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Diversity Diva

Revision Television: Seperating Fact From Fiction

Michelle T. Johnson
Contributor: Michelle T. Johnson
Posted: 08/29/2011

America has gone all warm and fuzzy and retro.

All you have to do is watch the upcoming TV lineup and see what has been tops at the box office--The Help, Mad Men, The Playboy Club, Pan Am. Shoot, I could even throw the reboot of Charlie’s Angels in the mix.

Entertainment is entertainment. Fiction isn’t meant to be a documentary or a perfect reflection of real life. I know that I’m not going to walk down the street and see Homer Simpson trying to board a bus or have Harry Potter beat me to a parking space on his broom. But I do think that entertainment media is both a huge reflection of societal mores and a powerful influence on future ones.

While I haven’t seen the movie The Help, I read the book. And I can’t lie– the hype bugs me.

The setting of the story takes place in the South during the 1960s. I was born in the 1960s. So as a black woman – one with two degrees and who has had her share of challenges in the white male dominated professions of newspaper journalism and law – I can’t get all warm and fuzzy about the "feel good" approach of this movie.

Don’t get me wrong – there are some black women who can. Essence magazine even has a good article on the split between how black women feel about the movie.

Yes, it is fiction, but I can’t separate fiction of that nature from current facts. Facts from the US Department of Labor showing that black women lost jobs disproportionately compared to women overall; that the black female unemployment rate, during the recovery, rose at a higher rate than black men, white men and women, Hispanic men and women and Asian men and women. (I won’t even go into the statistics about where black women sit on the pay ladder compared to other groups, even before the economic downturn.)

So, for me, reading the book The Help and seeing commercials that portray the movie as a slightly comedic, feel-good piece trivialize not just the realities of that era, but the still-present discrepancies that black women employees experience.

And while I’m putting it all on the line, the popularity of both the book and the film, underscores another reason why my irritation grows – it’s in the genre of stories about the Civil Rights-era, where blacks are pretty much irrelevant to their own story.

From a personal and professional standpoint, the one thing I know is that as much as this country likes to think it has "gotten over" race, race is still one of the biggest hot-button topics to ever bring up. Especially if the person who brings up the topic is a racial minority and if whites, in general, don’t like or completely understand the viewpoint, opinion or perspective.

Therefore, a novel—written by a white woman, where a white woman is the heroine during a particularly racist time period in the South, makes most of the black women to be matriarchal salts-of-the-earth with only one angry black woman indulging in a gross (but not fatal) act of revenge and features few white men to speak of—seems pretty safe. In fact, a friend of mine made the excellent point that "because [‘The Help’] is about women, it’s supposed to make the racial irrelevant."

And women in general, once we move to the smaller, prime-time TV screen, aren’t faring all that better in the revisionist history department either. Some would just write off the infusion of new shows where women are on the cusp of any real rights, as just lazy Hollywood types capitalizing on the whole "Mad Men" phenomena. And they would be partly correct.

But I still think that Tinsel Town – still dominated by men – doesn’t mind some retro feminism. It’s one thing to see that when you’re watching an old sitcom or television drama that reflected the sign of the times. I don’t hold it against those shows when I occasionally watch them and I truly admire the ones attempting to create a better and more fair world, at least fictionally.

But today’s trend, well— they seem to move in the trend of going backwards. In the 1970s, it was innovative to have three gorgeous women, who were former cops, solving crimes and blindly taking orders from a man named Charlie. Back then, it was a nice little schtick. But in today’s times, having three sexy ladies obediently taking orders from a man they don’t know or see (who isn’t a government agent, an Intergalactic captain or a magical wizard) seems a bit dated.

Look, I’m not dictating what anyone should or shouldn’t watch on TV or at the movies. I got mad at a friend earlier this year for implying that I should boycott Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice because of the view that much of Trump’s criticism of President Obama was based on pure racism. I don’t let anyone dictate my entertainment habits, especially when I don’t agree with the logic of the reasoning. Therefore, I’m not going to be a blatant hypocrite here.

But it is worth pointing out that the imagery in the entertainment that we see, accept and make popular, does matter.

Dozens of studies show how television and movie watching can negatively impact children. And yes, children are impressionable, malleable little humans whose premature exposure to sex and violence we must guard against.

But as adults, we don’t stop growing opinions and managing impressions. We can still walk away from movies, television shows, and even books without a larger sense of context or with a watered-down understanding of how real events and social constructs have evolved.

People are free to watch and enjoy whatever they want. But personally, I’d rather re-read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird before going to see The Help and rather than watch Pan Am, I’d prefer to enjoy an old episode of the 1960s show Big Valley where Victoria Barkley, played by Barbara Stanwyck, was a strong woman character who would put some of these 2011 female characters to shame.

Michelle T. Johnson
Contributor: Michelle T. Johnson
Posted: 08/29/2011