Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Television - Is 2 Broke Girls racist?

2 Broke Girls returned after a month-long hiatus last night, hoping to put behind it a disastrous press conference where the series' co-creator, Michael Patrick King, responded in the most ill-advised manner possible to charges of racism against a number of his characters. Unfortunately, last night's episode, 'And The Blind Spot', opened with all the characters in question running through the worst aspects of the personalities, then being joined by guest star Jennifer Coolidge playing a woman with a bawdy attempt at a Polish accent. Like its creator, the series doesn't seem remotely interested in changing in view of mounting criticism, but instead went on the attack. You don't like characters defined by weird accents and clichéd mannerisms? Well, here they all are, crunched into an agonising ten-minute opening, with one more for good measure.

Despite these characters all being horribly, horribly written, and certainly in need of heavy adjustment to say the least, the question of whether they are actually racist remains open. King's juvenile obstinacy when faced with valid concerns certainly hasn't helped his case, but are the critics being only slightly less reactionary when, in many respects, the series' representation of race isn't far removed from what many other sitcoms are doing, just backed up by much worse writing?
Let me start by recognising that the 'other people are doing it too!' defence carries no weight, under any circumstances. The characters of Han, Oleg and Earl are undeniably problematic, but it still seems severe, to label their conception as 'racist'. The reason I brought up other sitcoms was because, when those characters are stripped down to their essentials, there's a certain hypocrisy in how they can be so ferociously criticised while Sofia Vergara's Gloria on Modern Family, for example, gets away with many of the same 'crimes' (and is in fact celebrated for them) because she's more charming, and her timing and jokes are better. Han - the short, nerdy Korean owner of the diner where Max and Caroline work - is a particularly archaic stereotype, but so is Gloria - the heavily-accented, overbearing but passionate Latina matriarch. If racial presentations like these are as damaging as suggested, Gloria's significantly better jokes should not be enough to vindicate her.

Here's the thing: these characters are broad and ridiculous, but calling them racist ignores that 2 Broke Girls is a broad mainstream comedy, a sub-genre where any peripheral characters are rarely developed beyond a handful (at best) of basic personality traits. The Big Bang Theory, for example, has barely even given its four lead characters that much grace - Raj and Wolowitz remain as one-note as ever - and the characters even further on the outside are less developed still - Kripke with his rhotacism, for example - than the worst that 2 Broke Girls has to offer.

That type of comedy thrives on being undemanding and going for obvious laughs. Having a ream of complex characters, frankly, gets in the way if the audience is having to remember detailed personalities to understand the gags. This has to be taken into account when critics label characters like Han as racist for not being sufficiently developed: he isn't under-developed because he's Asian. He's under-developed because the format dooms all characters in his position to a similar fate.

The obvious counter-argument is to point out the problem comes from Han's stereotypical Asian-ness being what we are expected to laugh at, rather than his race being merely a detail. Anyone who has seen 2 Broke Girls will know there isn't much to debate about that. However, if we accept that this constitutes racism, we also have to consider the acceptability of any jokes based on a dialogue related to race, gender or sexual orientation.

If those kinds of jokes are outlawed completely, along with any other based on the comedy of one person being different from another, it means getting rid of most characters from even the most beloved sitcoms: Community's lead cast would be entirely unacceptable, not to mention Chang and Dean Pelton (is there a more stereotypical presentation of a flamboyant gay man anywhere on television?). Leslie Knope would have to be heavily rewritten to remove any aspect of her personality revolving around the fact she is a woman. Ron would need to be fired post-haste, given how his entire personality is based on being an old school man's man, and Donna certainly wouldn't survive the cut. If 'bad' comedy is based on discrimination, that unfortunately rules out quite a significant chunk of all the comedy we now enjoy.

A more pertinent question is whether the stereotypes in question propagate a negative view of the racial/gendered/sexual aspect of the character in question. This is where, I think, most people draw the line and where it seems unfair to label Han, Oleg and Earl as racist representations. Most stereotypes in comedy are super-exaggerated versions of a kernel of truth: no-one would understand the joke if there weren't something vaguely recognisable in the punchline. The personality traits defining 2 Broke Girls' diner characters may be dated, but there has been no indication to date that the writers are portraying them maliciously or with negative intent.

Han may be ridiculous, but he's a character we're encouraged to view affectionately, rather than dismissively. He's a business owner, working hard to fit into a new culture, and his difficulties fitting in tend to revolve around good-natured misunderstanding rather than unpleasantness. 'Yellow peril', he ain't. Earl, the aging black hep-cat, is a cliché, but also one of the few people Max feels safe confiding in. Oleg is more problematic, but for reasons outside his race: there has never been any stereotype I'm aware of based on Ukrainians being perverts, and the show presents jokes about his nationality and his, ahem, insalubrious nature as separate entities. (Of the three, though, Oleg is definitely the most difficult to justify, since he is the only character whose fundamental personality is based around a negative trait). 

Resolving the problematic nature of these characters is more about improving the quality and range of their jokes so their stereotypical nature becomes a point of endearment, rather than the centre of increasingly laboured puns and repetitive situations. Modern Family's Gloria is a character we delight in because she makes us laugh and is a pleasure to engage with, despite being no less a stereotype than Han or Earl. We laugh with her because we like her, rather than feeling like we're expected to laugh at her racial characteristics because the jokes aren't good enough to justify the character in any other way, as is too often the case with the diner characters on 2 Broke Girls.

Racism is a strong charge to level at anyone or anything, and there is a danger of applying it too frivolously  and appearing over-sensitive and hypocritical, even if the intent is to encourage positive change. Restricting what is allowed to be a subject for comedy runs a greater risk, in my opinion, of encouraging resentment and genuine racism - should certain groups be exempt from mockery solely for their race/gender/sexuality - than taking an open approach where anyone is fair game, so long as the jokes do not turn malicious or encourage the viewer or other characters to adopt a position of superiority based on those differences. (Mickey Rooney's turn as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany's, for example, is definitely on the wrong side of that line). The critics at the TCA Panel were right to take Michael Patrick King to task, but wrong to focus on the issue as one of race, rather than bad writing in general.



rubthemtogether said...

Nice post. I still think this is the worst of the trilogy. But then picking your favourite is like picking your favourite child. It doesn't really matter, they're all a waste of time and effort.

Xander Markham said...

Thanks for the comment, although I suspect it was supposed to go with the Phantom Menace review!