Why are people picking on Girls?

Last year when Girls debuted on HBO, there was a lot of pushback on the blogosphere. Why was the cast all white? Isn't this New York? These whiny people aren't the voice of this generation. I was, frankly, confused by this reaction. All the criticisms were founded, of course. I just had no idea why people were (and actually still are) picking on Girls and on Lena Dunham.

Pretty much every major show on the normal networks and on cable has white lead characters, with the characters of color as support or background characters. Friends was all white in New York. So was Seinfeld. So was Sex and the City. Even the shows that have some racial diversity still feature white characters as the leads (for example, Law and Order: SVU had B.D. Wong and Ice-T, but the main leads were Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni; Hawaii Five-O's latest incarnation has Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim, but the main leads are Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan).

There are, of course, exceptions. The Mindy Project features Mindy Kaling. And Psych has two leads, one of whom is Dulé Hill, though you could easily make the case James Roday is the main lead of the two leads, with Hill being more of a supporting lead character. (As a random side note, Roday the actor is partly of Mexican descent, but his character definitely appears to be generic white.)

If people are going to be upset about Girls being racist, they'd better be equally upset about... just about every other show in America! And if they're going to be upset about whiny characters, they should be equally upset about Curb Your Enthusiasm, Californication, and a host of other shows that are critically acclaimed.

Ultimately, I think this singling out of Girls comes down to sexism. For some reason, straight, white male directors/actors/writers get let off the hook for featuring straight, white male characters. But if a straight, white female director/actor/writer dares to feature straight, white female characters, all hell breaks loose. She's a woman! Shouldn't she be perfect?! Geez. No. This is an HBO show and is no more perfect sociologically speaking than any other HBO show. True Blood has lots of black characters, but are you honestly going to tell me that Sookie and Bill are not the main focus of the show and that the black characters are the main focus?

I'd love Girls to break some new sociological ground. I just don't think that one show alone should bear such a burden. The whole system needs to change. No need to single out Lena Dunham to turn the whole thing around herself.

Further reading: How Hollywood is Racist

Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

When will Asian-Americans get a Will Smith?

You may have missed it, but if you search for it, you will find it in abundance. It wasn’t played up a lot in mainstream media, but there was a little controversy about the hit movie 21.

Apparently, a lot of Asian-Americans were in an uproar about how the race of the characters had been changed from Asian-American to White. Some were even calling for boycotts. The argument went something like, “It’s hard enough for Asian-Americans actors to get good roles in Hollywood, but now that they would actually get the opportunity to play a lead role, the role suddenly has become ‘white-washed.'” Sadly, I don’t think it makes an economic difference whether or not Asian-Americans boycott a movie; we aren’t a significant enough demographic for Hollywood execs to consider. The film was a commercial success.

One person commenting on a blog or article (I forget which) thought people were overreacting and pointed out that the original novel I Am Legend featured a white character who was then ‘black-washed’ for the movie in the form of Will Smith. I think that’s just rubbing salt in the wounds even more, frankly. There is still a lot of racism against African-Americans in Hollywood, but there has also been a lot of progress, and the fact that Will Smith can carry off an “everyman” role like Robert Neville is evidence of that progress.

This is what it ultimately boils down to—Hollywood execs will cast whomever they feel will bring the biggest box office draw. If Asian-American actors brought in the dough (Harold & Kumar was profitable, which is why it gets a sequel, but it is not a Titanic-like blockbuster), they would be cast in lead roles more often.

Hollywood, through its amoral greed, is just providing a lens into the racism that America as a whole demonstrates through its ticket purchases. White Americans are just beginning to accept the notion of identifying with an African-American as “the everyman” (think Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks) in the form of Will Smith. Asian-Americans are still finding themselves identifying with White (and sometimes Black) protagonists, but White Americans never find themselves in the position of having to identify with only Asian-American protagonists.

Even though all of my examples so far have had to do with male actors, I think the trend applies equally as well to female actors. Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh have become household names, but how many movies or TV shows feature them as the leading lady. Lucy Liu has been able to be a main character side by side with Ally McBeal and the other two of Charlie’s Angels, but has she been the lead in anything by herself? Has Sandra Oh (without Ellen Pompeo or Diane Lane)? And, no, Double Happiness was not a box office hit.

It’s easy to put all the blame on Hollywood for being “racist,” but like corporate America in general, Hollywood studios are amoral, not immoral. If casting Asian-Americans in lead roles will make them profitable, they’ll do it. Hollywood is more a barometer of America’s racism. Most Americans still find it difficult to identify with an Asian-American protagonist—that’s the bottom line. I’m not sure how to change that, but clearly boycotting “white-washed” movies isn’t the way to do it.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

An Attitude of Appeasement

Do not applaud Disney because its princesses now claim to be independent or because the cast of Mulan had people of color in it. Do not applaud Hollywood because “girls can kick butt” (what about women?). Mulan is not the model of cultural sensitivity and Charlie’s Angels is not the poster child for second-wave feminism. In fact, interviewed for such movies as Charlie’s Angels and Bad Girls, Drew Barrymore repeatedly asserts how refreshing it is to be able to be a woman in an action role without being a feminist.

What’s so dirty about being a feminist? Feminists have wondered this for years. It seems that movie producers have a worldview that includes two kinds of people: people who want to have fun and people who complain and spoil the fun.

Really, it’s the powers of the film industry that have polarized entertainment and politics. Would most Hollywood or Disney execs be thrilled about a film that

1. didn’t portray a strong woman as a stone cold “bitch” or a disorganized neurotic who simply needs a man to make her life better?
2. had Asian-American, African-American, Latino or Native American characters as the central focus of the film, with white people as only waiters, bus boys and taxi cab drivers?
3. didn’t make reference to the holocaust as the worst crime of humanity or Hitler as the ultimate representation of evil?
4. had a gay male character or characters who were not comic relief?
5. had a lesbian character or characters who did not somehow convert to wanting a man by the end of the movie?
6. did not have America as the hero of some war?
7. included social commentary without being oppressively preachy a la Milos Forman and Oliver Stone?
8. …and had fun while doing it?!

More troubling perhaps is the idea of the probable reaction of some Hollywood exec reading this short essay and saying, “Maybe if actually endorsed a movie that had those eight characteristics all those radicals would just shut the fuck up!”

“A [i.e. only one] movie…”
“those radicals…”

Hollywood isn’t interested in entertainment that’s enlightened or that promotes family (or any particular kind of values). Hollywood is like a candidate running for president 12 times a year. “What formula can we employ that minimizes costs, makes a lot of money, requires little imagination, and will give us the least amount of protest and lawsuits?” Think the “little imagination” is a bit harsh? Why did Blair Witch Project 2 come out? Why did Josie & the Pussycats follow shortly after Charlie’s Angels and Coyote Ugly ?

I understand the plight of Hollywood. For each member of a major motion picture production company, a job hangs on the line with every decision she makes. She might not be able to take a risk on a culturally sensitive film. For anyone who thinks that’s a valid excuse for the racist, antifeminist, overly patriotic, homophobic, tokenist drivel Hollywood puts out every one or two weeks, cry racism, cry antifeminism, homophobia, Americentrism, tokenism! Make sure everyone knows at least that there is a problem.

Those so-called “radicals” will not shut up until Hollywood ceases its attempts to stop them from speaking and really starts listening to what they’re saying.