No, I’m not going to be boycotting Netflix over their new series, Dear White People. And neither should anyone else.
Netflix. They’re doing some crazy stuff, aren’t they? A show called Dear White People. Almost sounds like they’re trying to stir the pot a little…and I like it. I really admire what Netflix is doing with their original programming. The quality of Netflix productions has been impressive, but more than that, I’m thrilled by the unique choices they’re making with their storytelling. Shows about women’s prisons and the journeys of Marco Polo are infinitely more interesting to me than 17 different versions of Law and Order.
The studio system, many would agree, is broken. A good part of the reason why it’s broken is because they’re playing it safe and trying to please everyone all the time. Studios don’t want to offend anyone and because we live in a time of perpetual offense, they give us increasingly vanilla-flavored takes on tried and true formulas. Reboots and sequels, sequels and reboots. Superheroes and cop shows. Everything is stylized and antiseptic and boring as hell.
The studios may make an obscene amount of money, but they could make even more if their product was better. Even their pretty much ok offerings could have been so much better with a little more random unexpected weirdness, a little more make-you-think. But the studios are too scared of random unexpected weirdness (and thought) to even try it. They won’t even take the chance because they’re terrified of the outrage porners. Netflix appears willing to stand up to the bullies and take that chance. They’re not gonna please everyone, but they’re not trying to please everyone. They’re trying to make interesting shows.
One thing Netflix is doing differently is giving artists more of a say in what they produce. Instead of sending down dictates on high from stimulant-addled Hollywood executives who notoriously ruin everything they touch by demanding more boobs or less boobs depending on the situation, Netflix is letting the creators make more of their own artistic choices. They seem to respect the individual voice. Different artists are going to have different voices and want to say different things. Some of these things will appeal more to some audiences than others. That’s kind of the way that art is supposed to work. One-size-fits-all is for muumuus, not art.
The Hollywood cookie cutter approach is not art, it’s decoration. Hollywood is flooding the entertainment market with the equivalent of country geese – yeah, your grandma may like it, but nobody in their right mind is gonna want to have it in their house in a few years.
So here comes Dear White People. In a nutshell, it’s about what happens on a racially mixed college campus before and after some white frat boys and sorority sisters don blackface for a costume party. As you can see from the trailer, this is not a show that is terrified of offending. It is MEANT to be offensive. But sometimes offending people is necessary to make them think about things in a different way. If a piece of art is investigating a hot button issue, maybe it will offend some people. Maybe it has to, to be real, to be authentic.
Netflix also made Beasts of No Nation and Luke Cage, programming focused around black characters, but without being primarily about racial issues. They are character-based, plot driven, and while they do have messages, the message isn’t heavyhanded or eyeroll-worthy. Their messages are secondary to the storytelling. Netflix has proven that they are more than just envelope pushers. They’re making lots of shows that represent a wide swath of viewpoints and life experiences in an interesting and honest way.
You know what else Netflix made? The Ridiculous Six, which was horribly offensive to just about every minority group you can possibly think of, plus a few more I suspect they made up just for the sake of the movie. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/users/2016/01/adam_sandler_s_new_movie_the_ridiculous_6_is_terrible_and_exactly_what_netflix.html It’s pretty obvious to me that Netflix is going for something here. They’re not pushing a particular agenda down our throats. They’re simply not walking away from controversy when it arises. And about time somebody had the balls to do it, amirite?
Embracing controversy means somebody IS gonna be offended. But why are we so scared of a little controversy, anyway? Is being offended now and then really the WORST thing that ever happened? If your views are never challenged, you’ll never be offended, but then again can you really feel good about holding your beliefs in a cultural vacuum? Never being offended by anything is a sure sign of a monoculture. You may feel cozy and safe in a monoculture, but you’ll never know if what you believe is right, or if it’s simply popular. If you’re never forced to look at your beliefs, to defend them even if only to yourself, how would you know if they hold up to scrutiny? How would you even know what you really believe?
Dear White People, despite its provocative title, doesn’t appear to me to be demonizing white people, the group. It’s singling out an oft-used bad guy – rich, cliquish people who think they’re better than everyone else by virtue of birth, good looks, or wealth – and putting that familiar bad guy into a greater social and historic context. Many much-loved movies have an identical conflict – nerds/losers/outcasts vs. fraternity and sorority members. Rich snobs do make handy villains, and while yeah, it’s a stereotype, it’s not a fundamentally race-driven one. If it was, we’d never have seen Revenge of the Nerds, Animal House, and Monsters University.
Tropes aside, Dear White People is based somewhat in reality. Some students on college campuses have dressed up costumes that offended minorities. It is a thing that has actually transpired. Why would they do that?? How should we feel about it? Is this not worthy of some deeper reflection? Reflecting reality through the lens of a fictional piece is a very legitimate use of art. Art, not propaganda. It isn’t inherently propaganda to portray fictionalized versions of events that really did occur on college campuses in America, any more than it’s propaganda for the makers of Beasts of No Nation to make a work of fiction based loosely upon a civil war in Africa.
That was a lot of words, so here’s the short version: We live in a multicultural society. We don’t all have the same heritage and viewpoint. I like living in a multicultural society. Despite that, I do sometimes want to see art/entertainment that reflects my personal life experience and worldview with more authenticity than Law and Order: SVU. In order to get that, I have to afford others the same freedom. I would be a ginormous dick if I wanted to ONLY have my personal experience reflected in Hollywood productions. Since I’m not a ginormous dick, Dear White People is totally cool by me. Will I watch it, probably not, but maybe if it turns out to be good, I will. I may even learn something. What Netflix is doing is awesome and admirable and courageous and should be applauded even if you don’t plan to watch Dear White People and even if the show itself sucks.
Hey, I get it. I’m sick to death of the preachiness too. I’ve turned off my fair share of shows because they were rubbing me the wrong way, shows that felt less like entertainment and more like being repeatedly smacked upside the head by a social justice 2×4. But there’s a huge amount of wiggle room between not wasting precious time watching something that is obnoxious, and boycotting one of the only companies that’s actually brave enough to offer us controversial programming.
This is not the thing to go to the mat over. This is the thing to encourage. Real diversity. Diversity of thought. Diversity of viewpoint. Freedom. Individuality. Different voices saying different things and nobody forcing anyone else to agree or even to listen. We have enough outrage porners in this world already. The last thing we need is for everyone to start playing the “I’m terribly offended by this” card. If you don’t like it when other people are clucking their tongues and boycotting stuff left and right, then how’s about you don’t do it either? You can’t have it both ways, you can’t shake your fist at political correctness when it’s your team giving offense and then turn around and get all butthurt when the shoe’s on the other foot. Tolerance means TOLERANCE even when it’s something that bothers you personally.
Keep your Netflix accounts, America. They’re standing up to the bullies. Reward them for taking a chance on free expression in an increasingly unfree world.
Image by PunkToad