By Alyssa Rosenberg on Apr 22, 2013 at 10:33 am
Joshua Alston has a terrific piece at the AV Club about how white critics have treated Tyler Perry movies and television shows. He argues that there’s been a strong tendency to treat Perry with deference because white critics either feel a need to extent points to Perry given that he’s one of the primary filmmakers who is interested in serving African-American audiences in general, or feel that their whiteness disqualifies them from specifically discussing Perry’s treatment of race. And Alston suggests that the dam has broken on Perry in recent weeks in part because his treatment of HIV has given critics another way in to criticize Perry on content grounds:
Temptation has given white critics free rein to trash Perry with impunity, because it allows them to skirt the racial implications of the work, and instead go after his harmful messages about HIV and women’s bodies. Even that is kind of an accident; the reaction to Temptation doesn’t exist in a bubble. The movie was released less than two weeks after the verdict came down in the Steubenville rape case. Any other time, Temptation might have won the types of confused, perplexing mainstream reviews Perry’s movies usually get, but at a time when rape and the politics of women’s bodies were commanding the zeitgeist, Temptation’s implication that women are complicit in their victimization by men couldn’t have been a more unwelcome message. It was so unwelcome, it was enough to encourage white critics, who are generally all too happy to stay out of the knottier conversations about Perry’s work, to attack once the dialogue moved to a topic they felt more comfortable engaging.
I’ve written a great deal about white television and screenwriters’ reluctance either to create characters of color at all, or to design characters of color who have any personality elements or perspectives drawn from their experiences as people of color, out of grave—and not necessarily misguided—fears of giving offense, speaking for others, or getting wrong experiences that are not their own. And I’ve also argued that the best way to give over that fear is to recognize that whiteness is a race rather than a neutral default. In other words, it’s as easy and thoughtful to think about what a Southern African-American family might serve at a typical dinner as it is to consider whether your Jewish characters keep kosher, or about how an Irish-American family might handle their kid getting in trouble in ways that are different from a Chinese-American family.
I think this is an approach that might serve white critics well, too. This is not to say, of course, that white critics should be some sort of final arbiters on the handling of race in America—critic corps need to diversify as much as the writing staffs of the industries that we cover. But I think we’d do well to write more about how shows constitute various kinds of whiteness as well as they do any other race, and to be intersectional in our approach when we write about class, gender, and sexuality. The construction of cops as Irish in The Wire—even to the extent of Lester Freamon singing The Pogues at a wake—is as important and interesting as the many conceptions of blackness on that show. One of the reasons Max on Happy Endings is so striking is not just that he defies physical types and standards of behavior for gay men, but in the way he defies physical types and standards of behavior for Jewish men. Justified has made strong use of Boyd Crowder’s racism, as well as his stints as a miner and a preacher, to depict a man in search of an identity, and who treats his race as a potential source of it. I’m excited to catch up on Shameless at some point precisely to see how the Gallaghers are treated. One of the reasons I think Mad Men would be a better show if it was willing to bring the racial friction of its time period closer to the center of the show, or even to just once treat it as a significant plot point, is because I think it would be interesting to see it explore gains and losses of privilege not just along gender lines, but racial ones as well—what did it really mean for Paul Kinsey and Lane Pryce to be people who could pursue relationships with black women? Is Peggy mentoring her African-American secretary, or merely treating her well, something that was implied in the last episode and that I’d like to see explored in greater detail.
If white critics or film and television writers are afraid of writing about race because we’re afraid of speaking for or about other people, the simplest solution is to stop and realize that writing about race means writing about ourselves as well.