Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The strangely color-free New York of the small screen

I found this video over on the must-follow blog Sociological Images:



Heh. Pretty funny.

You know, I've heard a lot of people misunderstand the criticism of shows like Friends. They either point to random extras of color as proof of the show's diversity. Or they defend the existence of a close-knit group of white friends. Both of these arguments miss the point.

It is really hard to reside in a major metropolitan city in 2011--a Chicago, a New York, a Los Angeles--and not have any meaningful interaction with people of different races and ethnicities. This is a fact (and a joy) of everyday city life. And people of color are more than just window dressing in The Big Apple; they are a majority. A 2005 to 2008 American Community Survey found the white population of NYC to be less than 50 percent. The percentage of non-Hispanic whites: 35 percent. African Americans represent 25 percent of the community. Latinos: 27 percent. Wikipedia says 36 percent of the NYC population is foreign-born. And so, it seems strange that a show set in this highly-multicultural city would make the choice to eliminate substantial portrayals of people of color. That is what happened--creators of Friends (and Sex and the City and Seinfeld and other shows) made the choice  to present a whitened city drastically unlike reality.

Why is that? What possible good excuse can there be for choosing to make Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Haitians and African Americans and Koreans (*poof*) disappear? And why do TV show creators so often make this choice? Why does True Blood's Shreveport, La., seem to include white people, vampires and werewolves, but none of the black folks who, in real life, make up more than 50 percent of the city?

Show creators find brown people so unfit for TV or unimportant that they will take an iconic American city that people of color help to make great and scrub us from the landscape deliberately. And viewers defend this erasure or don't notice it. People choose this fantasy--a world where brown folks scarcely exist--which tells us...What?...that they are uncomfortable with a reality that is quite different indeed. That's the rub.

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