The Trouble with Diversity on Television

by sweatermanifesto

Racial enlightenment has become an ambiguous political instrument—or perhaps more precisely, something that is not good or bad in itself, just one or the other depending on how it is used. Remember when, for a week or two back in the fall of ’11, as Herman Cain took his turn as Republican pre-primary frontrunner, Fox News commentators accused the backlash against him (from the Left, presumably) as being racist? You can call this progress or cynical bullshit, but it’s an example of how identity politics don’t really toe party lines. And before Tiger Woods was uncovered as an adulterous sex fiend, he was the poster boy for the egalitarian nature of golf. Success in the sport, that “I am Tiger Woods” Nike advertising campaign seemed to suggest, was won on an equal opportunity basis—the PGA was no longer the bastion of WASP exclusion and its attendant upper-crustness. The problem with this train of thought is that racial diversity does not necessarily entail socioeconomic diversity: Woods was as bourgeois as any of the well-fed, Tanqueray-drinking white guys on the PGA tour were. Seeing through the Nike ads’ sleight of hand, in other words, is a matter of remembering, according to Walter Benn Michaels, author of The Trouble with Diversity, that “a society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.”

In April The New York Times printed an article by Jon Caramanica about television’s lack of racial diversity. The article raised some important points, among them the glut of TV shows content reducing their representation of minority characters to minstrelsy (e.g. 2 Broke Girls) or excluding them altogether (e.g. How I Met Your Mother). While acknowledging the diversity to be found in shows like Happy Endings and Modern Family, Caramanica writes, “It’s troubling that there are almost no minority romantic heroes in network prime time.” Emily Nussbaum, writing in this week’s New Yorker, on the other hand, points to a promising trend: the “startling, largely unheralded boom of South Asian characters” on network television. It’s worth celebrating what variety there is in the racial composition of TV today—and nothing wrong with calling for more of it. But there’s something that Caramanica and Nussbaum don’t account for: the underrepresentation of anyone—regardless of race—living below middle class comfort on scripted television. Admittedly, reality TV shows like Hoarders and Teen Mom have embraced class diversity, although their exhibition of lower class people serves a crude catharsis more than anything else.

Caramanica and Nussbaum both seem to regard The Wire as the gold standard for racial diversity in television: “And of course there was The Wire,” Caramanica waxes nostalgic. They’re not wrong. But The Wire also covered an astounding range of socioeconomic stations, which no other show has come even close to attempting—at least not since Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Perhaps, in time, a contingent of the movement against HBO’s Girls, whose predominantly white cast launched this dialogue concerning televised diversity, will reveal itself to be motivated less by racial politics than by a nation’s weariness for the psychic self-indulgence of upper-class griping.

Submitted by the editor.