Elena Garbarino and Mara Surace are two young anthropologists. After selecting, watching and studying ninety TV series in 2021, they emerged from binge watching with a new way of looking at the world. In their book, Spoiler! Serie tv e giustizia sociale (TV Series and Social Justice), published by Meltemi in 2022, there are dialogues and monologues from TV series such as House of Cards, Stranger Things, The Warden and Self-Made. Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker, Orange is the New Black, Pose, The Handmaid’s Tale, Sex Education, Vida; Boris, This is us, Ginny & Georgia, Dexter, Dawson’s Creek.
“Thanks to the tools available to representation, such as the possibility of creating parallel, dystopian worlds or the opportunity to investigate hitherto little-told perspectives, the series are an interesting mirror of society and offer the possibility of learning something that escapes us in reality, because perhaps we are too bound and tied to preconceptions and prejudices that cloud our vision”, explains the authors.
“Spoiler! It is not a book on TV series, nor is it a book on TV criticism or the sociology of streaming”, Garbarino points out. We analysed some of the themes of contemporary anthropology, such as anti-racism, feminism, environmentalism, redistribution of wealth and justice, playing with quotations from about ninety series, and we realised that today’s society is on the move, but not in one direction: forces push in different directions, and it often happens that they collide. For instance, the pressures of those in power in most societies (rich white men) go in the direction of maintaining the status quo, while the demands of those fighting for greater social justice bring an opposite force for change”.
One series from which many points of reflection have emerged is Orange is the New Black, “because it deals with issues of gender and racism in a very direct way, without frills, showing also the rawest and most violent sides. Moreover, it does so in a prison context, from which one can understand the many contradictory aspects of justice and the judicial system”.
Another meaningful series is Vida, which is particularly useful in addressing the issue of colourism not only in the United States, but also in Italy, while Sex Education is cited to talk about male domination and to highlight the androcentric aspect of society”. There’s more: “Black Mirror, Omniscient and Osmosis allowed us to analyse some of the distortions that technology imposes on our lives”.
The Warden pushes for change, the overthrow of the status quo of male and white power, but does not shy away from entertaining and delighting. This also applies to other titles: Why Are You Like This is an Australian TV series that deals with very serious and important issues, such as privilege, alliance with the oppressed and downtrodden, and criticism of capitalism. “The exposition is clear and the irony allows the viewer to reflect and ask questions, but also to laugh and be entertained”. The same applies to Derry Girls, in which historical conflicts such as those between the English and the Irish, Catholics and Protestants, are addressed through the irreverent eyes of the teenage protagonists, who are more concerned with achieving popularity at school, dressing fashionably and falling in love.
Are there any series that still exist to distract?
“TV series remain a distraction and an escape from everyday life”, comments Mara Surace. “It is still entertainment. Even if streaming platforms, Netflix above all, try to pay more and more attention to social issues and the way they are dealt with, riding on this awareness that is proper to the new generations”. “Sometimes”, she explains, “the result is good, sometimes it is grotesque. If we are going to talk about social justice in a correct and effective way, we should always make sure that the people and communities we are talking about are given a voice and that, perhaps, there is an expert in television representation within the production, so that ‘minorities’ are not stereotyped or reduced to characters, but are truly represented”.
Mass cultural products are never neutral
As Antonia Caruso, trans/feminist activist, columnist and publisher, well points out in the preface, “cultural products, intended for a mass and transversal audience, have nothing neutral or casual about them. A certain message is conveyed in every story and every staging, including direction, photography, editing, choice of music.
“Ginny & Georgia is an opportunity to talk about ‘colourism’, an expression coined in 1983 by the African-American writer Alice Walker which means ‘prejudice or preferential treatment of people of the same racial group based solely on the colour of their skin. Because of colourism, POC (people of colour), already at the bottom of the social ladder, are further hierarchised according to a criterion that goes from the darkest skin, the one considered least desirable, to the light skin privilege”.
The work the two anthropologists have carried out through Spoiler! sought to address these issues in a rather simple way to reach the reader directly through TV series. “For us, this meant trying to make the text easy to use, but without flattening the discourse or trivialising it. For example, when we talk about anti-racism or feminism, we have not forgotten to include the class struggle as an element that is often forgotten, or talked about and written about in an inaccessible way“.
Welcome to couch anthropology
In a way, they have invented a new profession, what they do not hesitate to call ‘couch anthropology’. “‘Couch Anthropology’ is a joke, a play on words that echoes the term ‘armchair anthropologists’ referring to the first anthropologists who in the 1700s analysed the customs and cultures of distant peoples from the accounts of explorers and travellers. They would then put forward their theories from the comfort of their armchairs at home. In our case, the research took place in a digital, ethereal field, which many of us access from the comfort of our couch. Armchair anthropologists no longer exist and we believe that restricting the fields and methodologies of anthropology is limiting to the discipline itself”.