Does Wanting Better Minority Characters And Movies Mean We Have To Embrace Some Bad Ones?

In the course of a long discussion about how to get to a place where Hollywood and mass audiences recognize that stories with minority leads, and that contain references to minority culture and concerns, can also be vehicles for universal stories, commenter Paulie made, over the course of two comments, a valuable point that leads to a question with no easy answer. He wrote:

Can we agree, for example, that the work of Tyler Perry is simply not very good? It has no universal appeal. It’s created solely to pander to the lowest-common-denominator in black audiences. If white people like me dislike Tyler Perry, it’s not because his work is “too black.” It’s because it sucks.

I’m sure you can come up with counter-examples of stuff that actually was artistically good, and should have had universal appeal, but was rejected for being too black. (Jazz certainly comes to mind, along with many other forms of black music that were eventually embraced by white audiences, but were initially written off as being solely black.)…My point in the post before that was that quality storytelling is inherently universal. Of course this means that the concept should be defined in concert with minority populations. My point applies in reverse as well: if something only appeals to white audiences but nobody else, then maybe that’s a sign it’s not actually very good.

It’s a really tough situation: when all you’ve got isn’t very good, do you champion it? Ask people to turn out, spend money on it, ignore its flaws in the hopes that it’ll create space for something better? I was profoundly relieved when Bridesmaids turned out to be genuinely excellent so I didn’t have to feign enthusiasm or to write a very qualified endorsement as I’ve done in the past. I could recommend it unreservedly, and be pleased that it did so well because it’s not the thing that needs to succeed to let us get the good thing. It is the good thing.

But I do hit my limits sometimes. And it was interesting that after we finished that discussion yesterday, commenter Kyessa L. Moore wrote a long critique of my piece explaining why I find the way Alan Ball (I would note, a white man with an extremely spotty record on race) has framed Tara Thornton as a perpetual victim exhausting:

Are you really beyond the ability to understand or see the desire of a child of an alcoholic single mother (with no other family) to take advantage of the shelter and care being offered by a woman with so much to give and other people in need under her care? Can you truly be faulting Tara for being bewitched? Do you fault everyone else for their bewitchment as well? And are You Really asking Tara to have been psychic and discerned that the nice lady was really a maenad intent on destroying her life? Because I refuse to believe that someone who went to college would expect precognition of a Black female character as the grounds for the character to be considered ‘dynamic.’..Clearly, the reasons you present for why Tara is “static” are really reasons rooted in a desire for her character to be superhuman, infallable, maternal, and rooted in a quasi-behavioral Whiteness which you point out as being necessary for this to be possible…Now, if you list wonderful things and add, “–and she’s white.”, then follow by saying, “he made her black and an object of perpetual humiliation”, what you are doing, even if inadvertently, is setting up the similarity between the wonderful world of possibility that is White Tara in the book and how awful Black Tara is in the show. You are linking the characteristics to color not for the purpose of clarity, but to further establish why Black Tara is so faulty for this indistinct, intangible but seemingly preferential list of vague plot details.

I don’t think this is a particularly accurate description of my piece, and I’ve said as much to Ms. Moore in comments. Because, look, at the end of the day, I don’t need Tara to have any particular set of characteristics for me to like her more. All I need to see is that she gets as much of a shot as anyone else on the show to win.

My dislike is aimed at Alan Ball’s choices, not at Tara herself. As a white writer, it makes me viscerally uncomfortable to see another white writer take a character, make the conscious decision to turn her from white to black, and then make her the perpetual and most persistent object of abuse on his television show. Maybe, in the process, he’s turned her into a profound and moving portrait of an abuse victim that resonates deeply with some people. I don’t have the lived experience to speak to that. And even if some folks think Ball’s gotten it right, I just can’t tell people to embrace the character and the show when they come out of a process that seems to me like it could lead not to the next good thing, but to something disastrous.