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The End of Post-Identity Television

Aymar Jean Christian April 17, 2012 Features No Comments
The End of Post-Identity Television

Thanks to NewforTVMajors for linking.

Nothing ever “ends” in culture — and nothing is ever new. Conditions change. Culture changes, sometimes.

Still, it does feel like a certain era is ending. That era might be called the post-identity era, which, in television, had its prime in the 2000s. “Post-identity” here refers to the casting of characters without focusing on cultural difference — the much-discussed trifecta academics like to call “race, gender, sexuality” (almost always in that order, for some reason).

What’s Happening

Years ago when Grey’s Anatomy premiered, much was made about creator Shonda Rhimes’ open casting strategy: characters written black were cast Asian, vice versa, and every which way. The idea was the characters were written broadly, and their races were essentially interchangeable, at least for the beginning of the show. For shows about women and GLBT-identified individuals, this meant writing characters who were either feminist (working women) or post-feminist (freed from the burden of labor, think SATC) archetypes). For gays, it meant presenting them as “normal” or “just like you” — married, with kids, or wanting kids. (For more on this, see Susanna Walters’ All the Rage and Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism).

All of this, was, really, fine. Television reflected our ideals, the belief that our differences had melted away, that we’d learned how we’re all, fundamentally, the same. (I’ve tried to find something redeeming in this idea). This was particularly true of broadcast networks, who tried to grab mass audiences as cable networks heavily invested in scripted programming.

But in reality, people do feel, recognize and debate cultural differences. If Survivor didn’t bust that myth, recent television shows — online and on-air — have certainly put it into question.

The Economics of Identity Television

With more and more cable channels creating television, the need to hit a niche has steadily increased. Smaller niches mean smaller audiences and production budgets, but also more creative freedom for producers and auteurs. It’s been happening for well over a decade, but we’re hitting a crucial turning point — maybe.

So we get Girls. We’ve had plenty of great shows and women and gender politics — Mary Tyler Moore, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, and, yes, Sex and the City, many referenced in the Girls pilot – but Girls arrives at a moment when the need to be “frank” about gender and class is not only necessary, but possible. Girls is the television show as thesis statement: it’s a critical work about a very, very specific type of woman. Its super-niche focus on upper-middle-class young women allows it to hone in on the minutiae of growing up as a educated girl in the warped US economy. It’s uncomfortable. It allows — arguably, encourages – viewers to despise its privileged leads, something only a few critics have decided to do.

When Chuck Lorre obnoxiously lamented the surfeit of lady comedies on TV, what he was really talking about was the explicitness these shows address “gender problems”: 2 Broke Girls, Girls, Whitney, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Enlightened, New GirlAwkward., Web TherapyDon’t Trust the B— In Apartment 23 and Up All Night are all saturated with story lines about the complications of being a professional woman today. Some of them even manage to approach some realism (Girls wins there, hands down). Because unlike in TV’s leading procedurals — The Closer, Rizzoli & Isles, The Good Wife, etc. — most women aren’t able to conquer the workplace with such elegance and ease.

Down the Long Tail, To The Web

The market for explicitly lady comedy is strong on TV right now, and many of the shows are doing well. One only need look at FX’s interest in web comedy hit Broad City – one of many borough-centric web shows — to see the trend is in full swing.

But you’d be missing half the story if you stopped there. Look to the incredible success of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and you’ll notice basically every non-white-straight-dude is hankering for shows that speak intimately to their lives. With hundred of thousands of fans, Awkward Black Girl is a incredibly well-written show. Like Girls, it gets at the ambivalences and complications of gender and race today, and does so in ways perhaps too explicit for TV. It uses the words “bitch” and “nigga” liberally, and explicitly calls out racism and prejudice with humor:

“But, as was demonstrated by some of the Shorty Award tweets, some people can’t get past the “black” in the title. The bewilderment that our show not only exists, but that it could actually be good is indicative of how mainstream media thinks. I’m pretty sure none of the people tweeting that I’d only get three-fifths of my award had even seen an episode of our show, but they were 100 percent positive that it couldn’t be as good as whatever it is someone who didn’t look like me produced,” creator Issa Rae wrote in xojane.

If “black” in ABG has been a problem — too explicit for a postracial age — it might not be for longer. Before it announced its 2012 programming slate, which includes its first scripted programs, BET got interested in Single Black Female, a Gabrielle Union-vehicle now called Being Mary Jane.

Web producers have no such restrictions, and of the scores of black, gay, and Latin@ series, a number call out race outright, like BET’s first web show, Buppies, Afro City (which built a fan base before its first episode even aired) and the new Unwritten Rules, about a black woman navigating a white workplace. Jane Espenson’s Husbands might be inspired by The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy, but there’s no question its gay, gay, gay. Gayer, it seems, than most of gay television, whose characters are nestled in straight shows like Modern Family and Glee. (Indeed, NBC has in development a Sean Hayes-starrer that’s basically the same thing). Indie shows like Gay’s Anatomy, The Real Girl’s Guide to Everything Else, Drama Queenz, and Two Jasperjohns are much more nuanced and grounded examinations of being gay-identified than most of what’s on TV.

Of course, things change slowly. Logo for its part is moving away from gays to the broader category of women. And aside from Girls, few of these shows are particularly challenging or bracing, in the way that series like Roseanne and All in the Family shook up audiences decades ago. For that matter, class remains a bit of third rail, particularly in shows without white guy leads.


Why?

In politics, we’re debating contraception, stay-at-home moms and a woman’s right-to-choose. In crime, we’re grappling with two chilling alleged hate crimes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Quite simply, we, or the media, have been forced to realize that identity matters — still. It may not be the 1960s, but if you’re watching Mad Men, it’s starting to look a little familiar.

It helps that we have a glut of media outlets today, including tons of blogs for pretty much every interest. Niche, implicitly social media have been integral to pushing awareness to the fore.

We’re starting a new decade! And the one thing we know about culture is: anything can change.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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