I watch a lot of US and Canadian television directed at the 12-18 set. A lot. More than you’ve had hot dinners. There’s a construction that comes up again and again: there’s a main character, who is of a conventional nuclear family, and also two best friends with racial backgrounds different to the main character’s own. The name of the game is social inclusion, and, having just finished up watching the run of Lizzie McGuire (2001-2004) and starting on season two of How to be Indie (2009-present), I’ve some thoughts on how this plays out.
I’ve one word for how it’s done on Lizzie McGuire: ham-fistedly. Lizzie’s a white girl with blonde hair, minor problems which often revolve around her annoying little brother Matt, and a comfortable middle class life. In the first season, after we’ve had the cultural otherness of her best friends firmly established, there’s an episode in which Lizzie has to complete a school project on her family history. She doesn’t know it, and her parents are a bit vague, too: her mother has ancestors from a mix of European nations, and her father thinks he’s descended from Protestant farmers. There’s a marked lack of knowledge about specific genealogy. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. What grates is that the genealogy that is known is represented in a way that tries to figure the McGuires’ whiteness as generically as possible, according to the norms of US whiteness. The McGuires’ cultural expressions are represented as normative, and there aren’t any more special episodes investigating the specificity of their whiteness.
Lizzie’s best friends, Miranda and Gordo, do not get the same treatment, oh no they do not. Miranda’s of Mexican descent, and you’d better believe the Halloween/Day of the Dead episode has a couple of monologues on her cultural traditions. Her cultural difference isn’t integrated into the show, but only emerges when it has to be pulled out for scare value, like in that episode, or for humour, like when the trio are contestants on a game show run in Spanish. The food in Gordo’s culture, which is an unspecified European Jewish one, is termed “exotic”. His culture is also pulled out for special occasions and then slotted back into nowhere. It was done quite beautifully in the episode in which he settles on a Bar Mitzvah as the best way to mark his growing up, but then the inevitable awkward nod at his Jewishness during the Christmas special is almost too awkward to contemplate. I’ve just watched it, so let me have a rant. Miranda’s off on a family holiday in Mexico, so Gordo takes the brunt of the othering. Mrs McGuire makes him traditional Hanukkah food – oh, he complains, he can’t escape from it all December. Does he mind participating in Christmas activities with the McGuires? Oh, of course not, he has pretty much mastered all things Hanukkah already. If there’s something worse than othering, it’s having the othered person operate as a mouthpiece legitimising that othering. Oh, and there’s special Jewish music that comes on when Gordo’s Jewishness is mentioned, just so you’re absolutely sure he’s Jewish.
Viewers are hit over the head with Miranda’s and Gordo’s otherness, essentially to show that Lizzie is down with those minority types. Of course, the white girl has to be the hero. The worst bit, however, was saved for Lanny, Matt’s black best friend. Lanny was silent through all his appearances, and relied on Matt to interpret his gestures and expressions for him. So, having the white kid speak for the comically silent black kid was pretty bad. It got worse, though, when Lanny left the show. Replacing him for a time as Matt’s companion was… a monkey. Yes, that’s right, they replaced a black child with a monkey. Basically the worst idea.
Pissed me off did the racial dynamics on that show, as much as I enjoyed it in other respects.
And that’s why it was so refreshing to encounter How to be Indie. It has a similar structure, with a main character, her family, and her two best friends. But it plays out very differently indeed. Between Indie’s family, her best friend Abi’s family, and many other characters, there’s a majority Asian cast. How rare is that in a Western TV show? Canadian children’s TV, oh how I like you. Minority experience in a Western culture becomes the norm, because that’s the norm for Indie. Rather than the kind of extra special othering holiday episodes we get with Lizzie, Indie takes the chance to push back on those kinds of experiences. The Thanksgiving episode in season one revolves around Indie’s outrage at a white reporter who insists on anticipating that Indie’s family’s celebration will be Exotic and Foreign. The show doesn’t explain Indie’s culture or associated terminology to viewers at all; it has to be accepted on its own terms. According to the Indie website, show creator Vera Santamaria came up with the show specifically because she hadn’t seen many brown families like hers on TV when she was growing up. That she’s pushing back against the very white conventions of children’s TV in the West clearly shows.
It’s the white best friend, Marlon, who is different. Like Lizzie, he’s not too sure about the specificities of his background, but it’s played for laughs. He’s so white that his mum made him a mayonnaise sandwich on white bread for the school’s cultural day. He’s so lacking any connection to a specific past outside of Canada that he makes up a country and history for his class presentation. He’s funny, and he’s playing into a recognised trope of heavily generalised whiteness, but his whiteness isn’t normalised in the context of the show. The experiences of Indian migrants in Canada is what’s made usual, Filipinas running a Chinese restaurant is what’s normal, and the show just runs with it. And in season two there’s an Asian boy as a love interest, which almost never happens! Plus, it’s a gloriously funny show, with really tight scripting.
In conclusion, doing racial difference in unorthodox ways makes better television. And How to be Indie is fabulous.