Media controversies stirred up under the guise of caring stop us from confronting the real, and quite messy, issues in society.
Over the last year a mini-controversy has swirled around the American television show, Girls, which chronicles the lives of a group of angsty young women in Brooklyn. I haven’t watched the show because I used to live in Brooklyn and a show about the type of young women I used to hang with on the weekends sounds about as fun as a swift kick to the testicles. But I’ve read that some critics complain that Girls’ creator and head writer Lena Dunham has not put any black women into the show.
Unfortunately, the arguments and counterarguments that have kicked off in various left-leaning web sites and publications on both sides of the Atlantic fundamentally miss the point. In writing a show with an all-white, and let’s not forget well-to-do cast Dunham is not excluding anyone, she is faithfully reproducing the society that she and all these supposedly outraged journalists actually come from. What she has created is not incredibly risky, but it’s not disingenuous either. If you hail from the Land of White Privilege, it would be pandering of the worst sort to write it as anything but stocked to the gills with well to do white people (No one, by the way, has commended Dunham for including Jewish women, which, even fifty years ago would have been considered diverse. But alas, times change). So even if Dunham only writes about a small and somewhat repugnant part of western culture, at least she does so in a way that, within the boundaries of HBO comedies, is pretty honest.
My beef, instead, is with the writers and media types who are doing a big song and dance of ‘caring’ about race while studiously avoiding the questions they should actually be asking if they were to care about the topic without the quotation marks. If racial representation is important to them, why not ask…oh, I don’t know, why Dunham lives in a society in which the only non-whites are cleaning the floors or minding the babies? Or how about why are there are no shows about young, black women written directed and starred in by a young black woman? No easy answers here, just a lot more troubling questions.
This pretend discussion of race, this pantomime of controversy is indicative of a much larger trend: the present generation of western-centric mass media writers will only discuss divisive issues in the vaguest and most abstract terms – like when they appear in TV shows and/or sports. It’s the journalistic equivalent of ‘liking’ a cause on Facebook. Maybe journalists have always been this way but I suspect it has gotten worse since journalism went from being a somewhat disreputable vocation to a training ground for aspiring novelists. We are not people with nothing to lose. We are upper-middle-class strivers who are paid with advertising revenues from big business. This is not a solid base from which to start priming your intellectual Molotov cocktails.
For writers in particular, there is so much fear that comes with writing about race and class, or god help us, gender, because in doing so, we are not writing only of others, but of ourselves in relation to those others. So we are wracked by the fear of mis-stepping, fear of stigmatising or being stigmatised, fear of confronting our own prejudices while digging into subjects in which we may find that we are not the protagonists of the story, but the villains. There is no ‘safe’ way to approach such a task, no way to ensure that you don’t offend or set yourself up for ridicule. The world is bigger, more diverse, and messier than any of our forebears could have imagined, so to write about it honestly now is more complicated than ever. Unfortunately, we are not throwing ourselves into the task. Instead, many walk right up the edge of these gaping, black chasms that contain some of the most important questions of our time, peer over the precipice into darkness, then shrink back and pat themselves on the back, wonderfully please that they have dared to peek down there at all. This is ‘public discourse in the modern digital age.
We, the media, can be more, can do better. Indeed, it’s in our own self interest, as our paycheques get smaller and our jobs disappear, to start bringing up the issues that no one else wants to touch. Then, and only then, does the real discussion start, and our voices become more than empty shouts into an echo chamber.