Healthy media, healthy choices
It shouldn’t be a choice that women have to make at all. But like many of the uncomfortable, inconvenient ones that overwhelmingly fall on them, this is another one. And it doesn’t help that pop culture reinforces the message.
I’ve been binge watching Dawson’s Creek which was a monster hit show around the time I was a teenager. Good looking American young people from the show covered the pages of the glossy magazines I used to borrow for two weeks at a time from a local library. And the news was usually a few months old until it travelled across the world and landed in my hands. There was no way to watch the show in India where I was growing up. But all these years later, I’m reminded of what it was like to be 15, what the world was like back then and how some things haven’t changed much.
It’s not a major spoiler but if you don’t want to know what happens with the story, skip this post. In one of the early seasons, there’s all this romatic tension between the lead character, Dawson, and Joey, played by Katie Holmes. And the audience has no idea if they’ll end up together or not, if they want them to or not. Joey, who’s also a great student in high school, gets offered a place on a programme that will take her to Paris. She tells Dawson about the possbility and you can see his face fall. The thought of his “maybe” girlfriend going away for a whole semester seems too unbearable. So you know what happens?
And they celebrate by hugging and jumping up and down in the hallway.
She chooses instead to stay behind and give up the chance to travel to a foreign country and immerse herself in what would be an incredible learning experience, which would have looked great on college applications…for a boy.
When she’s 15.
I was so disappointed. I really wish the writers had thought to make this plot line turn out differently, given what a wide audience of really impressionable people were watching and internalising these messages. And it echoes a lot of what’s still promoted in pop culture.
I’m not saying that relationships should never be priortised above other life things, including great jobs and opportunities. But this was not one of those times. When shows as susccessful as this have made statements about sexuality, responsible teenage behaviour, navigating complex family dynamics — it’s been really powerful. This was a missed opportunity to do similarly.
I bring this up because I grew up thinking that always putting a partner first, especially compared to a career move, was the “right” thing to do which I realise now is so flawed. Years earlier, while watching Full House, a childhood favourite, I remember feeling so divided when Danny Tanner’s fiance in the show, Vicky, decides to take a job in another city instead of marry him and stay in San Francisco with his family. Danny had been widowed for many years and had found love after a long time. Danny’s daughters loved Vicky. It seemed like a no-brainer. But Vicky broke everyone’s heart, including my ten-year-old one, when she said this was something she had to do. I couldn’t excatly blame her, I knew even then. It was a great job. But I couldn’t help feeling angry at her either. How could she be so uncaring and abandon people she claims to love? Who loved her so much?
And that’s because entire generations of women have been (and continue to) to be raised on a diet of pop culture that glorifies a woman giving up herself, her dreams. They tell her that her work is not as important as their partner’s or faced with having to decide between her home and the office, it’s almost a decision that doesn’t even need to be made.
That’s not okay.
It is so unhealthy.
Years later, when I was in college, the final episode of Friends aired, in which Rachel gives up a dream job in Paris to stay behind in New York so she can be with Ross and raise their daughter. It was so dramatic in the way she leaves a plane she’s boarded because she’s had a last minute realisation that her on-again off-again romance with Ross is “the real thing”. He’s the love of her life.
I cheered and clapped as hard as anyone else. Honestly, I think the show’s producers were really just giving everyone the ending they wanted. But critics, including my very woke 17-year-old cousin, have always said Rachel should have gone to Paris. She should never have got off that plane.
And a part of me, defintely the Auntie Ayesha part of me, agrees.
We need more popular media to help women have difficult conversations when faced with difficult choices. To encourage them to ask the tough questions. How does a woman do right by herself and by the people in her life? Does she always need to do both? How does she not sacrifice who she is and what she wants? Who does she owe greater happiness to?
Someone wise once told me — “Never make yourself small for anyone.” And it’s something I think of often. It’s not always for a partner. Sometimes it’s blood family. Friends. Extended family. Larger society. What we switch on TV in the evening. There are many times when a woman will be told that making yourself small to suit someone else, to fit a more convenient narrative will make you more palatable. Pleasant. Agreeable. Likeable.
Especially at times like that, I hope you’ll find it in you to remind yourself why being your biggest, boldest, bravest self is better. For everyone, but mostly it’s best for you.
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