A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Brooding White Dudes on TV

A few weeks ago I posted this status to Facebook:
Attention TV: if your show stars a pensive-looking 40+ year old white dude in a suit and he's not fighting aliens or robots or something, I just can't bring myself to care.
The status was a response to the chatter that week about the second season of House of Cards, a show that I've tried and failed to get into several times now. I made it most of the way through the first season. It consistently struck me as a caricature of what "serious" TV is supposed to look like. It's dark and atmospheric, with a cast full of powerful characters who speak deceptively to one another, hiding agendas and double-crossing one another. I can't decide what I find more ridiculous about it--the fact that it's a show about political power that cares very little about how American politics actually works, or Kevin Spacey's self-important soliloquies. Actually, that's not true. Of course it's the soliloquies that I find more ridiculous. But the misunderstanding of politics is what bugs me. The mechanics of the characters' political machinations seem consistently off in one way or another. That's almost forgivable given that the Washington, D.C. setting seems more like an excuse for the creators to make a big existential point about...something or other. What's less forgivable is the fact that, for a show ostensibly set in the present, Frank Underwood's version of the Democratic party sure boasts a lot of white southerners.

But this isn't a post about House of Cards, nor is it a post about the politics of representation (not entirely, at least). Countless essays have been written about the overrepresentation of white men in media and the ways in which it contributes to a general cultural perception that white men's stories are more deserving to be told or occupy more space in the cultural landscape. I have little to add to that point specifically, though I consider it extremely important. I'm more interested in the question from a creative dimension. Because, politics aside, I'm genuinely bored by the "brooding white dude" model of "serious" television represented by House of Cards. And Mad Men. And Boardwalk Empire. And Justified. And Dexter. And The Sopranos. And 24. And most procedurals (House, Sherlock, all of the CSIs). And, admittedly, Breaking Bad, which I nonetheless love.

I often like to think about culture in quantitative terms. So much about humanistic analysis is subjective, and that's a good thing--culture is complex and ambiguous and deserving of multiple debatable interpretations--but I still like to start from a relatively objective place when I can. So, with that in mind, I'm going to return to my initial complaining Facebook status and do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. In that status, I identified six variables with which a TV show is constructed. Let's look at each of them in turn:
  1. Affect ("pensive-looking"). This is what I mean by "brooding"--the tone of the show, as dictated by its lead's primary emotional state. When you poke at it, it's striking how often TV shows rely on their lead's brooding affect to convey the Importance of its subject matter. I don't care how many cigarettes you smoke while staring out of a window, Dick Whitman, your identity theft still isn't that big of a deal.
    • There are a lot of ways to categorize emotions, but let's go with Love, Joy, Surprise, Anger, Sadness, and Fear as our basic six. It seems pretty clear that we tend to associate Anger and Sadness in our fiction with Serious and Smart storytelling, while undervaluing Love and Joy (more closely associated with comedy than drama), as well as Surprise and Fear (more closely associated with "genre fiction").
  2. Age ("40+ year old"). Maybe I'm just too old for them to be on my radar anymore, but it seems like there is no equivalent to My So Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or even Friday Night Lights on TV right now. Again, Serious and Smart storytelling seems to be associated narrowly with one life stage--adult with kids who has attained some degree of professional status, but isn't yet retired. In other words, someone in their 40s or 50s.
    • A "generation" is roughly 20 years, so let's break age demographics into four generations: Under 20 years old, 20-40 years old, 40-60 years old, and over 60 years old.
  3. Race ("white"). Pretty straightforward.
    • It's notoriously difficult to come up with a list of categories for this field. For the sake of our back-of-the envelope calculation, let's use the five categories used by the US Census Bureau--White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander--and simply add Multiracial and Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish to make seven (I know, I know, I'm grossly oversimplifying, but bear with me for just a minute).
  4. Gender ("dude"). Also pretty straightforward.
    • Let's go with three--male, female, and third gender/genderqueer.
  5. Number of protagonists ("dude" singular). People tend not to notice this, but these serious "antihero" shows tend to feature a single protagonist, even those with strong ensembles.
    • In addition to the "single protagonist" model, plenty of shows employ the "duo" model, with two leads who are either romantic or professional partners, or both. Plenty of other shows employ the "ensemble" model, where anywhere from four to a dozen main characters are sufficiently well established as to serve as the protagonist for a plot line. Remarkably, I can't think of any trios, perhaps because in any show with three leads, one is likely to stand out as the primary protagonist. So let's say there are three models.
  6. Class ("in a suit"). Just as serious TV tends to be associated with a certain life stage, it's also associated with professional success, featuring a hefty dose of middle- and upper-class white collar professionals.
    • Let's keep it simple and go with a white collar vs. blue collar dichotomy.
6 x 4 x 7 x 3 x 3 x 2 = 3,024

There are myriad other variables one consciously or unconsciously considers when crafting the premise for a narrative, be that a television show or anything else. I didn't even touch on the genre question implied by my "fight aliens or robots" comment. But just using these six variables, and my very rough estimates for the different categories falling under each variable, yields over three thousand possible permutations. So why the prevalence of the archetypal pensive-looking 40+ year old white dude in a suit?

But, you may say, the categories aren't evenly distributed in real life, so of course you can't expect every permutation to appear as if they were randomly distributed.

Of course not, but (a) it's still pretty obvious that the pensive-looking 40+ year old white dude in a suit is overrepresented, and (b) as I said at the start, I'm not talking about the politics of representation; I'm talking about creativity. People whose experiences are less common can be, for that very reason, more creatively interesting. The guy who goes broke paying for his cancer treatment is far more common than the guy who becomes a drug kingpin to pay for his cancer treatment, but I'm not interested in his TV show. Tell me you wouldn't be curious to watch a show about two 70-year-old underemployed genderqueer Hawaiians living in a haunted house.

Now, I don't want to fall into the "Why are there no _______?" fallacy. There are PLENTY of shows featuring more creative permutations of these variables (American Horror Story and Orange is the New Black come to mind, and of course, the reason so many people are still obsessed with The Wire is because it subverts the "pensive-looking 40+ year old white dude in a suit" model so well). But when you think about the shows that (a) get made, (b) get made well, and (c) attain enough critical and popular attention to become part of the zeitgeist, it's surprising there isn't more diversity.

One reason why I decided to write this post was to illustrate the usefulness of some simple quantitative methods. If I had the time and the resources to survey the TV landscape, it would be easy enough to pin down this lack of diversity in less impressionistic language. I wish people with more time and resources would do that.

The other reason I decided to write this post was to make a confession: A couple days after posting that status I started watching True Detective, a show about two pensive-looking 40+ year old white dudes in suits (Hey, a duo! That's a different permutation!). And I. Love. That. Show. I justify my bit of hypocrisy largely because I'm invested in pulp fiction tropes, and the show provides a very smart spin on both the detective fiction and weird fiction genres. Its use of weird fiction tropes is particularly interesting--I'm not convinced that tomorrow's finale won't end with Marty and Rust fighting aliens or robots or demons or something.

But more importantly, I don't think there's anything inherently "wrong" with True Detective simply because it's another iteration of an overly represented permutation of variables, nor do I think there is anything wrong with the other shows I listed earlier (except for House of Cards, which I still think is simply ridiculous). Approaching this issue from a more quantitative perspective helps to distinguish between a problematic trend and an individual instance of that trend. I'm disinclined to hold the former against the latter.

Circling back around to the politics of representation, this is a problem that often comes up in feminist pop culture criticism, particularly around discussions of the Bechdel test. But I tend to think that the Bechdel test is most useful for looking at a problem that exists in culture macroscopically. That so few films pass the Bechdel test (while, simultaneously, so few fail the reverse Bechdel test by focusing on female homosocial spaces) illustrates an inequality in the pop culture landscape, but I'm not necessarily going to use the Bechdel test to evaluate the feminist sensibilities of an individual film.

(Side note: One way in which I think about the usefulness of the Bechdel test in evaluating individual films is by asking, could the movie have passed the test without affecting the story? In a movie like The Shawshank Redemption, for example, the fact that the movie takes place almost entirely in the homosocial environment of a men's prison is pretty central to the story, and I'm not inclined to call its lack of women unfeminist. On the other hand, a film like Pacific Rim, Mako Mori test aside, probably could have flipped the gender of one or two characters and passed without changing the story, and that seems like a missed opportunity in an otherwise strong film. This isn't the only thing to consider, but it's a place to start.)

I have plenty of feminist friends who rail against this cultural imbalance while loving Hannibal or Supernatural or Sherlock. We all have our preferred brooding white dudes, and that's okay. So, on the one hand, I'm not going to say that anyone should watch True Detective. I firmly believe that there is no such thing as "must watch" TV, just like there are no "must read" books. And if your only reason for not watching it is you can't bring yourself to care about pensive-looking 40+ year old white dudes in suits, more power to you. But I still can't wait to find out who the Yellow King is.

I hope it's an alien or robot or something.


  1. What is this "reverse Bechdel test" of which you speak?

    1. Does a movie have at least two named male characters who talk to each other about something other than a woman? I think it's a useful way to think about uneven gender representations. Off the top of my head, I can think of dozens of movies that fail the Bechdel test but only a couple that fail the reverse Bechdel test (for instance, Bridesmaids).