White NoisePosted: December 24, 2011
Be young, be white, an obvious member of the creative underclass, make a movie, get some buzz, make another movie, cast your famous artist mom, your sister, a fetching Brit, a cruel hipster–and boom! A New Yorker profile, a Marie Claire shoutout, mucho love at Vulture, an HBO pilot with Judd Apatow, a film collaboration with Scott Rudin! That’s what happens when good fortune shines on you, or rather when older white women and younger white women and a few men watch a mumblecore movie that takes them back to those postcollegiate years, when life was hard and purposeless, and you let a strange, unfunny man sleep in your mother’s Tribeca loft and you continually straddle the line between bad acting and mumblecore acting.
That is the crux of Tiny Furniture, after all, young Lena Dunham’s second film that won an award at the South by Southwest Festival two years ago.
Dunham’s seeming overnight success is not unwarrranted. She made a film and it is not terrible, and it conjures up some feelings I pray shall not arise when I graduate from college and inevitably experience my own postcollegiate angst. But Dunham’s success also illustrates the unbearable whiteness of being, and by whiteness I not only mean the pallor of her skin, but her environs. This whiteness has been criticized in mumblecore, but often as a caveat. (And yes, this whole conversation is so five years ago, but you should consult my About page. )
That being said, I write this post not to indict the filmmakers, who after all, are making what they know, but the media, the legendary media elites–the bane of Fox News’s existence. They are the ones that swoon over this kind of stuff, go on and on about it, act as if Diablo Cody and her elk are the second coming, the trailblazers for the acerbic, ‘real,’ witty non-Barbies everywhere.
And no, it’s not as if their enthusiasm doesn’t make sense. After all, cultural journalists, the sort of creative types that write for smart, under-read magazines, the females over at GQ, much of New York, Village Voice, Slate, these are their people. They can singularly relate to drifting twenty-somethings of liberal persuasions. They are drifting twenty-somethings of liberal persuasion. So they freak out when they see themselves onscreen, in the same way I freak out when I see myself on screen, which only really happens when I watch the Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and even then, it’s rare.
The problem, with all the praise and adulation over these niche shows is that they don’t often reflect reality.
Take the show Mad Men. Its influence on the culture is actually kind of amazing, considering the fact that it is on cable and only around 2 million people watch it on a regular basis. Yet it spawned tepid imitators, clothing lines and endless, endless media coverage. Nostalgic, middle-aged white liberals love this stuff. Apparently, it reminds them of their parents.
So what? It’s a good show, why shouldn’t there be magazine covers and movie deals and TV cameos?
But then what about other dramas? Shows like the always-missed Friday Night Lights and the stellar Breaking Bad were/are habitually robbed of Emmy and Golden Globe glory largely because of the Mad Men complex. You (I) start to wonder if Mad Men is actually good, or if (I’ve) you’ve been amped up by all the sycophantic ravings.
And of course, there are those other drama– ones that I don’t even know about or watch that may be good, but because I’m ensconced in this bubble of college-educated elites I don’t know them. (This is where my friends, my wonderful, notliberal, black friends with their penchants for Wives, Brothers and Castle are lifesavers, even if I will never, ever watch their shows.) No, I watch what the critics say I should watch, even if it is bad. (Curb Your Enthusiasm, —couldn’t even last an episode. I’m sad to say Louie too, even if this rant was pretty, wait-for-it, legendary.)
The thing is, as out of touch as Fox News and Co. say they are, eventually these white liberal niches bleed into the mainstream begetting New Girl and Kat Dennings in 2 Broke Girls. (This is where June Thomas over at Slate has been most interesting in her Culture Editor position, praising shows liberals don’t watch like NCIS in classic Slate contrarian style. )
The media is also largely responsible for this whole Jonathan Franzen as the literary encapsulator of our age, the one with not one but two Great American novels, the voice of a generation.
How irritating. Why are the voices of generations always white, male ones? The fact that this is a sentence I have typed and thought and read over and over again doesn’t make it any less true. And of course Franzen is good, and so was Wallace and so is Eugenides, but articles like this certainly don’t fight the idea that these white males were/are the chosen ones. Lauded writers of color feel like anomalies, like permanent visitors, the kinds of people magazine editors will invite to write witty, first person essays about ethnic things or long, serious pieces about ethnic things. (Too lazy to think of examples, but you know what I mean, don’t you?)
Meanwhile, black writers have slowly, moderately been plugging away, writing books like Silver Sparrow, in its own way an homage to the ’80s, but of course, there is little coverage, though thanks June Thomas of Slate! And Asian-Americans are still asexual and weird on TV, even in critically-affirmed shows like Community.
Martha Southgate wrote this in 2007. Please tell me what has changed.