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Over the past couple of months, I’ve been following debates in the media about what has been called a “war against women” or a “campaign against women.” When I feel like I can no longer bear watching news reports and analysis on this topic, I find myself turning the channel and immersing myself in a new slate of sitcoms and dramas. Interestingly, the shows that I’m watching these days don’t let me off the hook. They don’t allow me to escape the disappointment, frustration, angst, and anxiety in our culture. Instead, they invite me into the heart of that experience.
Girls, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones vividly illustrate conflicts about gender and sexuality on both cultural and personal levels. The female characters in these programs bear the cultural realities of sexism in their own bodies and souls. Those of us viewers who connect empathetically with them may participate in a parallel process—a journey into our own angst. In this journey, we may become painfully aware of our own internalized sexism. We may wrestle with our own inner conflicts as we try out life-giving new ways of relating to others.
Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on George R. R. Martin’s bestselling books of the same title, presents a surprisingly long slate of women who find voice and establish power in their worlds, but not without severe limitation and searing ambiguity. The economic, social, and ethnic diversity among them demonstrates multiple ways to be a woman in a man’s world. There are queens and whores, princesses and poor outcasts, young girls who want to wield swords and mothers who have no choice but to do so. From Brienne, a tall, strong, friendless, hand of the king (think: fierce warrior) who declares, “I am no lady!” to Daenerys, a young, orphaned, and exiled princess who declares herself “Mother of Dragons” and future ruler of the realm: these women demonstrate the beauty and poignancy of an indomitable spirit hemmed in by indomitable external forces. Perhaps most vivid is the sexual power wielded by men in their lives—a reality that three generations of consciousness-raising have hardly eliminated in western culture.
Game of Thrones creates some psychological distance from the harsh realities of sexism and exploitation, because it is set in a fantasy world—both like and unlike ours. It gives viewers a bit of breathing room, so to speak, to empathetically interact with female and male characters alike. Girls, however, gives viewers (or at least white upper middle class viewers—and the show’s been criticized for that) no such space. The lead characters are three 20-somethings trying to make their way in work and love. In the first three episodes alone, Hannah, the lead character played by writer Lena Dunham, has trite and dismissive sex, contracts a sexually transmitted disease, and is sexually harassed at work. She tries to procure kindness and love, physical well-being, and respect (mostly self-respect), but she is entangled (externally and internally) in a set of contradictory messages and expectations that keep her from full realization of these values. This is precisely the kind of inner conundrum we experience in times of social upheaval.
The AMC series Mad Men is set in the 1960s and fits the genre of historical fiction. As the show has progressed, civil rights and women’s rights have slowly (or not so slowly) influenced character development. The authority and privilege of white men are questioned again and again. As gender roles shift in the direction of egalitarianism, many of the male characters are flummoxed, disoriented, and even angry. Their existential angst breaks through the surface of their successes in business. In order to maintain some semblance of psychological security and relational stability in a rapidly changing world, they have to reconstruct their personal and professional relationships on more democratic, communicative bases.
These three television shows do not directly address our contemporary culture wars. Instead, they invite us into the angst of these realities in our own lives through empathetic, parasocial interactions. (Parasocial relation is a technical term in media and culture studies, which refers to the “intimate, friend-like relationship that occurs between a mediated persona and a viewer.”) As such, I wonder if these TV shows can become a transformational impulse in personal and communal identity. Might the Spirit of God use the richly textured narratives of these TV characters as a means of opening our hearts and minds to see real people, including ourselves, as God sees them? Might the combination of empathy and exasperation toward these characters make us aware of our own entanglement in similar dehumanizing processes and structures? When we see no way forward and no way out, and when our lived reality seems to be the antithesis of God’s kingdom, maybe we’ll be inspired to pray for Christ to transform us and our culture so that those cultural divides and hierarchies that the Apostle Paul declared to no longer define human existence—male vs. female, Jew vs. Greek, slave vs. free (and we could expand that list today)—really will lose their power to steal, kill, and destroy.
 Rebecca B. Rubin and Michael P. McHugh, “Development of Parasocial Interaction Relationships,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 31/3 (1987), 279.