[Moving] Images of Women:

Feminist Criticism and Reality in Television

Toril Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics spends very little time on ‘Images of Women’ criticism; despite representing a turn to a political discourse within feminist literary theory, “it is easy today to be reproving of this type of criticism: to take it to task for not recognizing the literariness of literature” (Moi 47). While acknowledging Moi’s valid criticisms of the theory, I believe that the emphasis on realism and reflection within ‘Images of Women’ criticism has gained new relevance within the world of television. In the wake of the birth of reality television, the question of “real” in television has risen to the surface, and has resulted in a wave of series which call this into question. I want to take a look at two examples: a non-traditional television drama (HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me) and a “reality” series (MTV’s The Hills). In doing so, I want to investigate whether this medium for reality, nonexistent when Moi’s text was written, results in a similar deconstruction of ‘Images of Women’ criticism.

HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me

There are no sensationalist storylines (as seen in primetime soap operas like Desperate Housewives) within Tell Me You Love Me, which purports to be one of the most realistic portrayals of relationships on television. This was originally based on its near pornographic sex scenes, but in reality it extends to the most mundane details: drama is created through therapy sessions and discussions, as opposed to bomb scares, and we see these people doing the most mundane things, including urination. This reflects one of the main contentions, as noted by Moi, regarding ‘Images of Women’ theory, in that “toe-nail clipping and the disposal of sanitary towels…seem neglected as fictional themes” (44).

YouTube – Tell Me You Love Me

However, the series develops into one of the contradictions Moi finds within the theory: she notes that “the feminist reader of this period not only wants to see her own experience mirrored in fiction, but strives to identify with strong, impressive female characters” (46). These are not present within Tell Me You Love Me: all characters, even the therapist, are confused, unhappy and make generally terrible decisions involving their personal relationships. As a result, there are few female role models (to the degree Images of Women criticism desires) to be found here, even as they act in a realistic fashion. The series represents the idealist and contradictory viewpoint of ‘Images of Women’ criticism, even within a new medium – you can’t desire realism when you also desire a narrow portrayal of women.

MTV’s The Hills

However, there is no literary equivalent to reality television (Unless we count James Frey’s false autobiography), so shows like The Hills are uncharted territory. The show shows the lives of high society twenty-somethings who have to deal with relationship drama, friendship drama, and the everyday life of modeling in the Hollywood hills. Moi notes that ‘Images of Women’ criticism is “concerned with nurturing personal growth and raising the individual consciousness by linking literature to life” (42). However, I do not believe that even these theorists could imagine that one day The Hills would emerge as not just a connection between literature and life, but rather purporting to be reality itself.

YouTube – The Hills (Heidi and Lauren Fight)

This fight was, of course, staged and filmed from multiple angles: the show’s stars are celebrities, not real people, and any attempt to claim the series as real are inherently false. However, its female “role models” gain a level of notoriety impossible within “fiction” thanks to the show’s purported realism. By blurring the line between actor and character, ‘Images of Women’ criticism becomes even more interesting: literature and life become one and the same, and the power of the show’s portrayal of women becomes even more important. Despite the fact that these portrayals are controlled and edited by a group of shadowy figures, thus representing an unrealistic portrayal, it is presented as reality and could be taken as such (especially by young women).

In other words, even though reality is what this branch of feminist criticism strove for, that reality as found within the realm of television still does not fit into the theory’s idealistic standards. While I think that Moi’s hyper-criticism is often overbearing, I think that here she is measured: when the subject deserves and welcomes criticism, she seems fit to offer only a well-guided analysis of the theory’s flaws.

What this commentary was designed to do was retest this theory. In Moi’s analysis, she believes that the analysis is unbalanced because it fails to respect “women writers who often wrote under ideological conditions that made it impossible for them to fulfil the demands of the feminist critics” (48). However, now that these ideological conditions are no longer in place, the theory remains idealistic and contradictory; the new post-modern focus on reality still does not reconcile the concerns that Moi has with ‘Images of Women’ criticism. If anything, it is further distanced from that reality by these newfound complexities.