Between a Racial Rock and a Gender Hardplace [Fall TV Rant]

The new fall show line ups are hitting the internet, and via Jezebel, I see New York Magazine wants us to rejoice that there are women on television.

At this point, it should go without saying that all the women referenced are white, as per usual. But whatever! Victory! More women on television is a reason to be thrilled, right? That is, until I see what’s being lauded:

Cummings’s multi-cam sitcom, Whitney, has an awful pilot, full of cynical innuendo, and yet one scene—sexual role-playing gone south—showed a glimmer of something, a dank, self-mocking Sandra Bernhard–esque allure. Sue me, but I can’t help rooting for Cummings, who seems to have something to say about the survival skills of damaged women, even if she hasn’t quite figured out what it is yet.

Luckily, Cummings’s other show, CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, which she produced with Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King, has more potential. It stars the luscious Kat Dennings (from Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and Beth Behrs, playing waitresses at a greasy spoon in Williamsburg. Dennings wears knee-high boots and a working-class sneer; Behrs is a newly broke heiress. As the self-reliant cynic, Dennings is fantastic, making the most of acrid punch lines like “That’s not what rape feels like!”

Now, where have I heard about 2 Broke Girls, before? Oh, that’s right – Racebending:

The character, “Rice Lee,” is portrayed as a stereotypically backward and socially stunted Asian immigrant, who is repeatedly mocked and corrected by his white co-workers (including Max, one of the titular “broke girls.”)

    LEE
    Hello today. I have check for you.
    MAX GLANCES AT HIS PANTS AS SHE TAKES THE CHECK.

    MAX
    Thanks, camel toe.

    LEE
    What means camel toe?

    SHE POINTS TO HIS CROTCH WHERE THE PANTS ARE HIKED UP. HE LOOKS DOWN, EMBARRASSED.

    LEE(CONT’D)
    Oh. Okay.

Lee can’t wear his pants correctly, can’t speak English properly, and doesn’t understand the concept of holidays. Because it’s not like Koreans wear pants, take English in elementary school, and celebrate holidays like Christmas.

In short, “Rice” is a disaster of a character, like something out of a Long Duk Dong time machine. It’s such a shame given CBS was recently honored for improving the representation of Asian Americans on television, and just sponsored Banana II, the Asian American bloggers conference.

Angry Asian Man has more:

I’ve talked to several people who know a little something about what’s going on behind the scenes, and I’m told that the character has actually been re-written and re-tooled, largely based on the negative reaction to the original script. That’s positive news, right? Right? I don’t know.

I don’t know exactly what that means for the character, because as originally conceived, he needed one hell of an overhaul. I mean, that was seriously venturing deep into Long Duk Dong territory. It wasn’t pretty. But if someone’s at least trying to fix this mess, I’m willing to wait until fall to find out if the character still totally sucks. I guess we’ll have to see.

But these critiques are largely missed by the people cheering for women fronted shows. Nussbaum, in New York, spares just a sentence to describe the classic Hollywood racism we will be treated to this fall: “The script is uneven—the ensemble of stock ethnics gave me a migraine, as it did in several of these shows, all of which star model-pretty white women—but the show did a surprisingly good job at capturing a postcrash Brooklyn zeitgeist.” Sigh.

Another show we are supposed to look forward to? Girls, by Lena Dunham. The creator of Tiny Furniture nicely parlayed the film buzz into a show focused on 20something New Yorkers. But if this tweet is any indication of what she finds funny…

Lena Dunham tweet

…expect more of the same old, same old.

We deal with this all the time, considering that content that is brilliant and amazing on one level can also be horrific and stereotypical on another. (Hello, In Living Color.) And if we boycott absolutely everything, we don’t give creators time to grow, change, and get better. But lines are continuously crossed, and it is eroding the tentative gains that nonwhites in entertainment have fought for. Since our greatest power as consumers is the power of veto, it is important to support shows we’d like to see and ignore or actively boycott ones that promote racism and sexism in entertainment. But the lines can get really blurry.

Harold and Kumar is a great example of this.

We’ve had a ton of conversations around the Harold and Kumar movies, especially in reference to how racial commentary was often insightful and hilarious, but a lot of the gags involving women presented the same one-dimensional sexist stereotypes. Here are some of the articles (comments lost, unfortunately):

GQ Writer Compares Harold and Kumar to “The Happy Go Lucky Negro” Caricature
Addicted to Race 88: What Harold and Kumar says about race and gender
Open Thread: Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
East West Talks to John Cho About Race and Hollywood [Cho-licious]

So, we had a dilemma. Do we support two talented actors, playing roles that are not stereotypical about Asian Americans in a major studio film? Or do we boycott because their treatment of gender in the films left a lot to be desired?

Archer, an animated show on FX, provides the same sort of tensions. About 80% of the time, the humor employed about race is hilarious and fairly subversive. This is a bit complicated by the fact that the writer, Adam Reed, is a white dude – though, admittedly, one who demonstrates he’s beyond a surface level understanding of race. Mitigating factor: Aisha Tyler joined up as Lana, which takes the humor to a whole other level.

The other 20% of the time? Hot mess and Asian stereotypes. And I don’t even know how to talk about the “Mulatto Butts” song:

And while Archer is blisteringly funny from a references/intelligent humor perspective, many of the female characters are basic archetypes – in a show where all the fun is taking these one-note characters to ridiculous heights. But we will discuss that a bit more when season 3 premieres.

Back to the fall tv line up.

The worst part of all this is that the 2 Broke Girls show actually seems like it would be pretty cute, in that How I Met Your Mother kind of way. The trouble is, when shows throw in racist stereotypes trying to be edgy since we’re post racial and all (a hallmark of hipster racism) a lot of times, they don’t know what they’re doing. You see, to make a joke about society, you have to understand how society works – and add some new and insightful observation. And in a lot of these shows, they are cracking jokes alright – but they are the same jokes that have been in play since the dawn of racism. Which is why you have characters named “Rice Lee” who fit every single Asian stereotype ever put on celluloid. It’s why in the promos, you have the same throwaway characters – if I never see a large, sassy black woman in a position of authority being mean to a defenseless little white girl again, it will be too soon. (Didn’t like it in Love Bites; don’t like it in the Whitney promo). It’s a lazy way to create a secondary character and a way to wring cheap laughs from the racist crowd.

But it’s also alienating. The producers have told Racebending they are retooling the character – Marissa at Racebending asked us to request screeners, which we won’t do.* When the show comes on, we will see what the changes are – at this point, we all know actors, especially POC, need all the work they can get. But this kind of laziness shouldn’t be rewarded with viewership. It isn’t enough just to point to the gender of the creator, I care about the quality of representation on screen. And just like we don’t need women created and fronted shows that pander to sexism, we for damn sure don’t need shows that use racism to shore up weak writing.

* We don’t really review screeners for the same reason we don’t try to review books anymore – no one has the time. As long as Racialicious is a side project for all of us involved, we’d rather focus our energies elsewhere. If it’s compelling enough, we will check it out on TV.

(Thanks Lilah!)

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  • Murray

    Wonderful article. Stupid Hollywood. Quick note, the link where it says “Racebending” links to Angry Asian Man not Racebending.

  • Keith

    Both Whitney and 2 broke girls  are recons of “I love Lucie” and “Alice”, but with annoying hipster banter. 

    • Keith

      Now if they would have shown a scene where a waitress said “kiss my grits” I would have given 2 broke girls some consideration.

  • http://twitter.com/cherry_LA Cherry Davis

    I don’t watch shows with no diversity with POC.  They don’t have to be black but I do require that the cast is diverse with positive role models.  America is becoming more diverse with the fact that Latino is the fastest growing segment of the population.  I believe that if more POC didn’t watch these shows, complained to advertisors AND the network that they do not watch these shows that they will eventually stop making them or lose too much money for it to be cost effective.

  • Iris

    This made me think of an excellent song from Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog’s musical commentary: Nobody’s Asian in the Movies, featuring Maurissa Tacharoen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNmzegQUtFA I think it pretty well illustrates what you’re talking about here…

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  • Anonymous

    There was one line in the clips from Whitney that pretty much sums it up.  After the last of several embarrassing social blunders, the boyfriend says “what’s next, blackface?”  

  • Anonymous

    It’s true what they say, the best shows are not on TV they are the web.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, but most people underestimate the time involved. On our next call for contribs, I’ll make sure to make that clear.

  • Anonymous

    The Whitney and 2 Broke Girls shows look boring as hell.  I think the only time I laughed in 2 Broke Girls was when she tasered the other girl and that in of itself is problematic. 

    I don’t know why, but there is something  about erasure and racism in comedy that bugs me way more than it does in any other television genre.  Maybe because networks have been “working” really hard lately to make comedy the province of whiteness…all white sitcoms, all white dramedies, all sitcoms or dramedies with a barely visible POC who is not integral to plot or character development, utters two lines and creeps back into the shadows. It just gets old and tiring.

    • http://theonepercentclub.blogspot.com Emily

      They look really boring to me as well…no new ideas, not particularly funny.  

    • http://theonepercentclub.blogspot.com Emily

      They look really boring to me as well…no new ideas, not particularly funny.