I love Lifetime movies. I’m not going to deny that, shameful as it might seem for a radical feminist such as myself. I grew up with these movies, spending hours laying in bed or lounging on the couch with a book and a Lifetime movie (I have never been able to just watch television). You see, I was raised on the type of trash television that housewives and stay-at-home mothers like my grandmother and mother loved in the 90s. Along with the cartoons I watched on summer mornings, I was also treated to probably unhealthy amounts of The Young and the Restless, talk shows like Sally, and of course, Lifetime movies. Are you surprised that I never needed the sex talk?
I preferred Lifetime movies to all of these, the more salacious the better. Give me teen pregnancy! Abusive relationships? That sounds good! Deadly affairs? Yay! I devoured the films with an odd combination of pleasure and disgust. My mother, not being a particularly political woman, simply watched them. I, being a rather precocious child, analyzed them. Why does she stay with the man who beats her? Look, her sister even offered a place for her to stay! These were the thoughts of an eight year old Elfity. She wouldn’t have gotten pregnant if they were careful. I wonder if she knows about Planned Parenthood… These were the thoughts of a twelve year old Elfity! Unlike the stereotype of the woman who watches TV movies with disturbing schadenfreude, or worse yet with no emotion at all, I looked at them as a sort of case study. A What Not to Do, if you will. I learned very quickly from watching the hours of poorly acted, overly dramatized stories what a bad relationship looked like, what a toxic friendship was, and to always make sure that the guy you’re going to marry doesn’t have two other wives.
My ex used to berate me for watching Lifetime movies like I do. Though in recent years I’ve really only watched them when laying ill on the couch either with the flu or a bout of depression, I am still known to engage in marathon movie sessions, and it was during these times that he would walk in to find me watching something particularly awful. He’d ask me why I would watch such things, if I was supposed to be such a feminist. He wanted to know why I enjoyed seeing women get beaten by their husbands or innocent wives get stalked and kidnapped by the “crazy” ex-girlfriend that so often pops up. I had a hard time answering him then, because I was in my own bad relationship. I felt belittled, and though I didn’t like being condescended to, I ended up just halheartedly defending myself and waiting for him to go away. I’ve had numerous encounters like these over the years, as people can’t seem to reconcile my ardent feminism with my guilty pleasure.
In the end, the movies are designed to be cautionary tales, and that is exactly what they are. They tell you not to make certain choices that are socially unacceptable – don’t have teen sex, don’t go out with the bad boy. They send messages that enforce the cultural norms of blaming and slut shaming. As the viewer, we are left to judge a young girl for going to that party her parents told her not to attend, where she is drugged and raped. We’re supposed to blame the woman who stays with her abusive husband when she ends up in the hospital for not leaving sooner without taking into account any other factors in her situation. The girl who develops an eating disorder while her family and friends watch? She did it to herself, we’re supposed to believe. The problem is that these movies tell you what not to do and speak nothing of the environments that create them. They tell you not to make choices, rather than to make informed choices.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I rejected those messages. What I took from the movies was not to only make societally “good” choices, but to make informed, well-reasoned choices. I learned as I matured that these issues do not exist in a vacuum, but rather in a large social context. The message I took is not, “don’t have sex, because you’ll get pregnant and ruin everything,” but rather, “if you have sex, use multiple protections or you’ll end up like that kid.” I learned the signs of an abuser, so I could be prepared to never let it get that far. In the interest of full disclosure, I was in an abusive relationship, though not the stereotypical kind portrayed in Lifetime movies. That’s for another post! These movies shaped my feminism because I learned to make choices, and that I had choices to make. I learned that I could be powerful, that these things didn’t happen to me. I was inspired to educate myself, above all else. Yes, they have their problems, as I’ve mentioned before. I am not saying that these movies are feminist, because they are very problematic in terms of gender, sexuality, race class, and ability to name a few, but I do believe they shaped my feminism in an odd way. I got started on these way too young, but I fully intend to watch these with a daughter someday, because I want to be able to use them to teach her the way I taught myself.