Sunday, August 6, 2017

How Funny Women on TV Helped Me Embrace My Insecurities [Guest Poster: Ashvini]

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Since I was a child, there have been certain phrases repeated to me about how I should sit, how I should laugh, what tone I should speak with, how I should look, what I should wear, and how I should eat. And let me tell you, I have never listened. Not once. If someone told me to laugh more “gracefully” or “quietly,” I would just laugh louder. If someone told me to close my legs while I was sitting, I would just widen my stance. I don’t think that I saw what I was doing as rebellion when I was younger; I just hated being told what I should be like, and I wanted to do the opposite of what I was being told to do. I just wanted to be me. I liked me. I still really do.

But because I was asked to hide those parts of myself, I became self-conscious of them as I grew older. My teens were not the most stable times, emotionally and physically. I was always very aware of the flaws that people had told me I had, and my reflex had become to cover them up. Be someone I wasn’t. Looking back, that reality is heartbreaking.

However, television has always been therapeutic for me. It helps me cope with things; it really does. When I go through depressive bouts, I know my favorite, most comforting shows are there for me in an instant — and having that gratification is important. I overcame some of my deepest insecurities through just growing up, but I was helped in part by television characters. Namely female television characters who taught me that being yourself — however flawed people may view that person to be — is about embracing those deep insecurities. Not hiding them.

Often the most compelling of these characters were in the comedy genre. Comedians do the craziest things to land a joke, to make people laugh, and to make some kind of overarching cultural point; to do these things well, you have to possess a very small amount of shame and a very large amount of audacity. There is absolutely no shortage of wonderful examples of female characters on television who possess that funny quotient. But more than that, by not caring about how ridiculous they looked or sounded, they did something incredible: they embraced their characters full-force, insecurities and all.

Here are just a few of those women who provided me with the most profound therapy.


Deandra “Sweet Dee” Reynolds (Kaitlin Olson)

I think of a character like Dee Reynolds on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. She’s clearly an exaggeration of the worst kind of woman, but Dee is allowed to be herself. Yeah, she is pretty terrible, but she also doesn’t hold anything back. She’s written to be just as abrasive and offensive as the rest of “the gang,” which is primarily comprised of men.

Dee gets to be weird, gross, loud, irrational, and have a temper. And instead of those traits being written off as flaws, these characteristics instead comprise a large part of who she is. Dee says what’s on her mind — however misinformed or illogical — but she says it with this brash confidence that not a lot of female characters are afforded. I like that Dee has rough edges and isn’t nice; I like that she doesn’t have a moral compass, that she gets to be mean, with her middle fingers up to the world. The character has jarring flaws and massive insecurities, but whether this is purposeful or not, they are blatant. They aren’t hidden — they’re just a part of who she is, and she kind of goes with it.

Throughout the show she is forced to embrace the darkest parts of her persona. By and large, she fails at her attempts to become a better person — or a more normal one — and accepted by society. But yet, in the twisted world of “the gang,” she is able to thrive in some ways. She survives and is on top, and that is something. Often, female characters on TV aren’t afforded full-fledged complexity. They can’t be more than one thing; they’re either good or bad. So for Dee to waver in her morality and be given a deep complexity is rare and so very compelling to watch. For a woman like that to be recognized and accepted by the people in her world is astounding and inspiring for me. I hope Kaitlin Olson knows that her interpretation of Dee Reynolds has given me strength, however odd that may be.

Because of Dee, I’m unafraid of the darkest parts of who I am. I struggle with them, yes, but at the end of the day I don’t hide them. And also don’t shy away from being mean or selfish; I don’t put pressure on myself to be nice, or kind, or sweet. I don’t act how others want me to. I act like myself, wearing my scars on my sleeve, disinterested in anyone’s opinion but mine. It’s very freeing.

Dee’s most notable episodes: “The Gang Gets Whacked, Parts 1 & 2,” “The Gang Hits the Road,” “The Waitress Is Getting Married,” “Sweet Dee Gets Audited,” and “The Gang Broke Dee”


Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) 

Then there’s Elaine Benes from Seinfeld. Oh, Elaine Benes. I’m pretty sure I owe at least 40% of my personality to her. Elaine is kind of morally ambiguous, but she knows what she’s about. She can be contrite, shallow, and vain but she maintains a vulnerability that made me sympathize with her. When she was yelling at people in anguish at their stupidity, I was right there yelling with her.

What I’ve always loved about this character is her attitude toward men; she is very particular about how she communicates with them, presents herself to them, and chooses to pursue relationships with them. But the bottom line is that it’s very clear she is always the dominant one. She’s in control of who she is, especially when men are involved. There’s always this notion that to be in love, to be happy in a relationship, you have to lose control. That sometimes, you cannot have your way and that you have to settle; I don’t care for this notion, but it’s a popular one that’s presented in TV over and over again. However, throughout the run of Seinfeld, Elaine never settles. She’s impatient and impulsive, often in her relationships with other people, but her attitude of simultaneous disinterest and attentiveness toward men is fascinating. She wants men, but on her terms, and her terms only; this made a powerful impression on me.

Coming from more of a patriarchal family structure, I’ve always been admonished for being loud, aggressive, brash, and sometimes too confident that it comes off as “too manly.” I’ve been told that my handshake is too strong. I’m not kidding. My response to people who suggest these things to me is always immediate shock. Why is strength, why is dominance, why is confidence only reserved for men? It’s outrageous to think that only men are capable of these encompassing these traits when some of the most dominant people in my life are women. And because of my family background, my attitude toward men has always seemed alien to those closest to me, like a flaw that they need to fix. As if hegemonic institutions like marriage aren’t man-made; as if the world would explode if I didn’t follow rules that everyone before me has followed.

When I told my mom that I didn’t want to get married, she was speechless. But how, she said, are you going to have children? I told her that I didn’t even know if I wanted children, and again, she was flabbergasted. Still, she struggles with how I want to live my life, as open and caring as she is. The reality is that she was raised in a society that depended on heteronormative traditions and anything diagonal to that seemed unusual and un-allowed. The thing is, I don’t care. It is ultimately my life, and how I want men to be involved in it, is up to me. No one else. Watching Elaine be a sex-positive, independent, self-supporting woman was important to me for that reason. Because of Elaine, I know that my independence is something to be valued and there’s absolutely no man that can get in the way of that. And despite what people may say, it’s not blasphemous. It’s a reassurance that your worth isn’t dependent on someone else.

Elaine’s most notable episodes: “The Pony Remark,” “The Stall,” “The Subway,” “The Opera,” “The Soup Nazi,” and “The Beard”


Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) 

Rachel Green was deemed to be a lot of things on Friends: selfish, greedy, bratty, a princess, a daddy’s girl, and boy-crazy to name the most obvious. But she’s also kind, sensitive, practical, and brave. It’s take an immense sense of self to leave an entire life of wealth and security behind to start over again because you know you deserve something more fulfilling, something more challenging. Just... something more.

Rachel being a runaway bride is a point of laughter for the audience; it’s something that’s brought up over and over again throughout the run of Friends. Yes, it is funny. Any instance where you encounter a bride running desperately into a coffee shop is absurd. No argument there. But I think people sometimes miss the whole point of Rachel’s character, because it’s easier to write her off as an airhead.

Sure, Rachel is not conventionally intelligent. She often falls asleep, intentionally and unintentionally, when being lectured on something she is ignorant to. She’s interested in seemingly superficial things like fashion, makeup, and gossip. And her aesthetic interest in men is impressive. Yet to me, all of these things that encompass Rachel are relatable. Often, when I was young, I had a difficult time learning things at the same pace as my peers; math and science were not my strong suits. Among my family of geniuses, I felt like the black sheep, spending my time reading Teen Vogue, watching endless hours of TV, and writing furiously about my crushes of the week in my diary. This obvious difference between me and people who were deemed as “smart” created some deep insecurities for me, that still bring me to tears to this day. I always felt so dumb and useless, like I had no skills. Like I had nothing to offer the world.

It wasn’t until later on, in my later high school years, that I knew my true intelligence stemmed from my personal strength and my ability to keep fighting for myself when I thought I was drowning in my own uncertainty. Rachel is strong for the same reason — she fought for herself, over and over again, proving herself where it counted. And she came out of the other confident, capable, and happy. It didn’t how much people ridiculed her, tried to derail her dreams, and cheered for her failure. She always pushed through. And she was able to be smart, because she simply was. She had an incredible spirit that always shone.

Rachel Green helped me overcome my doubts about my intelligence. Now, I find that kindness, courage, and bravery have more weight than anything else.

Rachel’s most notable episodes: “The One With Ross’s New Girlfriend,” “The One Where Ross and Rachel Take A Break,” “The One With The Cat,” “The One With Rachel’s Crush,” “The One With The Fake Party,” “The One Where Rachel Smokes,” “The One With Rachel’s Book,” “The Where Rachel is Late,” and “The One With Rachel’s Other Sister”


Jackie Burkhart (Mila Kunis) 

There’s a part of me that is happy living a vain life — a life filled with things and nothing else. In the words of Tom Haverford, “Love fades away. But things? Things last forever.” I recognize that my need to possess pretty objects come from a deeper dissatisfaction with aspects of my life, my romantic endeavors more specifically.

Throughout the run of That 70’s Show, Jackie Burkhart is desperate for a steady boyfriend. One who is faithful, loyal, obedient, and someone who is preferably able to buy her nice things; for the first four seasons, this someone is the adorably helpless and profoundly immature Michael Kelso. In the first couple of seasons, the audience is to believe that that is due to her vanity, and her privileged upbringing. But by season five, we see a change in Jackie. She has lost literally everything — she no longer has Kelso by her side, her father is in prison, her mother has left the country to go flitting around South America, and thus she has no home. Her life is in shambles, so naturally the one thing she craves is stability. She finds this in Hyde, who I personally believe was her true first love. Because of Hyde, the Foremans, Donna, and even Fez, she learns true humbleness, as much is possible for Jackie to learn. Some of the most vain things about her — her love of makeup, fashion, celebrity gossip, and obsession with herself and beauty in general — remain.

Yet, gaining principles and morals fleshes her out; she defines what kind of person she wants to be by surrounding herself with people who actually care about her and in turn she cares for them, and we see this reflected in her most difficult moments. One of these moments is during the Valentine’s Day episode of season five, where she breaks down in front of Hyde and ultimately confesses her love for him. It’s a show of vulnerability that the audience was rarely privy to during Jackie’s scenes and it’s one I’ll always remember. Her growing up took literal years, but what we got to see in the end of the show’s run, was a truly lovely person. Someone who wasn’t afraid of things she liked, but didn’t use them to hide. She just presented them to be a part of herself.

For someone like Jackie — and someone like me — we often take things that make us happy like sparkly dresses and glittery makeup and use it to define who we are because it makes our true wants and needs less desperate, less vulnerable, less bare for the world to see. Presenting ourselves to the world in a way that we are able to control is how we deflect. We choose what we want people to see about us and our true emotions are only revealed to those closest to us, in moments of ultimate breakdown.

I used to use makeup and fashion to hide parts of myself that I thought were ugly, undeserving, and scarred; I used to wear makeup for other people which became so damaging to my ego that I had to stop wearing makeup and being fashionable. I gave it up for years. I just recently started using makeup and delving into the fashion world again. But now, now I do it for myself and no else. I don’t use it to hide; instead I use these things to show people who I am, to present myself how I choose. I don’t think of it as hiding because I feel that by doing these things again, I’m presenting myself as my most vulnerable. After all of these years, I have defined for myself who I am, what my morality is, what my principles are. Just like Jackie, I grew up. And because of Jackie, I knew it was okay to take my time to do so.

Jackie’s most notable episodes: “That Disco Episode,” “Prom Night,” “Kelso’s Serenade,” “Cat Fight Club,” “Jackie Bags Hyde,” “Jackie Says Cheese,” “Black Dog,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “Join Together,” and “Street Fighting Man”

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Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler (Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer) 

What I like about Abbi and Ilana is their willingness to be honest; they’re unafraid to be frank. It’s like a breath of fresh air. There’s a reason so many women my age relate to Abbi and Ilana. It’s because we see ourselves reflected in them, and all of their successes and failures, and their method of being completely blunt about what they experience as women. I see myself in them. They remind me of the take-no-crap girl I’ve always been. They’re unafraid to be honest and brutal about their experiences as women, and hearing them talk about sex, men, and periods (among other taboo topics) is so vindicating. There’s an infamous scene earlier on in the show, where Abbi and Ilana are walking down the streets of NYC late in the night, and they pass by an older man who tells them to “smile.” They turn around and tip their lips up with their middle fingers. It’s funny and so pleasing to watch, especially for someone who’s been in the same situation. In fact, that moment inspired something I did a couple of months ago.

I was at McDonald’s with some friends after a night out, waiting in line for my well-deserved McChicken sandwich and large fry order. Of course, I was wearing bar clothes and my face was masked in some Instagram-worthy makeup; I was balancing on some gorgeous heels that had been stabbing my feet all night and I had to pee really badly. All I wanted to do was get my food, go home, and stuff my face while watching Parks and Recreation. Basically, I was not in the mood for any funny business. I finally walked up to the cashier to retrieve my food and I knew right away from his smarmy grin that he was about to make me uncomfortable. While trying to pay as quickly as possible, he wouldn’t stop telling me that I was beautiful and that he wanted to see me smile.

I was beyond irritated. I was like, dude, I know I’m beautiful. I don’t need you to tell me that. And if I don’t want to smile, then I’m not going to. Period. But, this cashier was not understanding the subtleties of my bitter facial expressions. So I channeled Abbi and Ilana. I pried my food out of his hands, and when he asked me once last time to smile, I turned around and made the most disgusting face I was capable of. His grin dropped instantly and he left me alone. My friends cackled and I quietly thanked Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer.

I know this moment, in the grand scheme of things, seems minute. Unimportant, even. And I have unfortunately been through worse harassment; but despite difficult moments minute or momentous, Abbi and Ilana help give me the strength to deal with skeevy weirdoes in ways that empower me and enable me to stand up for myself, rather than let these experiences be forgotten. Abbi and Ilana should know that because of their characters, I’m more honest about my annoyance with harassment and sexist microaggressions.

So I’m unafraid to put my middle fingers up.

Abbi and Ilana’s most notable episodes: Every single episode. Seasons 1-3, y’all.

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Pamela “Pam” Beesly-Halpert (Jenna Fischer)

Sometimes my fear of taking risks is paralyzing. I can take risks, per say, but only calculated ones. When it comes to things like matters of the heart, I never take leaps because either someone is new to me, something seems challenging, or there’s no way of predicting the outcome. Or a hopeless combination of both. It’s just easier to run away, isn’t it?

Pam’s struggle with confronting her ever-growing feelings for Jim and disconnect with her fiance Roy, was emotional to watch. As an audience member, it was easy for me to yell at my TV screen, and want for Pam to break things off with Roy and pursue Jim. The choice was so glaringly obvious; her problems seemed completely solvable. But as I got older, and through more re-watches, I found myself gaining a deeper understanding of what Pam was going through with both men and more importantly, herself. She was confused, lost, angry, sad, and desperate. No one was there to help her through the unbearable situation. When it came to Roy, she was comfortable with him. She had known him since high school. Their relationship had no stakes, and she knew it wasn’t enough for her. Roy truly didn’t understand Pam and her complexities; their relationship was all surface level. But I get why she chose to stay with him. She stayed with him because it was easy — it was like running away from the weight of her problems. The longer she stayed with him, the longer she took to plan their wedding, the more time she had to hide, to ignore her true feelings. The more time she had to avoid dealing with everyone. That’s something I struggle with as well; it’s easier to walk away, to delay, to ignore, than it is to confront. Because when you confront yourself, you have to deal with the truths that you’ve spent possibly years burying. And my God, is that daunting.

Eventually Pam — in a moment of bravery — bares some difficult truths to Jim and the rest of the office, after swiftly walking across a walkway of coal Oprah Winfrey-style. It’s funny, it’s clumsy, and it’s beautiful. I cry every time I watch that scene. Because in that moment she takes a stand for herself and through that, she’s able to confront herself. You can see Pam having realizations while she’s talking to everyone; the momentum of her speech picks up, and the more and more she bares her soul, the wider her smile becomes. The peace she feels because of her confession is evident. It’s such an unbelievable relief when you choose to end your denial and deal with your problems. The weight off of your shoulders is heavy but the calm that follows is so worth it.

Of all of my insecurities, I work on dealing with this one the most. Every day I try to do something that will help me take leaps instead of avoid what’s challenging. Whether it’s to finally talk to the cute guy I’ve been crushing on for days or to talk to my boss about an idea I have, I really try not to run away because nothing comes out of "if." I think, what would have happened if Pam hadn’t word vomited her feelings to the entire office? Would she still be stuck in a cycle of misery and confusion? I would hope not, but I’m guessing that yes, she would’ve been stuck forever. She would’ve been at a standstill and never progressed, never gotten to go to art school or married Jim, or had the fearlessness to try her hand at sales, and invent her own position at Dunder Mifflin-Sabre.

I want to move forward with my life, always. Pam’s journey gave me the foresight to be honest with myself and take risks, because I’ll never know what I’ll miss if I don’t.

Pam’s most notable episodes: “The Dundies,” “Booze Cruise,” “Diwali,” “Women’s Appreciation,” “Beach Games,” “Fun Run,” “Dream Team,” “Michael Scott Paper Company,” “Broke,” “The Lover,” “Murder,” “Costume Contest,” “Lice,” and “Finale”


At 21, I’ve still yet to come to terms with my insecurities. Frankly, I don’t foresee them ever going away. Though I suppose that’s what it means to be human; you’re a reflection of everything that has happened to you, good and bad. Your insecurities are merely effects of the bad, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, it’s more worthwhile to embrace them. There are things about myself that I have yet to embrace as well. I’m not sure what I want from life; I say I want to be a writer now, and I have wanted that ever since I can remember, but sometimes I think it would be easier to let my insecurities about who I am (which includes my future) drown me. But that’s a peek into my duality. I’m simultaneously a fighter and a loser. I never want to give up and I always want to love myself, yet there’s this tiny little voice scratching at the insides of my brain telling me that succumbing to my deepest, darkest insecurities is always a possibility, or an escape from the reality of growing pains. It’s that same tiny little, incessant voice that feeds my anxiety and depression.

The fighter in me is the exact opposite of this voice. She’s fueled by joy, love, curiosity, and coffee; she finds flowers aesthetically pleasing; she finds her most charismatic peace near roaring bodies of water; and she always wants to progress and mature. The fighter is my favorite part of myself, and really, she’s the strongest most enduring part of myself. How do I keep her alive, you may ask? I give her all of the support and care possible. I surround her with therapy — in food, in music, in people, and in TV. In fact, television is what keeps her going the most, I think. Not because it’s an escape, but because it lights her fire. The fighter is the one who wants to be a writer, who wants to work in television, so naturally watching it is one of her greatest methods of acceptance, of herself and of the world. That even includes the acceptance of the tiny little, incessant voice’s insecurities. I think that duality exists in everyone. There’s always an angel and devil sitting on your shoulders, trying to rule your life, making it sometimes unbearable to actually think clearly.

The funny, wonderful women I wrote about — both the characters and the actresses — provide me with an alternative to the normalized way society thinks. That I should be wary of how others perceive me whilst sacrificing my mental health, is one of those norms that I have experienced. Dee, Elaine, Rachel, Jackie, Abbi, Ilana, and Pam have shown me that accepting that norm is to disrespect myself and my journey. They have helped me see that embracing who I am, which includes my pesky insecurities, will help me grow and accept that even at my worst, those parts of me that I struggle with are the parts that make me human. And just because those parts aren’t pretty, aren’t lovely, aren’t graceful, that I am still deserving of kindness and respect.

That I am still deserving of love.


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