Over the course of the summer, I’ve been coming to understand just how deep Netflix’s marketing strategies go in terms of gaining new audiences. If we truly are in late-stage capitalism, what better market is there for Netflix than the people of color mainstream television has avoided representing for decades? While this sounds callous of me, I believe that Netflix’s devotion to diverse programming should be met with skepticism before any type of praise. My skepticism also stems from last week’s reading of scholar Brittany Farr’s criticism of Orange is the New Black and her thoughts on identity politics and the neoliberal market. When it comes to the representation of people of color, it’s always my worst fear that it’s nothing more than a marketing ploy as systems of inequality are further perpetuated in this country.
So where do Netflix’s Luke Cage, On My Block, and Dear White People lie on the representation-o-meter? Well, pretty good…I think. Before continuing, it’s worth asking who these programs directed are towards. Are they for an audience of people of color who have been underserved by traditional programming or are these for primarily white audiences that have always been catered too? In Luke Cage, we meet Luke in Pop’s Barbershop, a black-owned business serving a black community. My gut tells me this is how many white people, myself included, already perceive blackness in America as it’s been canonized in pop culture (Barbershop anyone?). While it might not particularly bad, I would say it’s a tad stereotypically but I can also see how this would be a good tactic to invite a diverse audience into the story as the barbershop serves as the meeting place for black masculinity in the neighborhood and introduces us to some key characters. As for Luke himself, he’s the strong, silent type that one would equate with someone with super strength. His struggles to do the right thing and serve his community are immediately understandable and I found him to be an appropriate main character for the show. When it comes to other characters I have mixed feelings. Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth is a hyper-masculine and vicious crime lord with a penchant for inducing physical violence on those that fail him. While we’re seeing a black man in power, it’s ultimately founded on the violence that white America seems to already associate with black men and why this role could be questionable. On the flip side, Alfre Woodard’s conniving counselor is a welcomed change to the white man we would usually see in this role. Perhaps slightly catered to the white gaze, Luke Cage constructs a world where black people can be their own heroes and villains and that’s truly something different than the traditional superhero formula.
I was particularly fond of On My Block, even with some of its initial cheesiness. While it relies heavily on the tropes of Latin Americans, with its depiction of gangs, the show represents a neighborhood that most white Americans aren’t used to. It’s also a little reminiscent of the movie, Dope, which I found pretty refreshing stylistically and character wise. I wouldn’t be surprised if that movie didn’t serve as a bit of an influence to this show. Watching leads navigate their environment, societal pressures and interpersonal relationships was a complicated and often funny endeavor. I loved how well the humor landed here in the face of larger societal issues facing each one of the protagonists. Seeing Jamal deal with not disappointing his masculine father while trying to stay true to himself made a huge impact on me in terms of how it made me think of the other ways in which black masculinity has been constructed in media.
Looking through some of my classmate’s blog postings, I’m not shocked to see how Dear White People struck a bit of nerve with them, with a title that seems to call out rather than call in. However, I would like to argue that’s the entire premise of the show: to call out problematic behavior in a society that has been constructed from said behavior. I believe that the truly uncomfortable aspect of the show resides in the fact that it requests the viewer to come to terms with how they’ve perpetuated racist power structures in America, even if we’ve thought we were just telling jokes or being funny. For my classmate that called the show “blatantly racist,” “divisive,” as well as saying that the black anger directed at white people was “generally unrealistic,” I would encourage them to actually listen to the show’s creator, Justin Simien’s interview with KCRW as it’s particularly revealing to how white audiences where outraged by the show. Simien in the interview talks about how much of a struggle the movie and the show were to create as studios and audiences alike intentionally misunderstood it. I have a feeling this might be happening with this classmate. I think it’s always uncomfortable to have your behavior called out and it’s why I can understand how another white person would be put on the offensive while watching Dear White People. However, I think watching programs like these should be a chance to reflect and listen instead of speaking when white people have already done so much of that throughout history as well as today, mind you.