Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My backlash against the backlash against the backlash against HBO's Girls






"Our “white people problems” problem: Why it’s time to stop using “white” as a pejorative" by Noel Murray, A.V. Club.

About a month ago, when Mad Men returned from its long hiatus and the Internet exploded with reviews, interviews, and think-pieces, a colleague I follow on Twitter passed along something one of his friends said, suggesting that Mad Men is just “Roots for white people.” That’s actually a reasonably astute observation, since a large part of the appeal of watching Mad Men comes from vicariously touring the not-so-remote past, to try and better understand what shaped our culture and the generations before us. And given that the world Mad Men depicts is almost exclusively one of white privilege, then yes, the “way we were” aspect of the show probably does appealmore (though not exclusively) to the children and grandchildren of the kinds of people on the screen. Still, when I first read that comment, I didn’t think, “That’s clever,” or, “That’s funny.” My first reaction was knee-jerk irritation, because that’s probably the hundredth time this year alone that I’ve read the words “for white people” or “that looks very white” or “white people problems” tossed around smugly and reductively, as a way of summarizing the essence of a situation or a piece of art.

[ . . . ]

But increasingly, people aren’t sniping about “whiteness” to be funny, or even defiant—at least not entirely. They’re using the term as a form of criticism, meant to be dismissive. “That movie looks very white,” or, “That sounds like music for white people,” is another way of saying, “That can’t be any good.” And I do have a problem with that.

[ . . . ]

One of the biggest fallacies in the way we talk about art is this idea that somehow personal taste equates to quality: That each of us miraculously only enjoys movies and music that are the best of their respective medium, and ergo, any movies and music wedon’t enjoy must be terrible. It’s a standard we generally only apply to art (well, and politics). If we dislike salmon, we don’t presume salmon itself to be bad; we just understand we don’t have a taste for it, and we’re generally willing to acknowledge that if prepared properly, we might even be capable of enjoying the occasional piece of salmon.

[ . . . ]

So here’s the challenge to all you people who toss around “white” as a synonym for “lame” on the Internet: Suggest alternatives. Name a movie, a TV show, a book, a piece of music, or anything that meets your standards for non-“whiteness.” I’m not baiting you here; I’m asking sincerely. If you’re really interested in encouraging diversity, do so in a positive way, by calling attention to some valuable work that’s flying below the radar. 

[ . . . ]

Unless of course you’re only race-baiting to score points and make yourself look cool. But you wouldn’t do that, would you? I mean, only a terrible human being would exploit centuries of struggle against oppression and marginalization just to get out of seeing a Wes Anderson movie.  



First of all, I like salmon.

Second, read these two Racialicious articles to get an idea of what Mr. Murray is backlashing against:

Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist, by Kendra James

Girls That Television Will Never Know, by Latoya Peterson


Third, there are so many words inside me and so little time for me to write them down. Ergo, I will copy and paste the comments on the site about this post that either I like or I agree with, or that make me laugh.

Fourth, I will continue to use both the phrases "white people problems" and "first world problems" when that is an accurate assessment of the situation.
 

From Ukridge:

I think we can all agree that this article won't be in any way controversial.


From Grrr. Argh.:

I urge people to at least read the article first so there's a greater chance of at least some reasonable discussion. Though I'm not going to hold my breath.


In response to Grrr. Argh., (less than appropriate name) wrote:


Read the article? I have to rush down to the comments section to make the same joke other people have already made 20 times!


From Afghamistam:

Your friend needs a punch in his white face for incredibly failing to realise just what Roots meant as a program.
Suffice to say, Mad Men is not White Roots.
98% of all historical dramas made are however, White Roots. Because white people get to have an astonishing cornucopia of wildly divergent stories all focusing on a million tiny facets of the white experience over the last few thousand years.
Black people get Roots.


From Jay S.:


I don't see race.  People tell me I'm white and I believe them.
 

From (I'm not quoting his less than appropriate name either):

Holy shit, 1100+ comments?
Well, the chances that this will be read are close to zero, but fuck it, 2c etc.
"“That movie looks very white,” or, “That sounds like music for white people,” is another way of saying, “That can’t be any good.”"
OH, HOW HARD IT MUST BE FOR YOU, NOEL MURRAY.  I FUCKING WEEP HOT TEARS KNOWING THAT YOU'RE ALL BROKEN UP THAT 'WHITE' IS SOMETIMES USED AS SHORTHAND FOR 'LAME.'  That saddens me far more than knowing that "too Black" or "too Hispanic" is shorthand for some ghetto illiterate thug gangsta mindless lowbrow bullshit.  Really, how do you sleep at night?
IN MOTHERFUCKING ADDITION: One of the reasons why "too white" is used as a pejorative in relation to, e.g., Friends or other forms of entertainment, is that it's also shorthand for PRETENDING THAT THERE ARE NO FUCKING MINORITY CHARACTERS OF CONSIDERATION IN THE UNIVERSE OF SAID ENTERTAINMENT.
Let us all weep for Poor Noel "Bitchass" Murphy, who cannot be satisfied that white people fucking dominate the entertainment industry, simply because non-white people call y'all motherfuckers out on this bullshit.  The irony of all this, of course, is the fact that this post is the epitome of "white people problems."  Ha!


From Aymanut:


I think complaining about the term "white people problems" is a white people problem.


From sobertie:


For a lot of us, "white people problems" isn't a lazy sound byte.  That's sort of the point of the phrase.


Also from sobertie:

I haven't seen this horribly named show in question, but more importantly, I can't believe I wasted my time in reading this article.  It's obvious that this author has NO real idea of what people of color mean when we say things like "it's a white thing".  It's not about computers, for fucks sake. It can be a lazy, reactionary statement, sure, just like any other phrase. But just because it's a cultural shorthand for quite a lot of us doesn't mean it's not semantically compelling, that it's not meaningful in ways that can strike us on deep personal levels.
Of course, perhaps this entire article was really geared towards other white people who use the term "white" instead of "lame".  It's hard to tell, but apparently the author has some sort of super-power that allows him to see into our motivations for speech.  Well, author-who's-taking-this-way-too-personally-for-me-not-to-assume-that-you've-had-this-same-"insult"-thrown-at-you-repeatedly, the solution to that is simple: stop being so fucking lame.  Step one? Stop whining about the term white people problems.
To be honest, I MIGHT have taken this article a bit more seriously if the author wasn't so condescendingly, pedantically whiny in his tone.  And especially if he hadn't ended it with those AWFUL final paragraphs.
Insufferable.


From nukethewhalesagain:

You have to understand sobertie, this article isn't really for us.  This article is for white people complaining about something being too white.  If you want an article for people of color you might have to go somewhere else.


From plzidgaf:

People who spend their lives writing about TV: pretty privileged!


Long comment from pointofit:

Wow. In a way, I'm glad to see a site which is almost wholly dedicated to disseminating the judgment of entitled white males take explicit issue with being called out on it. "We don't like it when you dismiss our lack of perspective!" In you and your cohorts' intrepid quest to "engage with what a piece of art actually is," you feel perfectly free to declaim your superiority as you rigorously dissect each weekly installment of a program (and only certain programs, mind you) and assign it a grade, a quality judgment based on personal taste. There is no such thing as "what art actually is," there are only our reactions, based on our personal biases that inform those reactions. But now the critic says "suggest alternatives?" That reminds me of a (white) boss who hating hearing (minority) opinions he disagreed with, so he was constantly warning us to "be constructive" - or else.  
What further gives away this elitist, white critic echo chamber piece is your assertion that people don't talk about art "correctly." Who does? You all everybody? "Somehow personal taste equates to quality" - most folks I talk to about shows are willing to concede their opinion is just that, an opinion, most commonly relayed as "I liked it," or alternately, "I didn't like it," or possibly the slightly more judgmental "It was okay," usually followed up with reasoning that further concedes bias: "I don't like that actress," "I didn't laugh," "It wasn't scary to me." And then sometimes, something crazy happens, and the interlocutor responds, "Well, I did like it. I love that actress. It scared the hell out of me." Sure, it's a slippery slope to "It was good," the type of value judgment you're getting at, but lay conversation doesn't typically "presume some kind of superiority because of that choice." 
And the "reasonably astute observation" of Mad Men as "Roots for white people?" Did you consider that maybe Roots was Roots for white people? It wasn't just 100 million black people tuning in "to try and better understand what shaped our culture [think a little harder about what our culture means to you, okay?] and the generations before us." That you would elevate the barely-rated Mad Men to the height of Roots and what it meant to a nation that still rarely if ever soberly reflects on its foundation is only further proof that you just don't get what people mean when they call out "white people problems." 
Even when privileged white people use "white people problems" as an excuse to play down their own privilege, good for them for acknowledging that privilege! If we're going to have a conversation about media whiteout, at least acknowledge that it's happening, and feel more than free to dismiss it for what it is, not cool. It doesn't mean cool is some "credible" black rap artist, it means cool is a voice that doesn't only represent the people in power. If "white" as a pejorative shames the whites in power into creating opportunities for diverse voices, let it! I hope the cacophony continues unabated, growing and growing as the privileged, as exasperated as you are here, defensively express their fear of being questioned as arbiters of "art," of "quality," of "is." Stand your ground as your relevance crumbles around you; it's working for Don Draper!


From Fake Chinese Robert Plant:


"Stop using dismissive shorthand and start building coherent, persuasive arguments that engage with the actual topic instead of lazy stereotypes" would have been a great thesis for an article.
Too bad this comes across as a straight white male getting his first taste of what everybody else in Western society encounters every single day of our lives, finding it a little unpleasant, and using his position of privilege to whine about it.
Questions: How many AV Club staff writers are people of colour? How many identify as queer? If the answer is a number greater than zero, did any of them read this before it was posted?


From Gnome Chompsky:


Yea, like this article points out; white people have it rough too yo. You have to realize how *guilty* a white person feels when they finally understand the massive unearned privilege they have. It really takes the joy out of Saturday golf game when they remember that it is likely they are only as successful as they are because of the unjust privilege structural inequality provides them simply because of their race.




Ironically, the only friend of mine who plays golf is black.



From ashleyrayharris:


I will say, that when my minority friends and I describe a show or movie as "white", it's just cultural shorthand for us. It's a heads-up that this show/movie isn't really for us, it deals with privileged problems we don't experience, and we may not like it. it's not a guarantee we won't like it, in fact, i love a lot of "white people problem" tv shows. i love louie, i recommend it to all my friends, but i always throw in the "it is a seemingly white people problem show, but if you stick with it, the core of the show gets pass that" caveat when discussing it with non-white people.
another example. my white, female friend asked me about Girls and if she would like it. I said "right now, I think it's fairly mediocre, but it shows potential to be really good. I think you'd like it." when my black, female friend asked about it, I said the same thing, but threw in a "you might feel alienated by it, I did to a certain extent, ya know, white people problems"
But no, white people, it's not to make you feel bad or lame. I'm so sorry if it makes you feel bad, but I don't think any of the shows mentioned in this article or their creators have suffered from it.



From Angry Black Man:


hi


In response to Angry Black Man, from josh_ee

Calm down

  
From Clio:

 
Well this is what I get for not looking at AV Club this morning.
There's a point in here someplace, but it's pretty buried.  I would wager that there are a LOT of people who've been complaining about HIMYM and Friends and Sex and the City since the 90s, but they've only recently begun to be listened to.  So the complaint about Girls is more, "after all of this time, after SATC actually put a pointless black character into their movie to address the complaints, we're still in the same place?"
I would also note that some of the newer "young people in the city" sitcoms floating around at the moment are diverse.  Community is diverse in race and gender if not sexuality.  New Girl is diverse.  Happy Endings is diverse.  Even Suburgatory features the probably one black kid in that CT suburb.  So this isn't about "can it be done" but "is it being done."
On the back of the Racialicious articles, some have noted that Girls started around the same time as Scandal, but while Girls, being on HBO and having all that buzz, was going to automatically go on everyone's "to be recapped" list, Scandal wouldn't.  And sure, Scandal is a little soapy, and it's from Shonda Rimes, but I'm not sure why it didn't deserve at least as much consideration as something like Pan Am.
And then of course there's articles like the one at Jezebel telling all good-thinking women to support Girls, which just made a LOT of folks angry because it is so often, "well, if we can get the white women in first, then we can bring in the non-white women" but we aren't really seeing that, are we?
Now, I hate the phrase "white people problems" for the reasons you say; I'm not white, and I still don't like it when Starbucks messes up my order.  But that phrase came from a real place before it got co-opted for self-deprecation.  I'm tired of people holding up the experiences of white people and telling me that they're universal, but claiming that the experiences of anyone else can't possibly be related to by others.  That is some crap right there.
Not to mention, without even changing the premise of Girls it would have been very easy to get some women of color in there--I think most of us have known plenty of princessy girls who weren't white.  Jeez, if Ryan Seacrest can put them all into a reality show on Bravo, then one would think that HBO could find one of them to put in their new show that supposedly speaks for an entire generation--one that, by the way, is far more diverse than the generations that preceded it.


From planetoffinks:

The Onion AV Club Takes A Special Investigative Look At Reverse Racism 

In response to planetoffinks's own comment:

It Used To Be That White People Could Have All The Privileges And Dominate Culture And No One Would Call Us On It. Now They Do. That's Playing The Race Card, And It's Racist



From Zombore:


Black people complain like this: opportunities for careers and education are suppressed, media coverage is negative or invisible, widespread prejudice and fear stemming from that time when half the country tried to make a new country with slavery in the constitution
White people complain like this: quit calling this TV show about privileged white girls too white! that's unfair and oppressive!



From justaguy:

Something that seems to be lacking is that when people look for black artists in best of lists is that these lists are often portrayed not as niche but general interests.  You didn't seem to take that into account, something you seemed to have had no interest is.  When the only black artists that can appear on AV Club's best of year end lists are essentially the best of the best and most well known of rap or R&B then there's a problem if your list isn't best of Rock or pop or whatever the hell, it's the best period.  So you get knocked when your seemingly general interest list is not just overwhelmingly white but exclusively so.  Not to mention that many of these critics and tastes makers are overwhelmingly white.  White gets to be the default, the assumption and the norm so while your concern that calling something white lame is offensive and can reduce nonwhite art to ornaments, how is that worst that exclusion?  And why should we have to do your job for you?  If your focus is narrow fine but then you don't get to portray yourself as having scope because you don't.  
And I really find this column perplexing being here.  How long did Nathan Rabin get assigned to almost all things black on this website?  Maybe the constructed white world should be dismissed for what it is, maybe that's a way to shame people into bringing in diversity by noting the ridiculousness of these perpetually white, privileged fantasy worlds that reduce or remove minorities.  Yea, kid, that actually is lame.


From chinoismoi:


I feel so bad for white people. Now they have to feel moderately awkward when having pointless liberal-arts-degree-fueled conversations with each other about how everyone is picking on them and using their race as a sometimes-stand-in for lameness.  This is the most pointless irrelevant stupid article on race maybe ever.  Dear white people, it doesn't matter how the dialogue about the egregious misrepresentation of people of color in mainstream film/tv happens, it just matters that it happens.  YOU do not get to control that dialogue, nor should your feelings be considered in it.  So long as white people (mostly men) are making the decisions and deciding that they only want to see themselves represented, then you are just going to have to put up with this until it isn't an issue.  The feeling I get when I go to a film and don't see a single representation of myself or have to read about another TV show centered around privileged white people, is 100 times worse than the moderate discomfort you feel when your race is talked about negatively or (gasp) you are confronted with the nasty reality that a lot of your stories are boring.  And please leave the "it's bad for minorities too" argument at home with your Eames chairs and architecture books. Thanks.


From Saucy Jack:

“That sounds like music for white people,” is another way of saying, “That can’t be any good.”
Do a lot of people really think this? I read it more as, "This sounds like a band that would be invited to AV Undercover." In enough cases, "white" isn't a pejorative as much as a straight observation that your live music feature is as diverse as a golf invitational.


From astralweeks1:


anyone interested in why this guy's completely wrong should check out richard dyer's book, appropriately titled White, in which he argues that a great deal of what we call "white privilege" is the unique ability of white people to be non-raced and held up as the universal standard of normalcy by which other races are measured. in other words, a white artist is an artist speaks for mankind whereas a black artist is always just a black artist who speaks for black people. so yes: calling things out (even pejoratively) for being "white," is a good thing. chances are, it's not calling itself out and is therefore trying to masquerade as non-raced. also, chances are it is "white" insofar as it ignores some pretty basic social/economic/political realities, so yes: let "white" as a pejorative stand as long as we push farther and ask ourselves how and why "white" has obtained pejorative status.



From Xora:


I'm Latina, and I notice when a show that's supposed to be set in an ethnically diverse city seems to avoid portraying that. If Girls were set in Bumfuck, Iowa, I wouldn't care that its cast is all white. But I do think it's strange that it's set in NYC, and they only cast one black person, and he was the homeless dude. I don't think anyone's asking that Lena Dunham pretend to have black BFFs if she doesn't. It's just hard not to notice that her New York is whiter than it is in real life.
(Also, I notice when white people get into discussions about "racism" that revolve around the binary of white people vs black people, as if Latinos and Asians don't exist at all. But... baby steps, right? I guess. Or... oh, well, fuck it.)




From superfluous consonants:


i don't read complaints that a piece of art is "white" as a synonym for "boring" so much as "overtold." most television--including most great television--is entirely monochromatic, and i think there's a segment of the internet that views each new "white" show as a wasted opportunity.



From Plato:


What is with you critics and Hollywood elite bending over backward to defend Girls?  I don't get it.  Do you think that the general hate (or just negative opinion) that has come out against the show to those outside the 'bubble' is just so fucking wrong?  Or could it possibly be that there is something that is just not connecting with a more general audience and you guys need to admit when you aren't seeing things clearly?
Fuck the fact that particular arguments against the show maybe be flawed -- It's too white.  It's too entitled.  It reeks of nepotism... What remains is that a lot of people who generally agree with this site (or others like it) watched and disliked what they saw.  That's it.  End of discussion.  
Except you heralded it as the second coming.  And that inspired the masses to talk back loudly and in equal measure.  And now the two sides are entrenched in their opinions.  
You critics (and Hollywood elite) misread the general audience this time.  Let this be a lesson. 




From seffina:


So here’s the challenge to all you people who toss around “white” as a synonym for “lame” on the Internet: Suggest alternatives.
While you're at it, also suggest alternatives for the word "lame."



From Monrowe:


There's so many things about this article that frustrate me, and this is one of them.
The other is that there's not more people in the comments upset about this article. Not that I want everyone to be having flame wars. Obviously I don't. NOBODY does. But I've scanned through a couple hundred comments now, and this is the only one I've found so far that voices any kind of offense.
I think it's because as a young, black female I've had to deal with people making unfair judgments about me based only on race. I've been told that I'm too black and too white (more oft than not, too white). This is shit I've had to put up with year after year. And as an adult, I still get this shit.
I understand the message of the article. I do. And I know and believe that racism is bad, whether it's against white or non-whites. Whether it's dished out by whites or non-whites.
But there's just something about this whole gig that frustrates me to no end. Maybe it's the self-congratulatory nature of the comments section. Maybe it's because I'm being told that my complaints about a lack of diversity on a tv show aren't artistically justified. Maybe it's that the article states it's better to lack diversity so that the benefits of diversity are always kept in mind, than it is to take advantage of those benefits and no longer think of benefits (because they've become reality).
I've enjoyed this site for quite a while, but I've reached a point where I feel like I, or maybe my opinions, just don't belong.
I think I'm done with AV Club.


I'm not done, but I am disappointed and disillusioned.


Noel, and Todd: You are on the wrong side of this issue, and you need to check yourself.




.

2 comments:

Noel Murray said...

I've been reading the comments, and get what's being said. On the other hand, when you say I'm "in the wrong side of this issue," I'm wondering what side you think I'm on? As expressed in the article, I think that it's absolutely vital for people to point out underrepresentation of non-whites in the mass media, and that includes pointing out the monochromeness of GIRLS. I support that, whole-heartedly. My issue is with people -- mostly white people, I hasten to add -- who use "white" as a way of saying "something I don't like." Over and over in the comments and on my Twitter feed, I've heard people tell me that this isn't a real problem, or that they've never seen it. I see it all the time, in the comment field for record reviews, movie reviews and TV reviews, and on Twitter and Facebook, and in blog posts. It's people co-opting a real problem to lend some added sting to their criticism of something they don't enjoy. And in doing so, they distract from the important questions about representation. As I said in the article -- perhaps not clearly enough -- I'm not chastising people who use "too white" to mean "where are the people of color?" I'm only targeting those who use "white" to mean "trifling," "unimportant," or "weak."

Bianca Reagan said...

Hi Noel,

Thank you for your comment! I just read it today, because I've been busy "getting married" and I need to get back to important things, like blogging. :)

I'm super excited that you read my post and left a comment. Yippee! Thank you for your explanation. I understand what you are saying. I also think that your article struck a nerve in me and others for many reasons, esp. in that "white" is one of the descriptives of color and ethnicity that rarely ever is used in a negative sense, while adjectives like "black" are very often used negatively, towards people, places and things. Having something described as "weak" or "trifling" is a far cry from having someone described as "evil" or "wicked" or "nasty" or "foul" or "unclean": http://thesaurus.com/browse/black?s=t. The privilege of not knowing, or possibly just not acknowledging, the history of ethnically-charged adjectives and then publishing an article about this on a widely-read website is a luxury many of us do not have.

I'm still reading the AV Club, so keep writing intriguing posts. :)