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It’s a commonplace of cultural criticism that the audience are as much in charge of what a work “means” as the creator.  Especially now we have twitter, blogging and online forums, we can clearly see the process of meaning being made as books and TV shows are recapped, wrangled over and reinterpreted.  The “reception” of a 50 minute TV episode can last for days, and be just as intense an experience as the original watching of the show.  It’s also more visible to us now that this is a collaborative – or even antagonistic – process, in which groups of people get together to ask “is it just me…”, “did anyone else see that…” or “they can’t have been serious, can they…”

For me, one of the more exciting aspects of this process is resistant readings.  This process, codified most famously by Judith Fetterley’s work The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction, involves deliberately reading a text against the grain.  The resistant reader recognises what the text claims to be saying, and then rereads it through their own agenda, opposing the ideology of the text itself.  It’s not simply reinterpreting a work, but directly confronting it: identifying the surface meaning and proposing an alternative (using the text’s own words and images) which runs against the grain.  Though we don’t necessarily call it resistant reading, it’s a process many of us are very familiar with.  Some forms of “shipping” characters in a TV show are perhaps the most frequent examples.  Whilst shipping sometimes involves claiming that characters are developing an intimate relationship, or the creators are going to involve them in a romantic plot, some versions depend on the improbability (or impossibility) or that taking place.

“Shipping” Holmes and Watson in Conan Doyle’s original stories provides an interesting example.  Some readings suggest that the text contains suggestions of a romantic relationship, but others depend for their interest and tension on a supposition that the two men are presented as heterosexual, emotionally muted and conforming to the stereotypes of late Victorian masculinity.  The energy and attraction of shipping these two characters often lies largely in the gap between the texts’ surface ideology, and the narratives which can be imposed on the same material.  The playfulness of this counter-reading relies on being able to identify the text’s ostensible ideological position beneath the template being placed across it – otherwise the resistant reading would simply obscure the original by claiming that the work really means something else from what we’ve always thought.

Resistant readings often occur around issues of gender and sexuality, as someone consuming culture refuses to recognise the image of the world or their own experience being portrayed in dominant culture and media.  A young woman watching Much Ado About Nothing may reject the apparently happy ending, and instead read it resistantly as a ending which depicts the shit sandwich Hero has to eat in order to marry the man she fancies and escape from her father’s household.  She identifies the production’s claims to solve the misunderstandings and conflict in a cheery wedding song and dance, but places her own interpretation across the same events which opposes the work’s explicit message.

They’re possible from other ideological positions, though.  Perhaps the most famous – and lengthy – resistant reading in literary history is Shamela by Henry Fielding.  Fielding had read the staggeringly popular novel Pamela by Samuel Richardson, about a maid-servant who resists the improper advances of her master, surviving abduction, assault and all manner of tribulations, until he is won over by her virtue and marries her honourably.  To Fielding, Richardson’s book was a work of appalling moral hypocrisy, and his satirical book Shamela presents another side to the story, in which Pamela is a conniving, hypocritical temptress who realizes she can sell her “virtue” for more than her body by manipulating the Squire into marriage. As with other resistant readings, the joke/point requires the original ideology to show through so it can be skewed and subverted.

I was wondering how often people come across these kinds of resistant reading in reviews and discussion on the internet?  I’d love to hear which TV shows (or books, plays, etc) you think are most fun to read resistantly – or which need this kind of reading to make them at all palatable.  Is hate-watching reality TV a form of resistant reading?  What are your favourite subversions of the apparent message of a show?  I’ll share one I came up with not long ago for The Gilmore Girls (concentrating on its class politics and attitude to education) and please add your own for other shows in the comments below!

The Poolhouse Papers”: a Shamela-style revisionist diary in which Rory Gilmore recounts her attempts to regain what she saw as her rightful place in the East Coast aristocracy whilst bitterly resenting her mother’s early inability to do her duty to the family. However, having reinstalled herself in the Daughters of the American Revolution, she came to realize that such civil institutions were no longer the way the elite class reproduced itself, so she determined to use her grandparents’ social and financial capital to build a niche within the neoliberal oligarchy, via a college career which would act as her route into, and justification for, her intended position.  It was during the long hours of brooding in the poolhouse whilst she took that hiatus from college that she first envisioned herself as a Hegelian synthesis of her grandparents’ noblesse oblige and her mother’s capitalist aspirations, a lethal product which would subsume both ideologies whilst rendering them obsolete, and to the outside (or inside) eye would be indistinguishable from the self-improving, credentialled, professional ethic which she professed.  

Now, who wants to take on Friday Night Lights…?

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