There is one phrase I use at least once a day that is guaranteed to make my roommate roll her eyes every time: “That’s not PC.” (Of course, it could be possible that she’s rolling her eyes in frustration at the fact that I say it a lot when she’s watching “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” but I’ll get to that in a minute).
“Politically correct” is a phrase that has subtle differences in different contexts. If something isn’t PC, it’s offensive or non-inclusive; a common example would be using certain words to refer to a person’s identity (race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) that aren’t socially acceptable anymore based on their history. The qualifier “political” stems from the fact that not using the PC term for something is a great way to find yourself with your foot in your mouth, at best — not a very dignified or comfortable position.
The concept of political correctness isn’t new. The third most popular definition of “politically correct” on Urban Dictionary is “the idealogy of weird left wing liberals who want society to be nothing but accepting of all perverts and freaks everywhere. The main basis is not to offend anyone with one little incorrect word,” written in 2003 by “John J. Cock Oiler” (The top definition was gross so I’m not retyping it).
However, the level of group censorship based on political correctness has been rising — and so has the level of impatience from those who think political correctness just means tiptoeing around the truth (at best) or insidious censorship (at worst).
Intellectual communities like universities and think tanks have been engaging in discourse about how a renewed emphasis on political correctness is bleeding into our classrooms; Obama spoke on this himself recently in Iowa, disapproving of “coddling” college students. And with the rise of social activism on social media, PC culture is spreading.
We could talk about the causes and effects of PC culture, and how they play into identity politics for weeks without running out of material, but something I have been thinking about recently — especially as the characters from my roommate’s shows like “It’s Always Sunny” or “30 Rock” are constantly screeching in my head nowadays — is how PC culture is affecting our TV shows and habits.
When I hear some of the jokes that made it onto the final scripts for episodes of shows like those, I sometimes find myself laughing in shock at how not PC they are. I know that “30 Rock” is satire, but I still can’t help but wonder if many of their jokes that rely on tropes and stereotypes and would make the cut these days. This question is especially relevant for anything marketed as comedy. The line between satire and jokes that aren’t OK is becoming thicker and thicker.
The first time I fully realized this was after I watched the first episode of Amy Poehler’s “Difficult People,” a newish show on Hulu, in which a horrible character tweets a joke about Blue Ivy soon being old enough for “R. Kelly to piss on her.” The joke felt uncouth, even though I understood that the writers meant it to be a reminder of how R. Kelly was accused of urinating on and having sex with a teenage girl in 2002. I could understand why Black feminists especially were angry — jokes at the expense of Black women’s bodies are still all too prevalent.
Yet the show was slammed much harder than it would have been had it aired even three or five years ago. Similar jokes have made the cut time and time again on older, more established shows. People are more likely now to watch their shows online rather than live, and more people engage in discussions publicly online about what they’re watching. But when shows with cult-like followings air, discussions about them often trend on Twitter immediately. So if something happens or something is said that isn’t PC, people quickly find out about it.
PC culture is changing our TV viewership habits in that the population of a show’s audience that is likely to engage in critical analysis about what they’re watching is growing — and they have access to media platforms from which they can spread their ideas. People are more likely to take offense at things that weren’t meant to be taken seriously, and some feel that they’re being unfairly treated by those that police political correctness.
What started out as trying to make sure everyone feels respected is sometimes turned into an exercise in hyperbolizing satire and at times silencing those who don’t hold popular liberal opinions.
I have to bite my tongue sometimes and remind myself I’m not the PC police, but at other times I simply can’t help myself — I know, I’m everyone’s favorite classmate (or roommate — #sorrynotsorry, Rebecca). But I think that’s OK. PC culture represents good intentions that are sometimes taken to extremes, and it’s up to all of us to educate ourselves on what those extremes look like. Our TV shows are sometimes the best examples of where the bounds of PC culture should be: we should know when to point something out for not being PC, and when to just shut up and have fun watching the damn TV show.