about the series was the way it imagined a whole range of ages and body types as credibly sexual beings. It felt refreshing but not political, just a different aesthetic of “the ways things are.”
Soon, in addition to my butting against the limits of Netflix, American TV wrapped up the fall season for the hiatus period around the holidays.
And so my foreign TV spree continued (hopefully a source of future blog fodder, btw): From Britain, two seasons of Ripper Street followed by three seasons of Wolfblood. From Sweden, a season or so of Wallender (fascinatingly ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, by the way). Most recently, The Almighty Johnsons from New Zealand, which is rather full of sex for a show that is also so deeply geeky.
And now… Well now, The Vampire Diaries is back. As is The Blacklist, Grimm, Gotham, Sleepy Hollow and a range of other entertaining US-based TV.
And I notice the bodies.
A friend of mine in the professorate used to say that dominant culture is like a smoky room. You might not be one of the folks smoking, filling the air with that cloud, but you do get used to it. Eventually, you don’t notice it anymore. Until you step outside, that is. And suddenly you smell the smoke again, realize you’ve started to smell like smoke yourself, that it’s seeped into the fibers of your coat.
So, now I smell the smoke afresh. I knew it was there, but had missed how choke-inducing. Idealized bodies and beautiful people, I was taking it all in stride in the name of “of course it’s fake, it’s TV”… .But then I watched TV from a handful of other countries for a couple of months and now I’m literally distracted from the proceedings of primetime plots. The artificiality of American TV bodies is more and more fourth-wall breaking in its patent falseness and I find myself blurting out comments like, “What?! Look at that person’s lips!” “Even the ‘plain girl’ on this show has fake boobs!” or “These men are so… pretty. Ew.”
What’s stranger than the fiction we broadcast?
The bodies Americans employ to act it out.