Ever heard the expression any press is good press? I disagree. I also disagree that any representation is good representation. I initially had this thought upon seeing the poster for Crazy, Rich, Asians, though I have since changed my mind upon hearing all the wonderful stories from under and misrepresented Asian Americans who are celebrating the movie’s release, and what it means for their society, culture and community. I realised I simply wouldn’t be able to understand as I myself am not East Asian. I’m Middle Eastern. And North African. And Arab.
I’m brown. I’m a brown Arab woman. I’m a brown Arab woman who was raised as a Muslim. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of representation outside the parameters of ‘Muslim’ in the media – which unfortunately usually falls under the category of ‘oppressed, extremist or my personal favourite, terrorist’. I do not look like a Muslim however as I was raised in a particularly secular Muslim household. My father drinks, and whilst my mother wears a hijab and I have to internalise the momentary rage I feel when she receives certain looks whilst we are out together, I am very aware that I myself am incredibly privileged to be living in a country where I do have the choice of what I can wear, say and do. But let’s get back to representation. As a child and young teen, I grew up watching Sister, Sister, Fresh Prince, That’s So Raven, Keenan & Kel, Moesha and all the other ‘black’ teen dramas and comedies Nickelodeon and Trouble had to offer because these were the only shows in which I saw people that looked even remotely like me. I too have ‘caramel’ skin. I too have curly hair. And I too was always made to play the part of ‘Scary Spice’ whenever my school friends would invite me to take part in a Spice Girls dance routine. Don’t get me wrong, I was a massive Saved By The Bell fan and I don’t think I’ve ever quite gotten over the fact that I have not managed to marry ‘Zack’ as I promised myself I would have. But I was quite clearly drawn to shows that had a more ‘diverse’ set of characters. Though I did watch California Dreams – please don’t judge me.
As I grew older I noticed American TV shows with ‘ethnic’ cast members seemed to dwindle. Even Friends only had two re-occurring non-White characters in lead roles throughout the entire 10 seasons. In their stead, we had shows like Dawson’s Creek, the OC, One Tree Hill, Gilmore Girls – notice a pattern? Predominately White casts. Predominately upper Middle Class White casts. But let’s not get into social class. This blog post is about racial representation in TV shows.
Fast forward to 2015/16 and it seemed we were set to receive a barrage of new TV shows that were more ‘representative’. Blackish, Fresh Off The Boat, Insecure all seem to ‘meet the quota’ but having watched episodes from each, I feel that is precisely why they were created. To meet a quote, to tick a box, to quieten the frustrations and dispel the anger felt by underrepresented groups of people aka POC aka brown people. In 2014, a movie entitled Dear White People was released. The title alone was cause for controversy, and the film made no attempts to disguise its subject matter; ‘a comic riff on race relations’. I didn’t see it at the cinema. In fact I didn’t see it until 2017, after having watched the first season of the Netflix show it inspired.
Whilst I recognised the value in the comedic relief provided by the narrator, I failed to find charm in anything else in the show. It felt forced. Inauthentic. Like it had a point to prove. Like it was saying “I’m going to shove race in your face, and use pop culture references and language to emphasise that I’m relevant and important”. And yet I persevered. I watched the entire first season in the hopes that there would be some sort of saving grace. There was/is; his name is Brandon P. Bell. Male objectification aside, I was utterly disappointed. This wasn’t representation. It was mockery. It perpetuated stereotypes, and yes whilst it clearly meant to do this, its exaggerated portrayal of certain characters still feels offensive. It uses language it believes ‘young people’ use and overemphasises this particular vernacular to cringe-worthy levels. I find that Insecure also adopts this trait, though I manage to excuse it because the story lines and characters feel more mature, albeit still somewhat unrealistic. However, the situations and issues that are explored in Insecure seem far more interesting and realistic than those in Dear White People. You may be thinking, perhaps the situations in Dear White People are realistic, but just aren’t ones I find myself being able to relate to. Quite the contrary in fact, I attended a predominately White comprehensive school from the age of 3 to 16. I was one of a handful of non-White students in the entire school, which at the time had around 500 students. It is not that the issues in Dear White People aren’t important or don’t speak to me, it is that the characters feel like caricatures, thereby demeaning the overarching point that the show is trying to make. Perhaps I have it wrong though, perhaps it isn’t trying to make a point. It’s just entertainment, nothing more, nothing less.
The problem is, in 2018 when we STILL don’t have a lot of shows or films with all-ethnic casts, shouldn’t we be striving for more than just jokes?
*Image courtesy of https://www.justwatch.com/us/tv-show/dear-white-people