“Do We Really Need Another TV Show About Rich White People?”

I read that criticism as part of a longer comment dismissing HBO’s Girls the other day, and it’s one that I’m sure we’ve all seen a number of places, both specifically concerning shows about ‘privileged white people’ and more generally about any group that the commenter feels is excessively produced.

Other examples: “Do we really need another play about a dysfunctional family?”
“Do we really need another play about New York.”

Also sometimes expressed as “I’m so tired of shows about ___.”

There’s one fine point I want to make about this common criticism: it’s not, underneath, a criticism of the show itself – it’s a criticism of the  producer and our broader culture.

THE SHORT ANSWER:  “Do we really need another TV show about rich white people?”  No, we don’t.  But once another one is out there, it’s going to be good or bad all on its own, whether we like it or not.

THE LONG ANSWER: Minorities are, of course, severely underrepresented in all of our arts, our plays and our popular novels and especially our films and TV.  Middle-to-upper-class white males, and to a lesser degree middle-to-upper class white women, have their experiences vastly over-represented.  Every other minority – ethnic, religious, class-based – deserves more stories about their experiences and deserves better, less stereotyped depictions the stories of others.  This is all true.

But none of those facts mean that any individual show which happens to be another example of a overdone, privileged group’s storytelling is good or bad in and of itself.  No, we don’t “need,” in a broader cultural sense, any more shows about the kinds of characters represented in Girls; but that does not make Girls a poor quality show.

But it does make Girls a show that speaks to a limited audience, and continues a larger cultural pattern of excluding many other audiences.  That’s what I believe any critic who uses the “do we really need another?” attack on Girls or any other show really is getting at – the show’s targeted audience is a privileged one, and the underprivileged audiences out there are, in the continued production of Girls, losing out on yet another chance to see their stories.

A good way of looking at this is to ask what the critic would see change to improve the experience.  In a run-of-the-mill critique like “the dialogue is flat,” the critic is implying that the show would be improved if the dialogue were punched up.  So what could change in the case of a “do we really need another?” critique?  Should Lena Dunham write a show about under-represented groups that she knows nothing about, when her artistic motivation is to examine herself and the people she knows?  Should that New York playwright, who had the inspiration to write, yes, another show about a dysfunctional New York family, dismiss his own impulse just because it’s been done?  No matter how many of those kinds of plays, or Girls-type kind of shows are created, that doesn’t stop any particular individual new one from being well-written and well-observed.  No – the problem here is that the show is observing people who have been observed plenty.

The implied desire for change in a “do we really need another?” is not anything about the show itself – it’s about the fact that the show was chosen to be produced, funded, talked up in the mainstream media, while all the great artists with stories about less privileged people languish.  The criticism is of the producers and of the culture that perpetuates the rigid and narrow audience selection criteria.

I make this point because I want to see things change.  I think everyone deserves to see their stories onscreen, in print, onstage, and not just shoved-aside outsider markets, but in the mainstream, with all the funding, support and prestige that comes with it.  And if the “do we really need another?” critique is misinterpreted or misapplied as a critique of the show’s quality, instead of a critique of the people who chose that show over other, broader choices, then the producers responsible are getting off scot-free.

Girls is a great show (and if you don’t agree, which many don’t for plenty of great reasons, then Mad Men is another good example, or, you know, almost anything on TV that you like) and it would be sad to lose it.  Once the producers’ decision has been made to greenlight yet another, or add to their theatre’s season yet another, privileged story in lieu of an underpriveleged one, the damage has already been done.  Yes, if the result is bad, it should be taken off the air/off the stage, anyways; but if the show is good, let it be, and let us clamor for the next one to be better.

A few notes: I am not saying that anyone should force themselves to watch or like Girls or Mad Men or any other such show.  It’s perfectly reasonable to think such a show is of good quality – that it tells the stories for its particular, intended audience about its particular characters well – but to refuse to watch it in order to refuse rewarding the production system that keeps selecting those shows over more diverse counterparts.  Or, you know, to just be tired of that kind of story so much that you don’t like it.  But there’s a difference between saying “I am not in the audience for this and therefore will never enjoy it” and “I am not in the audience for this and therefore the show is bad.”

The larger problem here, I am saying, is that instead of the shows about white affluent New Yorkers being told to white affluent New Yorkers, we’re all forced, pretty much all of the time, to watch those shows or watch nothing.  It’s an important part of being human to see stories about other people, so it’s not like New Yorker shows should ONLY be shown in New York.  We just need a broader menu; everyone, everywhere should see stories about everyone, everywhere, including themselves.

I am also not talking here about the separate criticism that Girls, for one, unrealistically leaves out minorities despite taking place in a city where its white, privileged main characters should be encountering more minorities.  I’m just talking about the nature of this particular criticism, and my belief that things in general can be improved if we separate discussions of the quality of a show from discussions of the cultural prejudice behind getting that particular kind of show produced.

Lastly, I am, of course, a privileged white male myself, so I realize that makes me discussing something like this rather suspect.  Please go ahead and pick me apart.

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2 comments

  1. […] I Have Judged You For Not Liking Those Characters (about Bachelorette at Studio Theatre) “Do We Really Need Another TV Show About Rich White People?” (mainly about Girls) Enjoying Prometheus: It All Depends On Forgiveness Black Watch and the […]

  2. Anonymous · · Reply

    I don’t get why became so worked up over that.

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