Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Damned If You Do..."

As a person I once knew used to say with an air of philosophical resignation…

“Whaddaya gonna do?”

Every so often, the newspaper reports on some commission’s findings concerning “diversity in the media”, unilaterally concluding – because it’s an indisputable matter of “just looking” – that there is nowhere close to an equitable amount of it.  Television remains primarily white.  (And male, but that’s another story.  To be written by another writer.)

The networks remorsefully reply, “We got the message”, and, to avoid continued criticism – and to attract a growing minority viewership with its ever-increasing buying power – the networks’ supplement their schedules with shows like Black-ish, featuring characters that are a skin color other than white.

And what happens?

The proverbial uproar.

Emanating from segments of those self-same minorities that the networks are so deliberately trying to appease.  (Plus Donald Trump, whose “Tweet” called Black-ish “Racism at its highest level.”  Man, that dude’s really desperate for attention.)

The networks, caught in the middle of this kerfuffle are, like, “Give me a break! 

“We did what you asked for, and you hate it because we did it the wrong way?”

“We do not want to be the intentional butts of humor.”

“But it’s a comedy!

Given this reaction, is it at all surprising that the networks revert back to white-populated programming?  Why do they need the aggravation?  Their conclusion:

“We are sticking to ‘white’ shows.  And by the way, and with all due respect…

It’s your fault! 

This problem is not new.  In the early fifties, television raided radio for its most popular series.  One of the most successful radio show of all was Amos ‘n’ Andy. 

Interesting Historical Note:  The radio version of Amos ‘n’ Andy was created, written and – most surprisingly – performed by two white entertainers, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll.  When Amos ‘n’ Andy was transferred to television, that casting situation would understandably have to be adjusted.

And it was.  Television’s Amos ‘n’ Andy had an entirely black cast.

What happened?

Complaining that Amos ‘n’ Andy promoted egregious racial stereotypes, a visible contingent of the black community aggressively protested, the result being that Amos ‘n’ Andy, though successful in the ratings, was yanked summarily from the airwaves.

How many black people liked Amos ‘n’ Andy?  You would have to ask them.  I liked it.  But like the Southern people say, “I had no dog in that hunt.”

What hunt do I have a dog in?  The ‘Jew’ hunt.  (That sounds unintentionally ominous.  I should probably consider an alternative.)

As it turned out, and totally by coincidence, earlier on the same night that Black-ish would be broadcast, I submitted myself to an episode of The Goldbergs, showcasing a Jewish family.  Also coincidentally, while flipping channels during a The Goldbergs commercial break, I came upon a scene from The Big Bang Theory featuring the Jewish character Howard Wolowitz and his off-screen harridan of a mother.

If your understanding of Jews derived from television, you would conclude that Jewish people are all insane, highly emotional and loud.  

So I am indeed sensitive to the concern that, you know… tread carefully in your minority characterizations. 

The question is,

“How do you do it right?” 

Idealized minority representations can feel self-righteous, self-congratulatory, sugary and fake.  Venture even slightly in a “less perfect” direction, however, and you lay yourself open to the Twitter incarnation of “You’ll get letters.”

To me, Seinfeld got it pretty much on the money in their depiction of some but certainly not all Jewish people.  Petty.  Shallow.  Self-interested.  (Did I mention this was some but certainly not all Jewish people?)  Vain.  

Nobody could accuse the Seinfeld writers of a “whitewashing.”  And trust me, the characters were all Jewish.  Even George’s family – who’s last name was inexplicably “Costanza” – was Jewish.  Who else snacks on kasha?

I can imagine some Jews finding Seinfeld embarrassing.  As I once found the original 50’s series called The Goldbergs embarrassing because the characters spoke with accents.
“Bringing it home”, let us now return to Black-ish.

African-American writer Frances Cudgoe Waters found Black-ish “as offensive as its name.”  Her primarily objection:  “The idea that there is one essential way to be black is incredibly problematic.”  By contrast, she explains, “The amazing thing about shows like the Cosby Show and A Different World was that they showed the incredible diversity of African Americans.”

Frances Cudjoe Waters’ point here is well taken.

However, using the same argument and concern…

If there is more than one way to be black, can there not possibly then be more than one way for an African-American to react to Black-ish?

Let us always remember that comedy is comedy, he tautologically explained.  You have to make fun of something.  Otherwise, it’s a documentary.  An unfunny documentary at that!

Still, comedy is no monolith, its never-static cultural sensibility being a basic reason comedies with mass appeal are so difficult to create.  (I left that out in my explanation for the lack of recent big comedy hits – the ever-increasing variety of what people find funny, and not funny.  Although an unexpected assault to the groin continues to work for almost everyone.)

Diversity, is my point, cuts both ways.  If you object to a show’s applying a “one size fits all” perspective on an entire minority, it seems fair to acknowledge that that entire minority will not respond to that show in exactly the same manner.

Doesn’t it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought this curious. Not because of what you said; I think you were mostly right (which in of itself is rare). Curious because most of the reviews of the Pilot of "Black-ish" I read were mildly approving. Most of them said essentially "this looks good but we'll wait and see how it develops". A good example would be the review in A.V. Club.

Frances Cudjoe Waters, the writer you cited (and misspelled) shows some of the difficulties of "New Media" replacing "Old Media".

[Warning: soap-box standing ahead]

Ms. Waters is a blogger about race on Huntington Post who's famous for being… a blogger about race on Huntington Post. She is, per her description, a "national speaker, writer, minister and life coach". What has she written? Er, a bunch of blog postings. This makes her, to me anyway, the "Brett Somers" of race relations. And why would she write such an extreme piece over what is, after all, a TV show? The answer is in the number of responses on her blog:

'Black-ish': Horrible Parody of Black Family Life: 378 comments

Will My Passion for iPhone Prevail? A Personal Memoir: 0 comments

She wrote an extreme piece for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks "that's where the money is"*. That's one of the problems with the Internet. A longtime writer of episodes of classic television with the background and experience to make a considered critique is lumped in with Ms. Waters generating web traffic. This was supposed to be fixed by places like "Huffington Post" (the technical term is "curation") but… er… let's just say that hasn't worked out as planned and leave it at that (I'll start stacking soapboxes otherwise).

So I'd say: I understand what your saying; I more agree with the AVClub review and I won't be reading HuffPost anytime soon.

* OK, the editor in me needs to point out that Willie Sutton didn't actually say that. But when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.