A man wakes in a white room. He’s conventionally good looking: tall, thin, brown hair, blue eyes. He sits on the edge of the bed, contemplating how he found himself in this place and where he’s going next. Adventure awaits him once he figures out what’s going on, and the sky’s the limit once he leaves this room.
“White Room Syndrome,” described in the Turkey City Lexicon, is considered a failure of an author’s imagination. There is no equivalent term for centering a story on a white man, even though an examination of all speaking parts in 100 top-grossing films from 2013 shows 74.1% were white with an average of two or more men for every woman regardless of race. In the 100 top-grossing sci-fi and fantasy films as of 2014, only 12% featured a female protagonist, while only 8% had a protagonist of color (none of them women). 2% had protagonists with disabilities, and absolutely none had LGBTQ protagonists.
In an illuminating interview with Pilot Viruet at Flavorwire, Mathew Klickstein, author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, had a lot to say about diversity, along with a great deal of dismay about women in publishing, women as creators, women as comedians, and even women as an audience.
He worked hard to minimize the success of Clarissa Explains It All, saying:
Plus, she was a girl, and many of the people who are writing these blogs and editing these pieces are women — which is fine, it’s just the way that it is, and a lot of the publishing world is women. I think people like yourself, who grew up with these shows, empathized with and connected with Clarissa. She was this young woman who looked cool and acted cool and was cool and, lo and behold, grew up and became Melissa Joan Hart.
After the interview was published, Nickelodeon contacted Flavorwire to confirm that yes, Clarissa was a massive hit. If his attitude toward Clarissa’s audience is reflective of a greater attitude toward women as an audience, it’s certainly telling.
He also mentions:
Publishing, too! You might not like this or care, but it’s very hard to be a man in the publishing world. No one talks about that. My agent: woman. My editor: woman. My publicist: woman. The most successful genre is young adult novels — 85% of which are written by women. That discussion doesn’t really come up when it’s the other way around. It is 2014 now. It’s not 1995. Political correctness needs to change.
There are worlds where white guys get shit, too. I’m starting to do stand-up comedy now and it’s hard to go up there and talk about how hard it is to be a guy. People don’t wanna hear it! A girl can go up there and talk all she wants about how hard it is to be a girl, and she gets applauded.
Men dominate comedy, with the number of women hovering at or below 15%. Stand-up is hard for everyone, and anyone stepping on the stage is facing steep competition. It’s interesting, though, that he choses to target the few women on stage, and that he’s apparently blind to the social and cultural forces at work against women in comedy.
He comes out firmly against diversity, and is sure to pin the blame, such as it is, on a woman:
That show is awkward because there’s actually no reason for that character to be Indian — except for the fact that [Nickelodeon President] Cyma Zarghami and the women who run Nickelodeon now are very obsessed with diversity.
From there, he makes his feelings very clear:
It definitely still matters. Sanjay and Craig: Yes, the main character is Indian and it would still be a good show if he were white. But this provides something to relate to; if an Indian kid is watching and sees himself on screen, that’s great.
That’s true, that’s fine, but why can’t he relate to a white guy too? I was talking with the guy who wrote for DC, and he made a really good point: Why does someone who’s making something about a black person need to be black? Why does someone making a show about an Indian person need to be Indian? Why does someone making a show about women need to be a woman? If you’re making something about an alien, you don’t need to be an alien to do it. That’s ultimately what it comes down to: They will connect with the character no matter what. That’s why so many young people, Hispanic or not, connect with Dora. It doesn’t matter. They’re connecting with the character because she’s saying something to them. She’s doing something and she’s making an adventure that they can connect with! It doesn’t matter that she’s Hispanic or not. The people who are watching that might be Asian, or Afro-American, or whatever.
Any Indian kid watching TV in America today has myriad chances to relate to a white guy. There are far fewer opportunities to see himself (or herself) reflected back on the screen. Just as importantly, while there are plenty of opportunities for white kids to see themselves on screen, there are fewer opportunities for them to relate to people of color. Klickstein himself points out that many young people, Hispanic or not, connect with Dora the Explorer, but he’s wrong to think that isn’t important. Connecting with and relating to people and characters who are different than you–who are a different color or gender or sexuality, who follow a different faith or come from a different culture–is vitally important. It’s more difficult to reduce people to ‘other’ if you’ve identified with them. It seems like a lot of weight to put on a cartoon, but it can be the little things and the early experiences that matter.
If it doesn’t matter as long as the show is good. If Sanjay and Craig is a good show, why would it bother you that they made the main character Indian-American?
I think that it does the culture a disservice. If I were Indian or Jewish, for example, and watched something where the characters are Jewish or supposed to be, and if it’s not specific to that, then I start to wonder, “Why are they doing this?” It becomes blackface.
They’re exploiting this, they’re using this thing, they’re taking advantage of it. They’re doing it just for that reason: “Hey, here is the Jewish character” or “Hey, here’s the Indian character” or “Hey, here’s the token black,” which I think South Park does so amazingly well. For example, I’ve worked very closely with people with disabilities, volunteering, sometimes paid, and I love what South Park does. They show those characters as quote-unquote real people. They fight, they cuss, they take drugs. They do everything all the rest of the kids do. That’s great.
Even though Klickstein is speaking against writing more diverse characters, he’s also shared the secret to successfully doing so: show your characters as real people. Tokenism is a symptom of lazy writing, and so too is the unwillingness to explore characters different from yourself. “Write what you know” is common advice offered to authors, but there is no excuse for limiting “what you know” to the reflection in the mirror.
Insisting that all characters who are not white and cismale and heterosexual and Christian and able-bodied feature in stories that are specific to or about their race, gender, sexuality, religion, or ability denies all of those people the right to other stories. Everyone has a life to live and stories to tell. A Japanese-American lesbian can go on adventures that don’t center around—or even depend upon—her race, sexuality, or gender.
It’s interesting, also, that he focuses on South Park rather than a show from the same era on Nickelodeon: Are You Afraid of the Dark? The anthology show featured a diverse cast in both the recurring characters in the Midnight Society and the character in the episode’s story.
You’re saying, “If it doesn’t matter, then why not let them be Indian?” I’m saying, “If it doesn’t matter, why make them Indian?” There’s no reason for it. It becomes, “Look, we’ve got an Indian character now on our show, our network, as opposed to not doing that.” I think that that can be predatory. I would be offended if one of the friends on Clifford the Big Red Dog had a friend who was in a wheelchair. I understand the idea of “There’s someone like me,” but … it’s necessary [that the show is] actually saying something, doing something with it. When you just throw it on there — oh, the friend happens to be black, the best friend’s a girl — I feel that it’s being used. I feel like it becomes a pickaninny thing. That’s honestly how I feel about it. Because there’s no reason for it, that makes it more offensive, exploitative, and predatory because then it is just being used.
Why make them white?
Tokenism is offensive, but taking the effort to make characters who are real people says a lot more than ‘look, we’re being diverse!’ It says ‘we’re all people, we all have stories.’ People of color, women, people with disabilities, people of all creeds and faiths shouldn’t only be limited to being the best friend, but the main characters and heroes, too.
It needs to be the best people working on the best shows. They happen to be white, that’s a shame. They happen to be all guys, that’s a shame.
And what if the best people aren’t white? And what if the best people aren’t guys? There is a wealth of talent out there, and far, far too many people not getting chances–either consciously or not–because they aren’t white or aren’t guys.
What if the best actor for the part isn’t white? Ben, in Night of the Living Dead, was originally written for a white man, but Duane Jones was the best man for the job, so he got the part.
What if the best actor for the part isn’t a man? Ripley, from Alien, was originally written as a man, but was rewritten for Sigourney Weaver.
Both stories would have been good with white men in their lead roles, but part of their places in history were carved out because the best person for the job wasn’t who the directors and writers originally intended. What a shame if we miss the next Ripley because it was just easier to write a white guy.