I was having a nice time watching Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt, lumbering through Manhattan in the doe-eyed, always-lost-but-never-scared way that she seems to employ in most of her roles.
Until a shot of a slim, hair-cutted white man with arms that look like they could gently and securely wrap around you three times and scalene triangle eyebrows that are difficult to properly describe — yet hold the essence of everything I find adorable in the male eyebrow game — appeared on my screen, nervously skirting around Kimmy. Then I rolled my eyes so far back into my head that they returned from the bottom and begrudgingly continued to watch, because I needed to know what this cute, albeit pretty plain, man was all about. So far, Kimmy had been a tenacious, headstrong, endearing female lead. I was excited to see the dynamic between the two. I mean, Tina Fey created these characters! She took the time to write a role in which this vanilla man filled. It must be groundbreaking, or hilarious, or at the very least, something new.
Two episodes later, he was still just an attractive white man.
But! He was not an attractive white man in the same vein as Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds, or Channing Tatum, men who know and harness their appeal in obvious ways. He was the awkward, slightly shy/insecure beautiful white man who can’t get the girl that Hollywood and female-attracting writers love to create because the end story is that the man has been and always will be beautiful both inside and out. Think: Mark Ruffalo, Paul Rudd, etc. It’s like, okay, I get it: Hollywood! But also: I’m tired of this!
White men don’t need more roles where they prove that they can conquer their self-doubt and find a comfortable and rewarding place in life. Literally every other type of person on this earth needs that support more than they do — men of color, Muslims, people who live with mental or physical disabilities, people without defined gender roles — and they all fall second, third, fourth, fifth to them.
Television loves to employ people of color to play stock employees, like the person behind the counter at the corner store, or the non-lead doctor. That, or they’re the voice-of-reason-sidekick, who doesn’t care about other people’s judgment because they are Tough and Sassy and No-Nonsense. They aren’t skittish around the white lead’s feelings. They tell it like it is, because they had a specific, cultural upbringing that led them to this very important moment (that being helping their white friend solve their problems). In sitcoms, this is supposed to come off as wacky and endearing for all races involved, but when the sidekick appears in reality television, it’s even more painful to watch.
After recently getting back into Chopped, I was reminded of and bombarded with the whiteness and maleness of the selection of competitors on reality television. When I watch any competition-based show, I immediately cheer for any Asian competitor, a trait my white father jokingly calls racist. On the other hand, my Korean mother sides with me. If there is an Asian woman and man, I cheer for the Asian woman, then the Asian man, followed by whatever non-white competitors may follow (ladies always first). Chopped seems like one of the few shows that actually considers the diversity of its contestants, but it still seems to be a very specific and calculated choice when they include a woman or person of color, as if covering their bases by scattering some minorities betwixt the white male competitors.
Upon watching a few old episodes of the show, it became clear that almost always, the sole woman or person of color is the first to be kicked off. Last night I watched an episode whose contestants were a white man, a Filipino man, a white woman, and a Caribbean woman. For Chopped, this was an extremely diverse selection of people. I joked (?) that of course, the Caribbean woman would be the first to go. And she was, followed by the other woman, then the Filipino man. The white man was crowned winner, allowing he and his wife to adopt a baby. The race of their future baby is unknown.
I only watched the first three episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I don’t know if Charles, the angelic, gawky white dude, makes it further into the storyline. I had been excited to watch this show, created and produced by Fey, a woman I mostly admire and enjoy. I saw the words ‘feminism’ and ‘triumph’ and ‘bold’ thrown into the titles of articles reviewing the show. I didn’t read these articles because I wanted to make my own decision about the show, but should I keep watching? Jane Krakowski plays a white-passing “secret” Native American because it’s a funny and ridiculous joke for the viewers, but it’s mostly just an excuse to put another white person on our screens. I’ve heard that Kimmy maybe gets an Asian boyfriend, but why should I have to watch these whites run around trying to figure it all out for X amount of episodes just to see some diversity? Especially when I know the writers of this show should already know better?
There needs to be a deliberate and significant drop in the number of white men in places that need not be filled with white men, places that could be filled by any other type of person, especially when the audience is generally young and eager to learn about The Ways The Real World Works. Young people shouldn’t have to grow up expecting to compete for space and attention against the white, American norm that Hollywood and the art world and society has created and continues to support. Women shouldn’t be an afterthought. People of color should not be inserted into television shows to meet quotas or fill holes for comic relief based on their ethnicity or appearance. A number of underrepresented types of people should not be shoved into a single character so that the rest are free to be white and male.
I can’t watch a show if it’s going to take me hours of feeling bad as a woman and watching people who look like me play subservient secretaries, mistreated housewives, 2-D needy girlfriends, drug-riddled prostitutes, and dead humans before the publicly-assured outcome of a really unique and deep story. It’s not that I’m taking a stand and refusing to as a feminist, it’s because I no longer have the mental capacity to stare at the bodies of women placed around men for them to touch, stare at and use. Sorry, True Detective, I don’t care if all of my friends can’t stop talking about how insaneee the series is, how complex the (white, male) leads are and how they can’t wait for next season’s new (white, male) cast. I gave you three episodes. You gave me nothing.
Stop writing complicated white men into our stories! Stop making them underdogs! Stop paying them to star in movies! Stop teaching young women that, if they feel sorry enough for them, they can help the shy white overcome his nerves and, ultimately, get the girl!
Over 300,000 books were published in the US alone last year. There are 1400 shows currently airing in the US, over 200 of which were created in the past two years alone. We have so many outlets and chances to do things differently, yet we are still providing major media coverage to white men, and teaching people that these guys, too, have feelings. Be more empathetic to them! Watch as they overcome personal insecurities, awful girlfriends, and parents who want them to be something they are not! It seems that nearly every time I am excited by a female-driven show or cast or story, it is inevitably tarnished by a plain, below-average, undeserving white man (or group of white men) floating near or around women who are too good for them.
Of course, complex, likeable men exist. Of course, Not All Men. But when the lineup from the most recent season of Last Comic Standing has 10 contestants and only two of them are women, when this show has been on for nine years and has only featured a single female host out of six, when an embarrassingly low number of two out of a total of the 26 contestants who have made it to the series’ finale episodes are women, when only one woman, Iliza Shlesinger, has been crowned the Last Comic Standing in the show’s nearly decade-long lifespan, what are we conditioning the human mind to think?
When I am watching the three white, male judges of Masterchef Jr. cheer for white boy after white boy after white boy in every season, while playfully teasing and questioning the talents of 8-year-old girls and children of color, what kinds of institutions are they trying to build for the future? That men are just better than women, they are more creative, they are infinitely more substantial and that they are winners.
I don’t care that these men exist in real life. It’s glaringly obvious that they are never — and will never be — underrepresented. White men love to support and be supported by other white men. It is a comfortable place for them. It is home. They will always have each other. They don’t need us, and we don’t need another show or movie or book that guides the viewer to learn to love the faults and insecurities of white men.