Socially conscious content, and how it can make for bad TV: Gossip Girl 2.0., Powerpuff Girls…
Crash and burn
Listen: I'm relatively skilled at suppressing past traumas. I have it down on my resumé and everything. Still, there are days when I'm plagued by my series of poor life choices; a relentless loop of disembodied voices berating my knack for picking out — and viewing! — terrible TV shows. On my worst days, I experience flashbacks so visceral I physically cringe.
To name a few: there's Riverdale, when Veronica squawked out an indignant, "I beg your misogynistic pardon?". Then there was an entire season's worth of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, where our titular hero likens the replacing of male Satan with a female one as, uh, dismantling the patriarchy. Physically, I'm here, writing this story. Mentally, I have astral-projected to another plane of existence to scream, because, what in bad writing?
It's a tough pill to swallow, but this is hardly a rare occurrence. Tempting as it might be to claim it a pandemic-induced creative drought, it's clear to see that this phenomenon was born out of the need to appeal to one's audience. Perhaps appeal isn't the right word for it: but rather, to pander. Viewership and numbers are what keeps a production afloat, of course — but that's always been the case. The difference now lies in what users seeks from the content they consume.
You see: for some, it is not enough to enjoy a show for its storyline or acting performance. In a space saturated with content, it has become essential that a show be in line with their personal values and ethics. For writers and producers to miss the mark is to lose out on a whole faction of viewers.
If I'm being entirely objective, I'd say that what most audiences are asking for isn't too high a bar. Typically, it has to do with diverse representation; an accurate depiction of the various races, sexualities, and genders encountered in modern-day life. The issue doesn't lie in genuine attempts to deliver on that, but rather, when said corporations go about doing it half-heartedly simply to garner clout.
It's easy to discern former productions from the latter. You can tell when a show is forcibly integrating "inclusive" and/or "socially aware" storylines, with the assimilation of said plots and characters coming off as clumsy and slipshod. Think one-liner references to feminism and "Girl Power!!" before the female leads proceed to flunk the Bechdel test once more. Or reverting to archaic and harmful tropes despite fervent claims of combating them.
Such was the case with the upcoming Powerpuff Girls reboot, which touted itself as a gritty, grim-dark take on everyone's crime-fighting trio. The girls are portrayed as "disillusioned twentysomethings" dealing with anxiety, trauma, and many mental-health issues faced by women today.
It was painted as overwhelmingly progressive in its development stages; a fact negated by a leaked script which revealed countless instances of slut-shaming, stereotyping (the tomboy character is the queer rep, naturally), and more. If anything, the ferocious backlash did do some good — the network has since halted production on Powerpuff so as to rework the pilot to something more palatable to the viewers of today.
While that may have been one bullet dodged, there proves a bevy of other similar shows in the wings. If anything, they are simply waiting to accost us with their half-baked attempts at addressing social and political issues; a condensed rendition of real-world events that barely delves into its various complexities and nuances. It's likely that the upcoming Gossip Girl reboot might be impeded by this, where its showrunner has disclosed that version 2.0 "endeavors to avoid glorifying its characters' wealth and exorbitant lifestyles." The leads will also be largely "aware of income inequalities" as exhibited by their choice to "take Ubers, not limousines." Okay, noted on the enormous sacrifice these teens are making...?
Ideally, production companies would (one day!) look at diversity beyond an item to be checked off a list. The future will, hopefully, bring about a wide variety of shows that thoughtfully showcases the intricacies and complications behind many a social justice issue. And in the meantime, certain TV networks should probably stop glorifying their lukewarm efforts at inclusivity — and fully embrace whatever absurd, ridiculous, downright entertaining stories they've cooked up.
Hey, Emily in Paris leaned into it, and look where it got them! Here's to more self-awareness in 2021: may you major media conglomerates see it, be it, and learn from it, stat.