by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
Watching TV keeps me soft. It helps me block out the commotion from the outside world and quiets the noise inside my head. On a daily basis, I overthink everything and dwell in the past while giving myself anxiety about what I haven’t accomplished today. My positionalities, as the oldest daughter of an immigrant family and as a woman of color in academia, don’t always leave me with much room to be vulnerable and to cry. The pandemic has certainly hardened me in ways I thought were behind me. But I’ve found that it’s easier for me to break down my walls when I believe the pain is temporary and will disappear when I turn off the TV.
I’ve been binge watching TV since binging included a stack of DVDs of an entire series. I tend to get lost in shows when I’m overwhelmed by the world, which unfortunately is often. After being diagnosed with “walking depression” as an undergrad, I rented all of the Sex and the City (do not recommend) DVDs from the library and spent the weekend immersed in what looked like a more glamorous life. As a graduate student, instead of studying for my qualifying exams, I devoted my time to streaming all the seasons of Grey’s Anatomy (I recommend the first 10 seasons, after that it’s too long). When I moved to New York City for a job, and found myself alone and isolated, I watched all ten seasons of Friends (do not recommend, don’t do this to yourself) instead of grading. During the pandemic lockdown, I binged The Sopranos, (the first season is the only good season), The Floor is Lava (definitely recommend and believe there should be a second season), Love is Blind (watch for the drama), The Circle (watch both seasons), Nailed it (I would die for Nicole Byer), Nailed it: Mexico (dies laughing in Spanish), Living Single (strongly recommend and am still mad it didn’t get the ten seasons it deserved), Family Matters (do it), That’s So Raven (do it), Saved By The Bell (don’t do it). And plenty more shows I can’t even remember because time is a blur. None of this is a flex, but the reality of my state of mind. I’m 98% sure I cried at some point throughout these shows, even the ones I don’t recommend now. Yes, I probably cried at some participant’s story from The Floor is Lava. In general, it’s hard for me to feel my feelings on a regular basis because I’m scared I’ll fall apart and am even more afraid I won’t want to put myself back together because I’m so tired.
I’m the type of writer that will tell you that TV watching is “research.” In the years that I’ve been devoting myself to the craft of fiction writing, I’ve learned that the stories I want to tell right now, live in my body. They’re in there somewhere and it takes work for me to unlock those stories; but when I do, the words flow like I’m reciting a story I’ve memorized. I sit with my stories for a long time, which means I don’t often produce a lot of writing. TV watching is one of my preferred methods of unlocking the stories within. But watching TV, very much like writing, is a class issue. When I was growing up, parents were being warned about TV rotting kids’ brains. TV was a low-class activity that didn’t provide any “real culture.” Not having a TV at all was a sign of being a fancy schmancy person who took education seriously. What you watch, where you watch it, how often you watch is all impacted by your class status. Watching documentaries and foreign films has a different connotation than watching reality TV and telenovelas. Watching TV is often referred to as a “waste of time.” In a capitalist society like ours, a “waste of time” is also a waste of money and only people with money can afford to waste money. For me, TV as research for writing is very much a privilege I have that allows me to search for the stories that have buried themselves deep within me—tucked in my muscle fibers, nestled in my organs, running through my veins.
I’ve been binge watching Ugly Betty lately. When the English version of Ugly Betty came out on ABC in 2006, I was in college and I didn’t know yet I could be a writer. The show wasn’t my favorite, for many reasons, but I was pulled in by the scenes focused on Betty Suarez’s family. Even at 19, I didn’t care much for the predominantly white space of Mode Magazine that shamed Betty for what she looked like and where she came from. I was deep in my own shame at a predominantly white university and was more homesick than I’d let myself admit. It was easier to become obsessed with the fictional Suarez family than to deal with my dysfunctional one. As I rewatched season 1 during the pandemic, I cried when Betty showed up to Mode in a bright red poncho with “Guadalajara” splayed across her chest because my body remembered what it was like to be made to feel that I didn’t belong. That sadness lived in my lungs. I cried at how much Betty’s father, Ignacio Suarez, physically resembles but is nothing like my father. That longing lived in the pit of my belly. I cried when I realized that I probably kept watching the show in 2006 for “the plot” that is Hilda Suarez, Betty’s older sister. That regret, of wishing I had admitted to myself earlier that I also love women, lived in my heart. I cried because Betty Suarez is awkward and funny and I find that so beautiful. I cried when Ignacio came out as undocumented, when he had to self-deport, when he had to stay in Mexico. I cried when Santos was killed. I cried when Marc came out to his mom and when his mom rejected him. I cried at how much the Suarez family protected Justin and encouraged him to be himself. I also cried out of frustration because I don’t recommend the show now. The transphobia against the trans character Alexis is enough for me to toss the entire show. A story about marginalized communities shouldn’t shit on one group to uplift another.
Watching TV keeps me soft. And my softness has become an integral part of my writing process. I’ve learned to pay attention to my body when I have intense feelings toward something I’m watching on TV. I cried unnecessarily hard during season 1 of Ugly Betty because I have stories inside of me that deal with the love between sisters, that highlight loving fathers, that address systemic and generational trauma, that are also joyful, that have messy characters. I have no idea what any of those stories are right now but I honor my writing process by trusting my body when it unlocks something inside me. I take note of my body and sit with what’s been revealed until it’s time to put the story to paper.
Read more of Sonia’s work here at Reckon:
Fiction – Sing with Me