Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Blinds of Privilege

A few years back, I had a conversation with a friend about the show The Wire. I had never seen the show and he swore by it. He cited a bunch of people saying that it was the most realistic depiction of gang/drug activity in the inner city and that Harvard even offered a course that was dedicated to watching and discussing The Wire. I replied that it doesn't matter how accurate the depiction of The Wire is, because it's one thing to watch a TV show, an hour's length at a time, and quite another to live the actual life.

What people forget in the process is that television, even the most accurate portrayals, is about showing the most interesting aspects of human life in a condensed time frame. Nobody would ever watch a show that was just a guy holding a camera and filming the lives of inner city drug dealers 24/7. Hours and hours would pass before anything remotely interesting would happen.

People forget the tedium and the monotony. In the movie Saving Private Ryan, arguably one of the greatest war films of all time, the opening scene depicts the invasion of Normandy and is about 20 minutes long in a movie with a running time of 169 minutes. Although it's only the first of many scenes depicting combat, it already eats up about an eighth of the film. In reality, no soldier will ever spend more than 5% of his time engaged in actual combat, even in the most ferocious of war zones.

The audience doesn't want a realistic depiction of anybody's life when they're watching a movie. If war films were true to life, three quarters of the scenes would be showing soldiers drilling, marching, and sleeping. The running joke for the show 24 is that Jack Bauer never uses the restroom in the entire course of the day (or conveniently does it off-screen when the show cuts to another character's scene).

And this is why it's useless for lauding The Wire for being extremely realistic. Yes, it is realistic in depicting a very tiny slice of street life, but the average day of a drug dealer consists of standing around on a street corner for hours at a time, sleeping, and watching TV. Although the show heavily implies all of this, it can't show it in real time. Which is why the audience can never fully appreciate "life on the streets" just by watching The Wire. You can portray certain aspects of life accurately, but you can never portray life accurately, unless you create a show that nobody is going to want to watch.

That is one of the things that always bothered me about the lavish praise that the media bestowed on the show. It's a weird feeling you get when you read about a bunch of upper middle class white journalists and writers figuratively high fiving each other because they appreciate a certain TV show. What they're really high fiving is their own privilege. They don't live in the ghetto and they would never visit the ghetto on their own time, but by golly they'll watch shows about the ghetto and then say it's the greatest thing since color TV.

I've brought up Macklemore before in one of my other posts. And I referenced a portion of the song's lyrics. But immediately after that bit, there's another lyric coupling (bolded below) worth talking about:
Or Rodney King was getting beat on
And they let off every single officer
And Los Angeles went and lost it
Now every month there is a new Rodney on Youtube
It's just something our generation is used to
And neighborhoods where you never see a news crew
Unless they're gentrifying, white people don't even cruise through
This is essentially what happened with The Wire. Because the media is overwhelmingly white and upper middle class, they naturally focus on things that appeal to white upper middle class people. When it comes to their opinions on TV shows, food, politics, and culture in general, they only represent a small subset of America's preferences, but it's what dominates the front pages of the newspapers and magazines we read.

A show like Mad Men gets disproportionately large media coverage while a show like The Big Bang Theory gets almost no coverage despite it being one of the most highly rated TV shows in the US. The reason why is because the upper middle class loves Mad Men and dislikes The Big Bang Theory (for the record, I seriously dislike The Big Bang Theory as well).

These are the blinds of privilege. Where members of the upper middle class talks about the things they want to talk about while everybody else reluctantly listens in or tunes them out completely. And if they do the latter, we'll sneer about their fixation with sports news or celebrity gossip. 


  1. The Wire is a great show. If not the greatest. Its realism is part of it, but the writing, acting and direction are what set it apart. It's a unique show that did a great job of not relying on cheap Hollywood tricks.

    1. I feel the same away about Friday Night Lights, but I'm not going to pretend that I came away with a deep understanding of how small town Texas high school football really is. That's the point I'm trying to get at.