I remember watching Downton Abbey for the first time, and thinking, "Wow, this is some really fascinating commentary on the insidious nature of the class system in post-WW I Britain!"
It slowly dawned on me, though, that it wasn't commentary.
There's a whole genre of these shows that seem to glorify the waning days of the Empire, with old war heroes staring wistfully out of the windows of their phenomenally huge homes. We're supposed to feel sorry when they have to leave their huge, castle-like buildings and go live in regular, human-sized houses somewhere else on the massive property. They don't understand this new world--women working in factories! wealthy daughters marrying servants! jazz!--and we're kind of supposed to feel bad for them. It revels in a creepy nostalgia, and our protagonists are always unusually progressive for the time, and the effect is that of relieving the viewers of ever really having to question the larger implications of what all this wealth is built on.
The thing is? I eat that shit up.
Downton Abbey isn't my favorite, but I am a big fan of what I call Sedate British Period Dramas. Maybe it's because they remind me of my parents watching TV after I'd gone to bed. Maybe I like the lush-yet-gloomy English countryside. Maybe it's the accents. For whatever reason, there is nothing that relaxes me like watching British people in historically accurate clothing keeping a stiff upper lip while our boys go after the Jerrys. And I feel really guilty about it.
It's not just that it's problematic; I'm a feminist who lives in the world and consumes media, so I'm used to enjoying things and still looking at them critically. These shows, though, directly depend on a history of colonialism for their appeal. There's nary a person of color, and when there is, there's only a surface-level examination of race that paints each white character as either "racist" or "not racist," with little subtlety and understanding of how racism is enacted at a social or institutional level.
So what's a white girl to do? Well, I don't necessarily think the solution is to stop watching, or to try to force myself not to enjoy them. Thus far, my solution has been to incorporate a little analysis into my viewings, even if that only takes the form of making fun of the most egregious offenders with my partner ("Thank God for rich white folks, amirite?!") Additionally, when people ask me for recommendations for media, I try to use that opportunity to signal-boost artists of color and shows that look at social issues with more nuance, instead of recommending a show whose demographic and stories have already gotten enough play.
In that spirit, I present to you two shows that you should check out!
First, if you aren't already watching The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, you should be. Starring the hilarious Issa Rae as J, ABG is funny, creative, and, well, awkward. The show features vibrant, complex portrayals of women of color, and focuses on that oft-hidden demographic: Black nerdy women.
My other recommendation, I have to admit, I haven't seen yet. Since I don't have TV, I have to figure out a way to online stream Fresh Off the Boat. Making headlines for being the first television show to feature an Asian-American family since Margaret Cho's 1994 sitcom All American Girl, Fresh Off the Boat is the story of a Taiwanese-American family moving to California. It's based on the memoirs of Eddie Huang, and if it sounds interesting to you, I really recommend reading Eddie's piece about watching his memoirs get turned into a TV show.