Last week I talked about the show ‘Girls’, the backlash surrounding it, and why I thought calling racism on just this show was actually misogyny wrapped in self-righteous blogging. Truth is, all of us, including me, missed an opportunity to talk about the real issue here: all of television, not just this show. We missed a chance to examine how much TV has lost the diversity it worked towards for decades, and the fact that that in itself is a conversation that needs an opportune moment, when people of color are constantly discussing it in non-mainstream forums, is upsetting.
I want to apologize not only for missing that chance myself, but to everyone who misunderstood my meaning. I did not intend in any way to dismiss the relevance of show’s lack of diversity, nor imply that the feminist element of this issue in any way took precedence over the racial aspect. A friend asked me what I thought the difference was between not dismissing the show entirely and asking everyone to give it a chance: dismissing the entire show means also dismissing the aspects of it that involve an amount of female empowerment that doesn’t exist anywhere else in television right now, and makes it easier for women (and by proxy, other groups) to be marginalized. Giving it a chance implies that the issue of homogeneity isn’t all that serious and people should just lighten up, which I did not mean to convey in the least and frankly, anyone who doesn’t like or connect with the show has their reason to, as with anything. Homogeneity is an issue in the show’s casting; sexism is an issue in the blogosphere’s reaction to it. The two are not mutually exclusive, are not competing for attention, and reflect valid issues that all of us need to discuss, educate ourselves on, and resolve.
I have been thinking about so many things this past week, because this issue is layered, complex, and saturated with emotion and history. It’s not that I’m ok with the show being about white privilege, I just didn’t expect anything different after seeing Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture. I think the bigger problem is that HBO commissioned a(nother) show about white privilege. The bigger problem is everyone working in television programming who chooses to reflect only a fraction of their viewing audience in the shows they choose to develop, and even worse, limit the development of more “diverse” programming because they underestimate our intelligence and interests as viewers.
When a show like ‘Awkward Black Girl’, that has an enormous YouTube following and is about universally relatable experiences, is told in a network meeting that it would only be developed with more “mainstream” actors, the point is clearly missed. Hollywood still has a problem telling universal stories through non-white characters, and the excuse of needing more recognizable faces in television is a weak one. Television has historically thrived on new talent – most successful shows (‘Freaks and Geeks’, ‘Friends’, ‘Will & Grace’, ‘Modern Family’, ‘The Office’, ‘Ugly Betty’, ‘Seinfeld’, shall I continue?) started with a cast of previously unknown actors and launched their careers. So for a show like ‘Awkward Black Girl’, which is just one example, to be told that it wouldn’t bring in viewers when its YouTube numbers and wildfire-like spread across the internet clearly shows that audiences are interested, we have to seriously wonder where network executives are getting their ideas from.
I’m not going to speak for anyone else, and for the sake of this conversation I will put aside my self-identified marginalized heritage as an Eastern European Jewish woman (generation zero, grew up behind the Iron Curtain). Because while I may have grown up under very different circumstances with a pretty intense family history that had its fair share of violent oppression, for the purpose of this conversation I’m a white woman between the ages of 18-35 living in the United States and watching television. Do you hear that, networks? I’m your target demographic, and you’re missing a huge opportunity by assuming you know what I want to see instead of listening to me. Maybe it’s because you don’t understand this newfangled technology of tubes called the interwebs. You probably feel threatened by it, because more and more of us are watching TV on it, increasingly shows made by regular folks who raised the funds for it themselves, ie. stuff you can’t profit off. That must be really hard for you. You probably don’t care, but I’ve had a pilot script for years and I’m waiting to develop it myself because I just don’t trust you with it, and I’m probably not the only one.
As a member of your target advertising audience, I want you to know that you’re missing a huge opportunity every time you deny a person of color to tell any story, especially when its one I can relate to myself. I loved ‘Queer as Folk’ and ‘The L word’, but if someone comes to you with a less raunchy high school drama about LGBTQ kids, please remember that high school is always relatable, whoever’s lens you see it through, and you don’t need to saturate shows about non-straight/white people with sex just to get viewers. And with all this bullying in the news, these are probably stories a lot of people would relate to. I loved ‘The Bernie Mac Show’ because it was a hilarious sitcom, not because it was about a black family – if the talent is there, the demographics will follow, if you’re willing to support it. My favorite character on ‘My So-Called Life’ was Ricky, the gay Hispanic boy, but you cancelled that after the first season they way you did so many other iconic shows. I hope you don’t think you’ve done your part for the Hispanic community with 4 seasons of ‘Ugly Betty’ and the ‘George Lopez’ reruns on Nick at Nite, because there’s no quota to meet – the sky’s the limit! Ps – every time you develop a show like ‘Outsourced’, ie filled with slurs about brown people overseas who have to answer to a white man, you lose me as a viewer because I’m already on YouTube finding a show that’s worth my time and intellect.
I’m a white girl in my 20s and you know what? I don’t want to see myself on TV. There’s enough of me on there already, and I spend all day hanging out with me. I want to know what other people are doing, what their lives are like. I want to know how someone with a different experience views the same problems I deal with myself, but you won’t let me do that when I come home at the end of the day and just want to watch something interesting. I want to see more films like ‘Sin Nombre‘ and ‘Pariah‘, which speak to the experiences of thousands of people who I pass on the street, share buses and trains with, stand next to at the supermarket, go to concerts with and – surprise! – am friends with. That’s right TV – all of us out here interact with each other! Gasp!
I apologize that as a blogger on a widely read site, I missed the chance last week to talk about race and marginalization on TV as a whole. I apologize that I contributed to keeping the conversation focused on a female writer/director/actor instead of shifting it to the programmers who intentionally sought out another story about white women, perhaps thinking that the “women” part was “groundbreaking” enough. I apologize that even with my focus on this one show, I missed a chance to talk about the unconventional choices it made with regards to portraying female bodies on television, and the myriad of men who denounced that as “ugly” and “fat.” Most of all, I apologize to all the people of color who misinterpreted my intentions and meaning to be disrespectful of their voice and experience, and I can only hope that the conversations they have been having all over Tumblr and the rest of the internet way before this show came along will be heard and voiced so we can all learn from each other and share our stories in wider-reaching mediums. It’s time to get with the program, TV.
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