On Preferences

In our conversation about Two and a Half Men creator Lee Aronsohn’s recent complaint that, in terms of bodily female humor on television, “we’re approaching peak vagina on television,” one line of defense was that he was simply expressing a perfectly legitimate preference. His comments weren’t as horrifying as those of the racist fans of The Hunger Games who, in response to a character who is described as dark-skinned in the books being played by an African-American actress, tweeted things like “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad #ihatemyself.” But both strains of thinking get at something important: preferences in art aren’t neutral things unaffected by larger cultural forces that shield the people who hold them from any charges of racism, sexism, or homophobia.

Dan Savage wrote as much recently in response to a reader who wanted to know if his preference for masculine white men made him a jerk or biased: “You’re entitled to your preferences — but I hope your preferences are yours. I hope you’ve given your taste in men some thought and you can honestly say that these are your preferences, Masculine Man, and not just gay beauty ideals and/or masculinity standards that the culture stuffed down your throat and up your ass. And if they’re your preferences, well, you’re entitled to them. But you’re not entitled to be an asshole about them.”

It’s one thing to prefer stories about male characters, because that’s who you relate to most easily. It’s another to mistake that preference for some sort of proof that stories about men are inherently superior or more sophisticated. If you’d rather not watch gay people have relationships and build families, no one’s forcing you, but it’s worth interrogating why you feel that way. If you’re uncomfortable watching characters carry out their lives in a cramped, less-than-perfectly-maintained house but fine watching characters waltz through unrealistically enormous apartments, you might want to get to the root of that impulse. And if you bond more closely with a white child than with a black one, you should think about what that means on a deeper level than an #ihatemyself hashtag. There’s nothing wrong with treating entertainment as if it’s a source of fun rather than vitamins. But if being comfortable in your enjoyment means being comfortable in a narrow set of ideas, that’s not a neutral position, much less an admirable one.