Thursday, April 26, 2012

Rulebook Casefile: The Downside of Polarized Protagonists on “Girls”

 The great “Girls” controversy continues to rage its way across the internet, so I’ll go ahead and add my voice to the “not a big fan” camp.  I would sum the show up as “If you loved ‘Sex and the City’ but didn’t think the heroines were spoiled or shallow enough, then have we got a show for you!” 

But what I really want to address is one of the sub-controversies: Why are all the “Girls” white?  Lots of people have complained about this, and obviously this taps into the larger “show about privileged people made entirely by privileged people” issue, but it also drifts into very tricky territory... 

One argument against diversity on this show that some have put forward is that these characters simply wouldn’t have any non-white friends.  I find that argument somewhat compelling but ultimately it just brings us around again to the bigger problem: Most people simply don’t want to watch a show about people this small-minded.  If they had a more multicultural group, that might have killed two birds with one stone. 
But there’s another, thornier issue here as well: The real reason that these four are all white is that they really represent one person who has been polarized into four.  In fact, they’re polarized in exactly the same way that the “Sex and the City” heroines are:
  1. The promiscuous, rude, crude one. (Kim Catrall / Jemima Kirke)
  2. The naïve, easily-blushes one (Kristin Davis / Zosia Mamet)
  3. The sensible-but-unhappy one who resents the nice guys she gets stuck with. (Cynthia Nixon / Allison Williams)
  4. The thoughtful-essayist one (Sarah Jessica Parker/ Lena Dunham)
It may sound like I’m condemning the show for polarizing its ensemble, but I’m not.  I’ve said many times that it’s equally valid to explore a realistic external reality or an extrapolated version of internal reality, with different characters representing our competing internal voices. 

But polarization can pose a problem: if you’re writing about four complex, well-rounded personalities, then sure, you can make them multi-racial without worry, but if you’re writing about polarized extremes, and you assign different races to those poles, then you run the risk of seeming to associate certain races with certain flaws. 

That said, there are other solutions besides going uni-racial: Some writers try to tackle this problem by carefully dividing up races against stereotype: the black one is the nerd!  The Asian is the slacker! But this is still stereotype-driven thinking, done in reverse.
Other shows go the other way and accept the risk of giving in to stereotype: On “Desperate Housewives” the Latina is unapologetically the sexiest one.  At first there was some outrage, but it calmed down over time and Latinas soon became big fans of Eva Longoria’s well-written and well-acted character. 

In the screenplay I’m writing now, I’ve certainly asked myself: “It’s New York, shouldn’t one of these guys be non-white?” But the answer seems to be: “Well, they each represent a different type of corruption, so I wouldn’t really be doing any minorities any favors by diversifying this cast...”


Will said...

I don't think "I wouldn't really be doing any minorities any favors..." holds any more water than "these girls wouldn't have non-white friends."

Why would you think I'd assume a corrupt African American character represented all African Americans?

Personally, I feel like it's a little lazy to cling to either excuse for not writing non-white characters. You said it yourself, "If you're writing about four complex , well-rounded personalities, then sure, you can make them multi-racial without worry." I would bet that holds true in your case as well.

Matt Bird said...

If you don't, that's great, but lots of people do. We've all heard people say "Why is it always the black guy who [blank]?"

I must admit that when I saw the ads for "The Chicago Code" I flinched a little bit and reflexively wondered "Why are they showing a bunch of white cops taking down a corrupt black political boss? That looks bad!"

I'm not excusing anybody, I'm just saying that, as with anything having to do with race, it's tricky: whitewashing is bad, stereotyping is bad, reverse stereotyping is bad, having a de-racialized ensemble in which random characters are played by actors of color yet don't exhibit any signs of cultural identity is also sort-of bad.

As usual with race, there are no good easy answers, so we all just have to try to do our best.

Bill Peschel said...

Instead of appealing to authority, it might be better to say "I'm going to have these people do unpleasant things, or they are unpleasant people, and I'm uncomfortable writing about non-white characters doing this."

That way, the responsibility is accepted by the writer (I was going to write "fault," but I don't think that's true. This is not a case for blame, but for a) admitting that there is a problem, and b) confessing that it's a personal trait, not anything else.

Because I believe there are characters who are unpleasant and from other races out there in TV land, such as the teacher in "Community," judging by the clips I've seen.