Nickelodeon’s Diversity “Problem” Is That It Likes Diversity
Let’s start today with a million praise hands emojis to Flavorwire’s Pilot Viruet, who managed to stomach an entire interview with Mathew Klickstein, the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, whose thoughts on the network’s push for diversity are… interesting.
To just shove it in there because, “Uh-oh, we need diversity,” is silly and a little disgusting. It needs to be the best people working on the best shows. They happen to be white, that’s a shame. They happen to be all guys, that’s a shame. No one says this about sports — they do sometimes, the owners — but sorry, that most basketball, football players happen to be black. That’s just the way that it is. Publishing, too! You might not like this or care, but it’s very hard to be a man in the publishing world. No one talks about that.
Just kidding: his thoughts are egregious. But he’s a white dude, and life is hard, so we should cut him some slack, right? He’s busy trying to make it in publishing!!! He’s made it despite the odds, so he’s unconcerned with inconsequential matters such as representation. We should all be able to relate to white people: it’s easy! He does it every day!
Viruet: Sanjay and Craig: Yes, the main character is Indian and it would still be a good show if he were white. But this provides something to relate to; if an Indian kid is watching and sees himself on screen, that’s great.
Klickstein: That’s true, that’s fine, but why can’t he relate to a white guy too? I was talking with the guy who wrote for DC, and he made a really good point: Why does someone who’s making something about a black person need to be black? Why does someone making a show about an Indian person need to be Indian? Why does someone making a show about women need to be a woman? If you’re making something about an alien, you don’t need to be an alien to do it.
* starts manuscript about a young alien trying to balance life and love in the big city *
Throughout the interview, Klickstein continuously champions The Adventures of Pete & Pete, a show that I never watched because it was about two little white boys. It wasn’t for me! So I can’t speak to whether or not it earned its popularity, but I will tell you that even from a young age I avoided programming that didn’t include me because I thought that I wasn’t worthy of being a part of that conversation. I just twiddled my thumbs until Rugrats came on and I could appreciate Susie Carmichael. This is not to say I only enjoyed programs that included a diverse set of people; if that were the case, my television consumption would’ve been limited to five minutes a day, maybe less if Hey Arnold! had an Helga-centric storyline. But as rare as they were, I still sought them out and I relished the sight of a little black girl on my TV.
Let’s all say it together: representation fucking matters. We’re all familiar with the rhetoric of exhaustion, the life-long frustration at an industry that barely attempts to include diverse characters, but less often do we discuss the long-term effects of that exclusion: a sense of worthlessness and undesirability that permeates our being from the moment we are introduced to popular culture and immediately excluded from it. Growing up, if I didn’t seee a portrayal of someone who looks like me on TV, that meant that I was not worth portraying. My story did not count.
You think this only has minor effects? Here’s a cool anecdote: in the ’40s, two scientists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, tested the racial perceptions of black schoolchildren in an experiment called The Clark Doll Experiment. They presented the children with four dolls, all completely identical save for their shading, and asked them several questions about the toys: “Show me the doll that you like best or that you’d like to play with,” “Show me the doll that is the ‘nice’ doll,” “Show me the doll that looks ‘bad’.” Race clearly defined each doll’s morality or worth: the majority of the children declared the white doll to be good and smart, and the black doll to be bad and unwanted. The final question, unsurprisingly — “Give me the doll that looks like you.” — occasionally left the child in tears.
In a particularly memorable episode while Dr. Clark was conducting experiments in rural Arkansas, he asked a black child which doll was most like him. The child responded by smiling and pointing to the brown doll: “That’s a nigger. I’m a nigger.” Dr. Clark described this experience “as disturbing, or more disturbing, than the children in Massachusetts who would refuse to answer the question or who would cry and run out of the room.”
The tests were done to show the damaging psychological effects of segregation on black children, but even though our schools are de jure segregated, our entertainment, our leaders and our standards of beauty are still majority-white. The test was replicated for A Girl Like Me, a short documentary, and the results were starkly similar: 15 out of the 21 children polled chose the white dolls as the “nicer” or “smarter” baby. The majority of the children found the black dolls to be “bad” or “ugly.” The film was released in 2006.
If race and representation don’t matter, then here’s a totally arbitrary list of programming I’d like to see: a daily hour-long program called John Cho Standing Around Being Really Attractive. Parks and Recreation with just Tom, Donna, and April, The View with just Rosie Perez and Whoopi Goldberg, The Office with just Stanley. Laverne Cox with a talk show. Dancing With the Stars But The Only Star is Harry Shum, Jr. Mindy Kaling would be the Shonda Rhimes, Shonda Rhimes would be the Aaron Sorkin, and Aaron Sorkin would be just some dude watching from home. A girl can dream!