Ah, I love the reek of privilege in the morning

Whatever points Noel Murray may have had in this AV Club post about “Girls” are entirely lost in his framework of whining about how hard white guys have it in the world.

But, just for the heck of it, I’m going to try to address some of them anyway.

Fair warning: this is long and talky. If you get to the end of this, you have my admiration. If you just want the nutshell version, here it is:

Being straight, white, male, upper-class, able-bodied, etc., is not a default state for human existence. It’s therefore unreasonable to expect people who do not meet those criteria (or at least several of them) to experience creative works solely or primarily through characters who do. There is no such thing as an Everyman who has experiences that are truly universal. Attempts at boosting equality that attempt to genericize people to a standard set by a privileged ruling class are at best, misguided, and do nothing to actually improve things for people in marginalized groups.

There is no one objective standard of life experience, and therefore there is no one objective standard for the quality of creative works. Just because a given work appeals to a majority of people who are considered arbiters of artistic quality does not mean that that work is, in fact, objectively good.

Or, in short: Just because privileged white folks love “Girls” doesn’t mean it’s an objectively good creative work that all people should enjoy. Asking people who are not in this class to overlook the fact that they’re completely excluded from this story is asking them to pretend to be someone that they are not because someone else knows better than them what they’re supposed to like.

Now, on to the long version:

1. I get annoyed whenever anyone slaps a label on something and then presumes that the label itself says all that needs to be said. … If you’d rather not engage with what a piece of art actually is—as in, what it expresses and how well it expresses it—then fine. But don’t presume some kind of superiority because of that choice.

When it comes to dismissing a work because it seems to be aimed at a niche market, then I agree. One of my biggest complaints as a fan of SFF, for instance, is that “mainstream” audiences see swords or spaceships and assume the work in question is nothing more than id-level entertainment for adolescent boys, and couldn’t possibly have great storytelling or complex, interesting characters. The concept that things like mafia operas and cop dramas are themselves id-level entertainment for a certain class of white-male viewer escapes them, because they’ve been told their whole lives that creative works aimed at the interests such people are the only thing that can be considered art. Alexander Payne is not a creative genius just because the overwhelmingly white/male/malcontent audience of film pros and critics identifies with his sad-sack leads, and Ron Moore isn’t not a genius just because the majority of his oeuvre involves aliens, robots and spaceships and therefore appeals to 13-year-old nerds (in addition to dozens of other kinds of people.)

But the dismissing of works based on theoretical niche genre and intended audience is entirely beside the point of the criticism of “Girls.” Noting a problematic aspect of the larger, real-world context of a work is hardly “labeling” it. And in fact, that suggestion is deeply offensive, because it presumes that media aimed at white, upper-middle-class urbanites is somehow a niche market in itself and not, y’know, the vast majority of creative work that’s marketed to mass audiences. Honestly, that sort of complaint sounds like conservative Christians arguing that they’re being oppressed because they’re not allowed to completely dominate the public discourse on religion, politics and ethics. When you have 80% of the power and someone takes away 5% of it, it might seem like you’re being oppressed, but you’re not. You still have enormously more power than anyone else. Shut up about how mean those 25%ers are being to you.

(Also: the first person who suggests that “Girls” is somehow progressive simply because the white, upper-class urbanites who make it have boobs is going to get a slap from me. Having exactly one area in your life in which you have somewhat less privilege does not mean you’re intolerably oppressed, and that any attention you get is worthy of a parade. It also does not mean you have carte blanche to further the oppression of people in other marginalized groups.)

Art is subjective. There’s no such thing as an objective measure of a creative work’s quality, because the experience of that work doesn’t exist outside of the context of who the creator and audience are, and whether they have anything to say to each other. An experienced observer of the craft of a given type of work can tell how much effort went into creating it and whether that effort came out well, but they cannot dictate the subjective emotional experience of that work for other audience members. It may be that Martin Scorsese has a gift for interesting dialogue, well-crafted shots and getting some nice work from his actors, but his stories and characters aren’t going to emotionally resonate with everyone. Telling a woman, or a person of color, or someone living in the rural Midwest that there’s something wrong with them because they’re not interested in yet another story about the criminal underworld of New York City is appalling hubris. Just because something emotionally resonates with the ruling class doesn’t mean it’s objectively a work of art.

Also, even if a given work or artist is somehow true genius, that doesn’t trump any real-world ethical concerns that might come with it. Art does not exist in a vaccum. The real world inspires art and is an important filter through which we view it. Judging a work outside of that context is in itself lazy criticism.

It honestly doesn’t matter if Mel Gibson is the greatest actor or filmmaker on earth. Anything he does is tainted by the fact that he’s a bigoted, self-important ass. No one should feel obligated to support the career of such a person just because he’s gifted in some way or another. The world is full of gifted people, most of whom have had very little chance to have a career as successful as his. We’re hardly going to suffer if he stops making movies. If a given person likes his work enough to ignore the other stuff, fair deal. Freedom of choice and all that. But no-one should feel pressure from the supposed critical elite to forget who they are and what they care about the moment they go into a movie theater or crack open a book. Artists are workers like any other, not gods. They provide a service–entertainment–to their customers. And like any other service provider, they should be subject to the same ethical and political considerations we use to decide which lawyer or plumber to hire, and even subject to the personal tastes of the people doing the hiring. I’m not going to buy a piece of furniture just because a furniture critic tells me it’s perfect if I don’t actually like the way it looks in my living room. That furniture critic is not me. My own tastes are all that matters when it comes to what goes in my house.

So, yes: When people in a marginalized group see yet another creative work that speaks only to people of privilege, they have every right to dismiss that work, regardless of how many privileged people insist that the work is somehow objectively the pinnacle of awesome. And they most certainly have a right to complain when that work is considered some sort of cultural groundbreaker when it is anything but.

2. What’s most troubling to me about the use of “white people problems” as a jokey rejoinder is that it seems to imply that non-white people don’t use computers, or go to restaurants, or get cable TV, or exist in a world where our common, petty annoyances with such things apply.

For the record, I do dislike the notion that only representation of a certain type of woman, PoC, queer person, etc., counts as authentic. Leverage’s character Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge), for instance, isn’t not-black just because he’s also a hacker and can quote Doctor Who. Poverty and poorly funded schools are not just a problem of urban PoCs. Women are not all focused on shoes and breeding.

Stereotyping and tokens are a problem no matter who’s doing them, and there are an awful lot of people in marginalized groups who are damned tired of seeing just one facet of their community. And that counts even when that facet is an authentic or even positive portrayal of the people it describes. Many Asian folks know how aggravating it can be to see yet another violinist or martial artist or tech whiz held up as an example of how awesome Asian people are. Are there Asian folks who are good at these things? Sure. Plenty, in fact. Do they represent all, or even the majority of Asians? Hell, no.

It’s incredibly frustrating to be seen as only one aspect of who you are, especially if the popularized version of that aspect isn’t yours. No-one is just a woman, or just a person of color, or just … anything else. We are all puzzles made up of hundreds of different pieces that make us all unique, and no two people who happen to share a biological trait are going to be the same in every other respect–or even in how they experience that trait. Ain’t nothing wrong with drag queens, but there are millions of gay men out there who’ve never even been to a drag club in their lives. They count as gay, too.  

That said, this is a big example of Not Getting It. Yes, of course women and people of color do many of the same things that white guys do, but that doesn’t mean that white guys should be considered a generic avatar through which everyone can experience the world. Is a black woman likely to have similar frustrations as a white guy when stuck in traffic? Probably. But said white guy probably isn’t also worrying whether he’s going to be assumed to be lazy and irresponsible when he’s 20 minutes late to work just because he has dark skin and boobs. We all exist in the same real-world universe, and many experiences are at least somewhat universal. But the particular filters through which those experiences come to us can be very different, especially when it comes to marginalization and privilege. Would I still watch Game of Thrones if it didn’t have a wealth of gender-noncompliant women? Probably. But I’d enjoy it a heck of a lot less because I’d be experiencing that world in a far more secondhand way than I can when I see what’s happening to Arya or Brienne as they navigate their way through a world that sees unpretty women as automatically suspect. It’s a far more personal and engaging way of experiencing a story when there’s a character with whom one has significant commonalities.

This, by the way, is a common failure among otherwise-progressive people of privilege. The notion that race or gender or what have you “shouldn’t matter” is a very misguided attempt at promoting equality. The fact is that those things DO matter, and trying to erase our differences so we’ll fit in with the ruling class does us all a great disservice. Potato soup doesn’t stop being potato soup just because you’ve added a couple of pureed carrots. If a very slight orange tint is the only evidence that you put carrots in it, you’re not actually doing those carrots any favors.

Of course race, class, gender, etc. should not be the sole definition of who we are, and it should especially not be so if that definition bears next to no resemblance to our own individual ways of experiencing those aspects of ourselves. But that doesn’t mean that those things don’t matter. We are all the heroes of our own stories, and even if those stories have similar plots, a heck of a lot of us are going to experience them differently than heroes drawn solely from the ruling class.

People making and funding creative works need to stop expecting everyone to live their stories through the experiences of straight, white guys, as if such experiences were somehow generic and universal.    

3. 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.”

First: “lame” is itself an epithet–it’s ableist. Try substituting “boring” or “tacky” or, one of my favorite bits of British slang, “naff.”

On to the list: Just in recent TV alone there’s Fringe, Eureka, Battlestar Galactica (and its prequel, Caprica), Warehouse 13, True Blood, Sanctuary … And as for books, there are quite literally hundreds–LeGuin’s Earthsea books, for instance.

Noticing a pattern, here? It’s funny that SFF is so often dismissed by muggles as the province of socially stunted white guys when it’s actually some of the most progressive, diverse entertainment around. The pioneers in the field–Star Trek TOS, for instance–were themselves groundbreaking on these measures in the context of their time. Creators whose imaginations go beyond the real world are often people who can imagine something beyond the structures of privilege we live with. Sure, there’s SFF that’s just as racist, sexist, classist, etc. as mainstream entertainment (don’t get me started on the ickiness in comics and video games), but I can pretty much guarantee you’ll find more women and people of color in an average, modern SFF TV show than you’ll find on mainstream network stuff.

Watching the most recent episode of Eureka, for instance, I was struck by an amazing scene: Three of the female leads, and the young daughter of one character, sitting around having a conversation about technology and the episode’s plot. Three of these actors are black (the other is Italian, but playing a Latina.) Aside from a couple of lines from a minor character (white and male, but also gay) the entire scene is just focused on these four. Can you name another currently airing show (aside from the ones above) that’s had a four-person scene that doesn’t have at least one straight, white guy involved? TV passes the Bechdel test a lot lately, which is awesome, but to pass it by 200%? Holy smokes.

Eureka, btw, is one of the most diverse shows on TV, period. Out of 13 current, regular characters, only four are straight, white guys (five if you count the android, and his orientation isn’t exactly standard-issue, considering he’s dating a house.) How many other shows can boast that 2/3 of their characters are female, PoCs or queer (or some combination thereof)? The show’s not perfect–it’s mishandled some things like autism and physical disabilities–but dang if it’s not pretty darn amazing in representing the rainbow.

Now, I get that there are people who would argue that because this show’s women and PoCs aren’t having stereotypical women/PoC experiences, then they’re not “authentic” portrayals. But here’s the rub: because media portrayals of scientists have been overwhelmingly white male, many people assume that science is or should be the province of white men. Which is so, so, so not the case.

It’s a self-perpetuating problem. Because media images are so pervasive and play such a huge role in how people learn how to define themselves and others, we tend to default in those definitions to what those images tell us. If the only examples of computer programmers a given girl sees are men, she’s going to assume that that profession is not for her, and self-select for something in which she does feel represented. Girls whose families make a point of telling them that they can have tech careers, or who are encouraged to be mavericks, and do something that a girl isn’t expected to do, may well buck that conditioning. But most are simply going to go with what their culture tells them about that profession and the people in it.

Net result? Most computer programmers are guys. Not because they’re naturally more talented at it, and not even (entirely) because there are sexist barriers to entry to that field, but because when this generation of girls was ten years old, they were told by the media that tech is a boys’ world, and that the world to which they should aspire centers around housekeeping, looking pretty and breeding. Even if no one else in her life told her she couldn’t be a programmer, she’s unlikely to pursue that career because not enough people told her she could.

So when a 10-year-old girl who watches Eureka now sees that a woman–and a woman of color, at that–can be the head of an elite science and technology research company, she’s far, far more likely to think she might be able to have a career like that, too. Even if such a portrayal isn’t necessarily an authentic representation of the way the world is now, it’s still valuable; it’s a portrayal of the way the world should be, and will be if today’s kids believe it’s possible.

But … that’s not going to happen if the pop culture landscape continues to represent only the ruling class. People like to argue that affirmative action (or anything that resembles it) is somehow unfair. They like to pretend that somehow, we’re all equal, and that anything that says we’re not is something that reinforces inequality.

But that’s not the case at all. In order to end inequality, you have to first admit that it exists, and that there must be steps taken at the very foundations of a culture to even things out. Merely saying, “you have the legal right to be a physics professor” to a young black girl isn’t enough if she doesn’t have the rest of the cultural framework necessary to get to that kind of a role. We may all be created equal (more or less) in terms of our drive to succeed, but none of us is an island. We all need cultural support that helps us help ourselves, especially when we have disadvantages that will create major roadblocks on the path to our goals.

Because mass media is such a critical component of our cultural network, it’s therefore important that mass media considers the kind of world we want and should have when offering creative works to the public. This isn’t about censorship (the misunderstanding of which is a post in itself), but about doing the right thing, even if no-one’s forcing you to. It’s about privileged white folks voluntarily taking a step back and making room for people who have been struggling for representation. It’s about those privileged white people not insisting that their experiences are the end-all, be-all of artistic merit.

Lena Dunham is most likely not a bad person at heart. She’s simply a child of privilege who has been told, over and over again, that her experiences are somehow more meaningful and special than the experiences of people who are not like her. She has been told that her stories are more worth telling than the stories of the millions of people who were not born with her advantages. And–the worst–she has been told that merely being female somehow erases every other privilege she has, and means that she can ignore people who aren’t like her in service of greater visibility for women (women just like her, of course.) Does she suffer from sexism? Of course. Every woman does. Does she suffer as much as a woman who wasn’t born with the other privileges she has? Hell, no. A triumph for this spoiled brat is not a triumph for a downtrodden underclass.

Had Dunham’s stories not been held up as some sort of shining light in the sexist darkness of TV, I doubt anyone would have raised so much of a fuss. But it’s being told that she’s somehow a wonderful story of victory over adversity that leaves a bad taste. If the goal is to tell the stories of women in a way that’s different from what we’ve seen before, surely we could’ve chosen someone whose stories weren’t actually all that different at all, save for the biological sex of the people experiencing them.

“Girls” is, in other words, a particularly galling example of tokenism, in which the only unsung voices we’re allowed to hear are the ones that fit the other prejudices of the people operating the sound system. Just as it’s not progress in representations of people of color if the only ones we see are drug dealers or welfare moms, it’s not progress in representations of women if the only ones we see aren’t all that different from the Carrie Bradshaws to whom we’ve already been overexposed. By all means, if people find this show interesting and entertaining, they should watch. But they shouldn’t be telling the world that it’s some sort of feminist triumph when there’s so, so much else that’s wrong with it.

Just as having Sarah Palin as the second major woman VP candidate actually set back the cause of feminism, so, too is lauding a spoiled rich girl as a pop culture groundbreaker. If you’re still perpetuating the underlying structures of inequality from your lofty position, you’re not actually advancing the cause of anyone but yourself.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Ethics, Feminism, Intarweebz Drama, Politics, TV and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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