Friday, February 24, 2017

Core Post 4: TV + Race (Week 8)

This week’s articles on TV and race each examine the politics of racial representation on network television, particularly in sitcoms. It was interesting to see how these issues have been framed in the past couple decades, as they are now debated in increasingly mainstream contexts where the language of diversity and representation is central to conversations about justice in media industries. I was confused as to why Jennifer Esposito’s article (which was published in 2009) took so many pages to detail why the politics of representation matter, outlining the perils of ‘colorblind’ rhetoric, the ways that racism is embedded in institutions, and how representation both reflects and constitutes audiences’ conceptions of identity. These claims seem to be well-established, rudimentary facts in TV/film/media studies, or at least a shared set of assumptions from which cultural analysis has been proceeding for many decadesnot claims that need to be argued in 2009, in a journal called Television & New Media. Am I missing something? Perhaps I am naive and my being surprised is an encouraging reflection of how much these discussions have progressed in the past decade.

Writing on Ugly Betty and The Cosby Show, Esposito and Christine Acham argue respectively that each show missed opportunities to meaningfully critique the realities of race in American society. For Acham, Bill Cosby’s desire to keep racial politics out of his show was impossible from the start—a black show simply could not assume the cultural invisibility that is afforded to whiteness, and should have challenged, not affirmed, the myth that we live in a meritocracy. Similarly, Esposito critiques an episode of Ugly Betty for failing to displace whiteness from a universal subject position that proclaims colorblindness and sees no need for affirmative action. This type of analytical orientation is increasingly common in popular discourse, as progressives demand greater diversity and criticality in film and TV, insisting that representation should reflect realities of identity. Implicit in this demand is an assumption that reflecting reality will affect reality; that social conservatives are deluded by misconceptions which can be overcome by a combination of ideological critique, realism, and empathy, leading to the humanist conclusion: “they’re just like us.” While I do not disagree with this position, I think it would be valuable to reconsider some of the assumptions that lead us to it.

One of the most surprising reiterations of this premise was articulated recently by Reza Aslan, a religious studies scholar who has famously appeared on several news shows to respond to vapid bigotries about the inherent evils of Islam. (Some examples linked here, worth watching if you haven't seen: Fox News, CNN, list goes on..). In January, Aslan announced that he would be producing a sitcom about an Iranian-American family in an effort to counter the negative, indeed violent stereotypes widely perpetuated about Muslims in post-9/11 America. This short video lays out the political logic behind the show’s creation. I find it astonishing that this activist and public intellectual suggests a sitcom to be the most transformative way that he can instill some basic degree of factuality into the public perception of Muslims. (I recognize that Islam is a religion and not a race, but I think it’s fair to claim that the figure of the Muslim terrorist so demonized by contemporary society is a racialized one, and is well suited for analysis according to these categories.) Again, I don’t necessarily think that he’s wrong—but still, how can that be the case? Was it actually, as Aslan suggests, shows like Will & Grace and Modern Family that overwhelmingly shifted public opinion in favor of gay marriage? And can we really equate the status of rich white gay men to that of Muslims contending with the illogic of the War on Terror? If our analytical model instead approaches something like Gray’s—which is more attentive to the market forces producing and reacting to appetites for particular types of representation—the answer may be a little more disheartening.


  1. Interesting points! (And thanks for the links!) If I understand you correctly, it is possible Aslan is right in thinking that popular representations have a crucial role in changing public perception (and thus, perhaps, relations between social groups, private and institutionalized practices with material consequences etc.?)—yet even if this was true, at least in the case of gay marriage (which certainly exemplifies how the prioritization of problems is also deeply affected by other axes of hierarchical social differences), you think we should be wary of drawing too close parallels between that and the case of current Islamophobia. Also, I assume you disagree with Aslan in prioritizing TV as a sphere to intervene in, even if you agree with the general cultural studies assumption that “the politics of representation [does] matter”?

    I would guess that the first mainstream sitcom centered on an Iranian-American family may follow the kind of representational logic of The Cosby Show that raised legitimate criticism—but who knows, maybe not or less so… In any case, part of that logic was the silent focus on, and inadvertent overrepresentation of, those who are relatively privileged (and in many ways highly assimilated) among the minority group, i.e. in The Cosby Show’s case, affluent, urban, straight and married intellectuals with children. I agree with you in highlighting how that logic can be abused in various (racist, classist, heteronormative) ways, and moreover, how its unsaid assumptions are consistent with a politics that is itself rather limited, or even, perhaps unacceptable. At the moment I guess I tend towards an indeed “reformist” stance that insists on the need of constant critique and more than willingly acknowledges the limitedness (of producing and marketing a mainstream sitcom intended to affect real racial and ethnic relations, for instance), but would consider limited attempts as gradually opening up the space for multiple, contesting, including more “radical” images and through that, more substantial transformations, rather than foreclosing options or safely reinforcing certain aspects of the status quo for a long time.

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  3. I also found the focus of Gray’s chapter very informative and indispensable for a more complex and nuanced understanding of the shifting representations and general visibility of race. Gray points out some key aspects of the economics, and marketing strategies specifically, “behind” the conspicuous changes of programming of commercial network television channels in the US in the second half of the eighties. In close correlation with the emergence and growing popularity of cable channels, VCRs, and other home-based forms of entertainment such as video games, networks had to redefine their marketing strategies and rely more on niche marketing and narrowcasting. An important consequence of this was the capitalization on “black programming and talent as a cost-efficient product investment with potential for crossover appeal” (67)—in other words, the proliferation of so-called uplifting images (non-threatening to majority viewers) as part of relatively soft, non-serious, and “proven and costefficient” TV genres like situation comedies (68). He notes that while the networks lost a considerable share of viewers in the period,“[c]ommercial television viewing, however, for minorities, women, children, the working class, and the elderly during this period either remained constant or increased” (67). Gray posits a casual relation according to which the less affluent (disproportionately more Black and other people of color in comparison to Whites) were slower to purchase and take advantage on new technologies, hence their share in viewing the programs of networks increased, which viewership the networks were now eager to keep. (Besides this the high relevance of this, I am wondering whether the causal relationship might simultaneously go the other way as well, i.e. how successfully the new shows managed not only to keep minority viewers but also to gain a lot of new viewers as a direct result of their newly offered, and unquestionably very limited, visibility of minority identities? Also, besides the sheer fact of viewing certain programs, and the potentially increased hours of network TV watching, I’m wondering how minority audiences interpreted, evaluated and enjoyed/disliked those programs?) While I find Gray’s chapter great, one thing I might want to highlight going against Gray's own emphases—again, in an optimistic/lenient fashion—is that while a certain shift may be motivated by x (such as, economic gain), it will have consequences that were not necessarily intended, foreseen, or consistent with the original agenda and interest of those who were the main agents behind the relevant shifts.

  4. Hi Kata, thanks for your comments. I agree with a lot of this. I should clarify- I think it's great that Reza Aslan is producing this show; I'm just surprised that he (a well-known scholar and public figure) offers this sitcom as his desperate last resort for reshaping the public perception of Muslims in America. That he believes sitcoms to be capable of instituting such a transformation speaks volumes about how much importance we, as a society, place in the medium. I guess I'm curious of the extent to which y'all believe in this potential. Finally, I absolutely agree that although progressive programming may only exist in response to market forces (as Gray suggests), that does not foreclose the possibility of it provoking a positive, material impact IRL.