Admit it. You’re melted into the couch, watching something like Virgin River on your TV or screen (not porn, this is not about that). You hear a footfall in the hall – spouse, friend, whomever. And suddenly you’re scrambling for the remote, to click to CNN. Or a friend asks, “What are you watching?” and you lie, “I’m between shows right now,” instead of telling the truth, “I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish Ginny & Georgia.”
We all have “our shows,” the ones we watch when our roommates are out or our spouses are asleep. Things that aren’t to your mutual taste. But based on a highly non-scientific poll of everyone I know, the series or films we hurriedly flip away from are the ones that are our taste, but we think shouldn’t be. Your teenage son sees you watching Maid in Manhattan on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and you find yourself explaining that you’re not really enjoying it, it’s just there. You’re a guy who likes the Anna Kendrick series Love Life, nothing wrong with that, you just don’t happen to mention it to your wife. You’re mid-season-three of The Sinner, you know it’s not “good,” but you’re hooked anyway. Your secret shows.
One friend mainlines Peaky Blinders when she’s alone, because “it’s all hot guys with cool haircuts who get into bar fights.” Another likes anything with witches, “because anything about witches is basically about women. About how we have to keep our power and insight under our hats; how we could scorch the Earth with our superiority to men, but we don’t.”
People assured me they’re not ashamed of watching these shows – they’re not secret, they’re just private. “I watch Outlander alone,” one friend said. “It’s not that I’m embarrassed. But I wouldn’t necessarily talk about it at a dinner party. It’s just my alternative TV world. I don’t hide it. I just don’t share it.”
Another friend watched both seasons of A Discovery of Witches and never mentioned it, “because I didn’t want anyone wrecking it. I want to buy in 100 per cent, without any cynicism or criticism or side talk. It’s about my pleasure, my space. The minute you talk about it, other people can taint it, make it less. Who wants to be scoffed at mid-pleasure?”
As these conversations piled up, though, something became obvious: many, many of these secret shows are ones pitched to and/or made by women. Not the titles widely acknowledged as prestigious, such as I May Destroy You or Insecure. People are happy to discuss those endlessly, to engage in spirited debate with detractors. With those, we stand by our taste. The series or films we don’t discuss are the ones that are perceived to be sprinkled with cheese. Because they’re about romance.
One could argue that romances are thought to be less-than, critically, because they follow familiar arcs, chug toward predictable outcomes and comfort rather than challenge. We tell ourselves we’re watching The Bachelorette to teach our daughters about the perils of the beauty-industrial complex, but really we like the familiar rhythms, the reassurance that good people prevail over bad, the love-conquers-all of it all. “People are judgy if you say you watch romances,” a friend wrote. “As if it’s automatically beneath you.”
Yet other genres, which also follow predictable arcs – sci-fi, action-adventure, true crime – don’t suffer the same stigma. Because this is not about what’s “good” versus what’s “not.” It’s about what’s allowed to be called good.
So much of women’s entertainment is dismissed as kitsch. Sex and the City was every bit as responsible for the success of HBO as The Sopranos was, but not only is that never acknowledged, the series is now considered suspect and problematic, whereas The Sopranos is perpetually cool. Entertainment pitched at women is belittled as “domestic” or “sudsy;” it’s apologized for. I think viewers have internalized that, and so we watch alone.
The Queen’s Gambit, which was as sudsy as an overfilled washing machine, got away with it, because it’s about a hot girl navigating a male world. Its combination of flinty dialogue + cool production values + drug use added up to edginess. Similarly, WandaVision, which is about a sad witch who ends up battling an angry witch, is okay to like, because it sports the Marvel imprimatur. And something like Yellowstone, which is pure escapism – all cowboy-cowboy-bronco-dust mythmaking – is okay, because it’s a fantasy that’s pitched to men as much as women. Unlace a bodice, however, toss a smoldering glance and people look at you with pity, or call you thirsty.
The ultimate secret show, the one people mention over and over, is Outlander. A clever, resourceful doctor, a taciturn soldier who burns only for her, horses galloping across the stony heath. “That show hits women straight in the clitoris,” one friend said, and another confirmed it: She builds in time after every episode for masturbation. If you’re currently flinching at the words “clitoris” and “masturbation,” you are proving my point: We keep women’s sexual pleasure secret because it’s still taboo.
Interestingly, one very-not-secret show may have just flipped that script: Bridgerton. Women did not apologize for lusting after its star, Rege-Jean Page; they crowed about it. They did not whisper “episode six” to one another, the way they used to whisper, “Do you have a tampon?” They wrote full, frank essays about it. Creator Shonda Rhimes shot that show like a flaming arrow to set alight conversations about class, race and sex, and it landed at the precise moment in COVID-19 lockdown “when singletons and even old married folks needed it most,” as one friend said. Whether it was an anomaly or a harbinger of the future – new, bold and secret-free – remains to be seen.
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