Thursday, January 12, 2012

2 Broke Girls: Let's Talk about Racism on Television

2 Broke Girls producer Michael Patrick King vehemently insists that his show isn't racist. Maybe he hasn't watched it? Here, kids, try to count the stereotypes portrayed in this two-minute promo clip:

Handing the jive-talking black man his brandy? The Ukranian man not wearing deodorant? The Asian boss talking about his Tokyo-drift style management? Are you losing count? It's okay. King explains that it's not racist because he "find[s] it comic to take everybody down." (You can see the transcript of his confrontation with a reporter over the show's racism here).

So, in addition to racial stereotypes, let's see what other stereotypes are perpetuated in this brief promo. We also have the brunette girl as bitchy ("brown-haired waitress was very rude") and the blonde girl as sex object ("I'd like to ride the blonde waitress like a Tilt-a-Whirl"). 

So King's basic argument is that because all of his characters are shallow representations of stereotypes, it's okay. He even gets personal, saying that because he's gay and uses gay jokes on the show that the fact that he's not offended means nobody should be offended. 

I'm lost in this argument, but I do think it's interesting when King says this:
"If you talk about stereotypes, every character, when it's born, is a stereotype. This show started with two stereotypes: a blonde and a brunette. Hopefully if you have the journey that everybody would like to have on a series, which is time, you get to shape the characters so they become rounded and a little bit more grounded."
Some of this, I actually agree with. At their core, most fictional characters have some element of stereotype because they are not fully fleshed out human beings. It is through character development that move beyond those earliest representations into something more dynamic. However, when you intentionally cast a series of racial stereotypes and then use those characters in play with one another to further promote those stereotypes, you're not challenging assumptions, you're not developing depth, you're seeking out cheap laughs at the expense of complex character representation. And it's not okay.

Most interesting to me is King's argument that his show is actually promoting diversity:
"the big story about race on our show is that so many are represented, that the cast is incredibly, not only multi‑ethnic including the regulars and the guest stars, but it's also incredibly not ageist."
Ah, here's the crux of the matter. See, racism is a complex concept, and it can be portrayed in many different ways. One way is through omission, and that used to be one of the most common ways that racism was demonstrated on prime time television: people of color simply didn't appear on the screen. In 2003, the Fall Colors: Prime Time Diversity Report found that white characters made up 73% of primetime characters while other racial groups—African American (16%), Asian/Pacific Islander (3%), Latino (6.5%), Arab/Middle Eastern (0.5%), Indian/Pakistani (0.4%) and Other (0.7%)—made up significantly fewer. There were no Native American characters portrayed in any of the shows in the report. People of color also comprised fewer of the main characters, and were often relegated to small parts when they did appear on screen (this was especially true for Asian/Pacific Islander characters, who comprised a starring role only 11% of the time they appeared).

But reports like this one and other complaints drew attention to racism through omission, and many networks worked hard to combat it. In 2007, the National Latino Media Council examined the presence of minority characters on several major networks and declared "the NLMC strongly believes that after nine years of assessing the diversity efforts of ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX, that network television diversity is finally taking hold." Similarly, the Screen Actor's Guild Casting Data showed record high numbers of minority characters in film roles in 2006 and 2007.

This seems to be where King's argument that his show is "multi-ethnic" comes from. Yes, it's true that 2 Broke Girls places characters from many different racial backgrounds on the screen together, but is that enough to erase claims of racism?

The tagline for the documentary Miss Representation is "You can't be what you can't see." This documentary deals with the portrayal of women in the media, and the tagline means not only that girls and women can't find role models because they're absent, but also that the role models they do see in the media are severely limited in scope and portrayal.

Context is key. A character's presence on the screen is not enough to mitigate racist portrayals. For instance, the Fall Colors report also found that 46% of all Arab/Middle Eastern characters were portrayed as criminals. The 2001 Fair Play report on video games found that 86% of African American females were portrayed as victims of violence. Simply placing these characters on the screen does little to remove stereotype and racist portrayals. This happens only through their characterization, interactions with others, and involvement in the overall theme of the show.

Make no mistake, the portrayal of characters as empty stereotypes for the sake of cheap laughs is racist, and 2 Broke Girls appears to being doing a good job of giving us an example. As far as I can tell, the show isn't parodying the stereotype (as, say, Chapelle's Show did) in order to question it. It isn't displaying the stereotype through someone else's eyes as a way to draw attention to the problem. It's just using the stereotype because it's there to use. So, on top of promoting racism, it's also pretty lazy.

At one point in his interview, King says that his characters will develop over time: "So I will call you in five years, and you'll have accrued enough time to figure out if these characters became fully fledged out." I certainly hope we don't have to sit through five years of these boring, stereotypical portrayals. 

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