Moving Beyond “Default” Language in Pop-Culture Criticism

On the practice of assuming that straightness and Whiteness are culturally neutral.

A piece of gray paper has a strip torn from its center to reveal the whiteness beneath.

By Michael G. McDunnah • May 16, 2018

 

Television has grown marginally more diverse in recent years. The language used by critics—and anyone else who writes about popular culture—needs to catch up.

A recent and convenient case study: On May 6, two new half-hour television dramas premiered, back to back, on the Starz network. Each show takes place in a major American city and uses a restaurant as its central location. Each is geared towards a young, female audience and features, as its central characters, twenty-something women navigating issues of careers, identity, sex, and love.

But the language surrounding these two sister shows helps illustrate a deep-seated bias in the way entertainment is too often received and described.

Vida is described everywhere as a show about queer Latinx culture, but almost no one describes Sweetbitter as a show about straight White culture.

Consider the official summaries of the two shows on the Starz website. First, here is the network’s description of Vida:

Lyn and Emma are two Mexican-American sisters from the Eastside of Los Angeles who couldn’t be more different or distanced from each other. Circumstances force them to return to the old neighborhood and confront the past.

Compare this to the network’s blurb on Sweetbitter:

Tess begins working at NYC’s top restaurant, thinking it will be a temporary job, but then she becomes intoxicated by the restaurant’s workers, nightlife, and fast paced lifestyle.

While the description of Vida is full of explicit cultural markers, the summary of Sweetbitter is stripped of such signposts: We are simply given a name and a location (in one of the most diverse cities in America).

Such language plays into the assumption that straight and White are “normal”—standard, ubiquitous, and universally relatable—and that everything else is “other.”

This linguistic double standard carries over into most reviews of the shows as well. Because Vida features Mexican American characters who are lesbian, bisexual, and gender-non-conforming, you would be hard-pressed to find a review of Vida that does not use variations of the words Latinx and queer. Most reviews, in fact, work these specifics into the first sentence. (“The rare drama series to focus on Latino characters—who are female and/or queer, no less” begins John Griffith’s review in Variety.) Some, like Caroline Framke’s review in Vox, even manage to work them into the headline. (“Starz’s Vida Is the Rare TV Show That Centers on a Queer Latinx Community. It’s Wonderful.”)

On the other hand, a cursory survey reveals that it is the rare piece on Sweetbitter that even mentions the words straight or White. Mike Hale’s review in The New York Times describes Tess as “an unformed 22-year-old from Ohio.” Pilot Viruet in Variety describes her as “young and literally wide-eyed.” Robert Lloyd, in the Los Angeles Times, finds room to rhapsodize about Tess’s appealing naïveté—“With her Margaret Keane eyes, French pop singer bangs and smallness of stature, she is the very embodiment of innocence”—but feels no need to state her race or sexual orientation. In the absence of other information, the reader is trusted to assume—quite correctly, in this case—that Tess is a straight, White woman.

The larger problems, of course, are an overall resistance to acknowledging the existing biases of the entertainment world and a general societal refusal to even recognize—let alone engage with and interrogate—straight White culture as a discrete milieu.

These two shows are just a convenient example, and the reviews cited represent a deliberate selection, not a comprehensive accounting. But the larger issue remains: In most writing about film and television—particularly that done by straight, White, male critics, which is the vast majority of such writing available—everyone is assumed to be straight and White unless otherwise specified. Vida is described everywhere as a show about queer Latinx culture, but almost no one describes Sweetbitter as a show about straight White culture, any more than they did shows from twenty years ago, like Sex and the City, Seinfeld, or Friends.

(Exceptions do exist to prove the rule: The New Yorkers Helen Rosner—ironically a food critic, not a TV critic—was one of the only reviewers of Sweetbitter to describe Tess as “small-town American, White, straight.” She also perceptively noted that, in the predominantly straight, White world of the show, the minor supporting characters tend to “have one-note identifiers: the foreigner, the black woman, the lesbian.”)

Assuming that White and straight culture is a sort of common, culturally neutral baseline for writing about popular entertainment is problematic, for several reasons. Such language plays into the assumption that straight and White are “normal”—standard, ubiquitous, and universally relatable—and that everything else is “other.” It is a narrow linguistic style—and an exclusionary editorial approach—that is located in an Anglo-centric, heteronormative worldview.

Television has grown slightly more diverse, and it will grow even more representative once we stop pretending that shows about majority communities are innocuously neutral and not every bit as culturally specific as shows about minority communities.

Such language—which omits even the mention of straightness and Whiteness as unnecessary information—also makes unconscious assumptions about the consumers of both the entertainment and the writing about it. Few people of color, for example, are likely to relate to the scene in the pilot episode of Sweetbitter, in which the doe-eyed White ingenue Tess waltzes into a snooty Manhattan eatery, fumbles her interview, admits she has no experience, and lands the job anyway. (And one suspects that the scene in which Tess is asked to name “the five noble grapes of Bordeaux” will strike most viewers of color as every bit as specific a cultural marker as all the discussion of flan and birria in Vida.)

The larger problems, of course, are an overall resistance to acknowledging the existing biases of the entertainment world and a general societal refusal to even recognize—let alone engage with and interrogate—straight White culture as a discrete milieu. Such assumptions of commonality just reinforce the deeply entrenched paradigm, in which “straight” and “White” have always been treated as neutral and universal.

It is absolutely right that shows like Vida (and Atlanta, Insecure, One Day at a Time, or American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace) are described, recognized, and celebrated as spotlighting underrepresented communities. But we also need a more aware, culturally conscious approach to describing entertainment that showcases overrepresented communities. Television has grown slightly more diverse, and it will grow even more representative once we stop pretending that shows about majority communities are innocuously neutral and not every bit as culturally specific as shows about minority communities.

Leaving such descriptives out is denying your readers essential information—and reinforcing a very exclusionary understanding of common experience.

So, by all means, write that review or think piece about Sweetbitter, but be conscious when you do that it is not just a show about a young woman making her way in the world: It is a show about a straight, White young woman making her way in a predominantly straight, White world. Leaving such descriptives out is denying your readers essential information—and reinforcing a very exclusionary understanding of common experience.

A black-and-white photo of Michael in glasses and a button-down shirt, looking into the camera while leaning on his elbow and propping his chin up.

Michael G. McDunnah writes about film and television at The Unaffiliated Critic and (with his wife, Nakea) co-hosts The Unenthusiastic Critic podcast.
 

  

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