Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why Are Almost all of These Women White?

C'mon, Grey Lady, get it together. It's only been a few weeks since The New York Times caused an uproar for publishing Alessandra Stanley's inaccurate, clueless, and offensive piece about Shonda Rhimes and her TV creations. One of the conclusions that Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor, reached was that a lack of diversity in the ranks of culture editors could have contributed to the piece's  publication; she notes that, "among the 15 culture editors...just a few are nonwhite." 

Now this week's Sunday Book Review is focused on Women & Power, and what do you see when you scroll (or flip) through the contents? Of the 13 photos or drawings of women or girls that accompany each article, 11 are white. (I'm providing the link here although it appears that the table of contents in this order will only be available until the next Book Review replaces it). There's Diane Sawyer, Lena Dunham, Gail Sheehy, and Kirsten Gillibrand, among others, and then there's Sonia Sotomayor and a story about The Underground Girls of Kabul, which chronicles the practice of passing girls off as boys in Afghanistan (one such girl and her mother appear in the accompanying photo). Two books profiling nonwhite women, two images; that's it. This even when some stories - such as a piece about abortion rights and the origins of birth control pills - involve and affect all women and are illustrated with drawings, drawings that easily could have depicted nonwhite women.

At the end of her piece about the Stanley article, Sullivan wrote, "This contentious chapter may not seem like a welcome gift to anyone involved. But if The Times takes it seriously – looking hard at its diversity and its editing practices — it can be exactly that." It's clear that The Times isn't looking hard enough; I plan to email Sullivan to tell her just that.

Under the Dome with Only Microsoft for Company

Confession: I have not read Under the Dome, but I have watched it. It is so very nearly bad enough to be wonderful, but not quite. Anyway, I was curious how the book compared, so I read James Parker's New York Times review, which includes plot details such as President Obama writing a letter to the town's dome-entrapped citizens and a second selectman seizing control of the police department, ready to enact his right wing agenda now that de facto secession from the U.S. government has occurred. Parker closes:

     The coalition that forms against him includes a journalist, a librarian, an Iraq
     veteran, some acned skateboarders and an English professor from
     Massachusetts who (rather wonderfully) has just edited an issue of
     Ploughshares. Get ready, libruls, King seems to be saying: If the dome
     comes down, you’re going to need one another. 

In other words, it's the then-present day of 2009, a year after Obama's election, and it's recognizably our world, complete with our president, our war, and our literary magazines. It's got guts and gore, but it also has a political viewpoint.

In contrast, on the TV show the Iraq War veteran is retained, as well as the power-hungry government official, but there's nothing Iraq or Tea Party-specific about either of them. And the Zuzu's petals of the whole thing, Ploughshares? It's not there either, George. Yet we're in our world, product-placement-wise, from Microsoft to Prius, and others have written about the strange and unlikely ways these products have been introduced on the show. I know I'm writing seriously about a not-serious show and a book I haven't, ahem, read, but I think it's worth noting that Bad Stephen King Adaptation + Microsoft doesn't only = cringe-inducing viewing. It's that some proper nouns have ascended while others have been erased. It's Microsoft - Politics which creates such an empty vessel.

Not every story based in our world needs to ground itself in our real political names; of course alternate-reality narratives and straight-up allegories can offer politically and culturally astute commentary. I just think it's interesting when we keep the signifiers without the significance; for example, keeping the Iraq War veteran in name only. What does this accomplish? What box does it check off? Is it just a shorthand for, "This character is an experienced badass who has been through the shit"? Does the director think, "Let's show a photo of him with his Army buddies and their guns and call it a day"? How do actual Iraq War veterans feel about such characters?

I'm writing this late at night/early in the morning, so maybe my brain is fuzzified, but I'm also wondering now about political cameos on shows such as The Good Wife. Is this another example of a signifier without significance?