Some of my best friends are white males

In my Twitter journeys this morning, I happened across an article from Todd VanDerWerff in which he recommends USA’s new show “Mr. Robot” as an alternative specifically to viewers who have put up with enough from “True Detective.”

“Men are forever defining themselves against some weird, hidden code of masculinity that supposedly their grandfathers had access to but they can’t seem to crack,” writes VanDerWerff. “So let me suggest something else: Literally everything fans say they want from True Detective is being done much better by a ridiculously titled show on the USA Network about a computer hacker: Mr. Robot. The show, which airs new episodes on Wednesdays and is available on Hulu, is one of the best in years about what it means to be a man in modern America.”

The article definitely got me on the hook to finally go watch “Mr. Robot” (though I didn’t read the whole thing because spoiler alert). But it also tapped into a concept that’s been crossing my mind lately: I am inherently more interested in “other” stories. And white male protagonists have to prove themselves to me.

I’m not trying to be here for tokenism, but I am tired of “unbelievability” being the basis for centering stories on white, male (and usually cis, straight, well-off, etc.). “Boyhood” won me over, but had its protagonist been a woman or a black kid coming up in Texas it would’ve been infinitely more interesting.

The double-edged sword is because stories from those who don’t see themselves reflect in the media are always inherently politicized. “Boyhood” had the comfort of not having a thesis; of meandering through its hero’s adolescent development. But a black kid? A woman? A trans person? Not so much. They’re victims of what I once heard described as the “Sailor Moon principle.”

Picture of Sailor Moon See the titular Sailor Moon, in her every day life as Usagi, is far from the elegant anime hero you’ve seen on backpacks and comics in the ’90s. She’s lazy, she loves eating, she’s unabashedly in love, and honestly? She’s kind of a ditz. If you dropped her character in an otherwise all-male cast, she would get dragged. No one wants her to be the representation of womanhood. But because her title is chock full of strong women, each their own individual with their own shortcomings and strengths, she’s a much more successful character.

In many ways I suppose this philosophy circles back a lot to my sincere belief that representation in the media matters. But it’s also just true that the inherent politicization extends far beyond the media we consume; if you don’t fit into a societal norm that area of your life is always more heavily politicized, whether you like it or not. It’s a pain to live with. But it’ll always add another degree to your story that will make it more interesting than it would’ve been with a run-of-the-mill white male protagonist. (One of my favorite Tumblr ideas I can’t find the link for is to swap out all white male protagonists for old Grandmas to make a story instantly more interesting. “Ocean’s 11,” “Goodfellas,” you name it)

Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark and Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 2, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Annette Brown/AMC“Friday Night Lights” won me over by the end. But “Friday Night Lights” with women in the lead roles? More lesbian subplots? Here for it. I’m currently watching through “Halt and Catch Fire,” and though I’ve loved Lee Pace for a while, this show is a lot more interesting to me since I found out it’s (spoiler alert) setting up a finale where Cameron and Donna start their own company. As I muck through the early episodes, I’m a lot more interested in the casual subversion of “Halt and Catch Fire” if it’s leading to leaving AMC’s classic anti-hero arc behind for greener, women-led pastures.

I’m still interested in the way our culture explores and builds masculinity. Like I said, VanDerWerff makes a compelling case for “Mr. Robot,” despite it being focused on yet another white male. But I’m not as interested in giving these stories an automatic greenlight anymore.

We should all be exploring diverse voices. Especially when women and people of color can’t even use theirs without being policed.

What if that’s not the story they wanted to tell?

At this point most sources I have are pointing to “True Detective” season 2 as a dud. Could it have been better if Nic Pizzolatto had branched out from his exploration of misogyny and tired masculine energy? Maybe. But what if that wasn’t the show Pizzolatto wanted to write?

 

No matter what else you say, Pizzolatto has a certain vision for what he wants his TD world to look like. The overwhelming bleakness; the tweak of a tried-and-true genre. And while women fit into season one largely in a side-character, prop to the men, perhaps women—or really diversity in general—isn’t a part of the world he was looking at.

Ani, the most dynamic woman we've seen from the TD universe, is carrying a lot of weight on her shoulders. And will probably be damned either way.
Ani, the most dynamic woman we’ve seen from the TD universe, is carrying a lot of weight on her shoulders. And will probably be damned either way.

Are we owed it? It’s uncomfortable to say that a showrunner, writer, or any other sort of head-honcho should feel beholden to what audiences want over what they want to fit in their world. But to say that inherently excuses the sexual assault and whitewashing (for starters) we see on our TV screens ignores the societal context most of these shows are written in; they don’t exist in a vacuum, independently making decisions of all -isms.

Does it matter if the work is intentionally that way? Is that a separate issue if the writer knows they don’t have the understanding of the nuance and care with which to (in returning to the TD example) give its women characters a proper shake?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who recently released his book “Between the World and Me,” mentioned in an interview with Slate that while he understood the criticism from Shani Hilton (who noted his book didn’t focus on black women) he wasn’t sure where to start to fix that, when speaking from his own experience.

“I don’t know. I love Shani. I adore Shani. She is incredibly unique. But I think when books come out like this and get a great deal of hype, things are put on their shoulders. I am glad about it, but it gets freighted. I understand that it is the male experience and I am a male writing the book. I don’t know how to remedy that,” Coates said.

“True Detective” often casts its eyes—for better or worse—at the ugliest parts of the male psyche. Even if you believe that we’ve had enough of those stories told and there’s nothing new to say (which I somewhat agree with, or at least think TD hasn’t raised the bar yet) it’s hard to demand that if that’s the story Pizzolatto wants and feels qualified to tell audiences can step in and demand the same show but with an entirely different body. If Pizzolatto thinks his story needs to be anchored in his male leads, at what point should viewers be able to limit his voice?

Believe me, I wish “True Detective” was about women. It would be at least 4.7 times as interesting if we just switched all male character to women. And I don’t have the answers about what story Pizzolatto is trying to tell, or if there’s some magical line where they suddenly owe me diversity or not. I also think there’s a long distance between a culture that expects to see honest diversity on television because it understands that there’s no way you cast 14 white people on accident, and a culture that expects its creative people to cater to the demands of the many.

For now all I know is “True Detective” doesn’t do it for me. And I don’t know if it has to.