Jason Tseng

90210: Black people don't live in Beverly Hills, Silly!

Filed By Jason Tseng | September 06, 2008 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: African-American, pop culture, race, racism, teen, the CW

I admit it. I love trashy teen television. This will probably show my age a little more than I care for... but mine is a generation that grew up on 7th Heaven, Dawson's Creek, Felicity, Gilmore Girls, and the like. I've wasted more of my life on Charmed than I would care to admit... but there is something about the over-sentimentality of the Camdens, the long-winded monologue conversations between Dawson and Joey, the campiness of the Halliwell sisters, and the lightning-quick witticism and pop culture references of the Rory and Lorelei that continue to draw me back. (I neglect to include Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this list, because while it definitely falls within the purview of primetime teen drama... Buffy is art, a pure chef d'oeuvre of pop; and Joss Whedon is my personal god of all things pop culture.)

One fixture in American popular culture that I never had the opportunity to partake in was Beverly Hills: 90210. I've been told I missed out on the television show of my generation (although I hardly blame myself for missing out, considering I was four when the show premiered. At age four, my television regimen included Barney and My Little Pony). Naturally, with the media hooplah over 90210, the relaunched "sequel" of the beloved series, my interests were peeked and I looked forward to recapture my teenage years swooning and cringing in front of the television over the unrealistic but thoroughly cathartic misadventures of television teens.

90210_320x240.jpgWhile I'm withholding judgment on the series as a whole (I thoroughly believe a show needs ample time to shake out it's wings before it can really soar. case in point: Buffy season 1), I was struck by the racial make up of the cast. Out of a cast of 10 main characters, there was a total of 1 real non-white character, Dixon Wilson (I hardly feel like I can mention Navid Shirazi, as his character is very much a side character and barely gets screentime in the two hour premier). And on top of that, Dixon, the lone black guy in this cornucopia of rich white kids isn't even from a black family. He's adopted by rich white people. Give CW a frakin' humanitarian award.

The one black character they're able to squeeze into this elite clique of Beverly Hill-ers, and he's barely black.

Does anyone else think there's something slightly wrong about this picture? Now, 90210 is far from the only television show to exclude non-white folks from their cast lists. Some of my favorite shows have scant mention or appearances of non-white people. And when they do appear, they're frequently stereotypical (The Asian nerd, the Black thug, the Latino landscaper, etc.). But usually when non-white characters are portrayed, they at least have some kind of cultural connection to these communities being represented.

I find it strange that Dixon, who was adopted and raised by white folk, is portrayed with a distinctive "Black" performance in his speech and mannerisms. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but as I was watching the premier with my flatmate, we actually couldn't tell if Dixon and his adoptive sister, were indeed siblings or simply chummy. They were raised by the same parents, why the odd choice in disparate racial performance?

We still have yet to see how Dixon's character will play out. Whether or not the issue of race will be addressed in his character. It would be interesting if the show writers explored the cultural crisis a racially marked kid raised by white people might experience. But so far, it's a strange choice with even more chilling social commentary.


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Jason, I am also a huge Whedon fan. Firefly is the best thing ever and it was too smart for Fox!

Bruce Parker Bruce Parker | September 6, 2008 7:08 PM

Wow! Adopted by Rich White People (shakes head). I will probably still watch the show.

I mean if it half as interested as Chuck Bass and Blair Waldorf, who could help themselves?

Actually Jason, you touched on a point that's been discussed by some African-Americans, adoption of our kids by white Americans.

The reality is that since we make less money than white Americans, even if a Black couple wants to step up and adopt a Black child, the income thresholds that are used by adoption agencies are skewed towards white income levels, resulting in Black kids being adopted by white parents.

One of the negative consequences is that they don't get the cultural armoring in their youth that helps them navigate racism in this country, since whites are still basically in denial that racism exists and try to raise them in a 'colorblind' fashion.

http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/wayoflife/05/27/tranracial.adoption.ap/index.html

That's fascinating, Monica. I would never have thought of it.

I agree with you to a large extent, Monica, but there are thousands of Black children in our country who are waiting for adoption, many in our foster care system, who will languish in the system unless adopted by non-Black families. If the Black community wants to see racial purity (oh, boy - am i going to hear it on *that* phrase!) in the adoption process, it needs to step up to the plate and start putting forth more adoptive families for the kids that are in the system waiting for a home. I was a foster parent for many years, and saw many many kids whose birth families had failed them, of all races. My ex and I adopted several kids out of the system; one Caucasian and one Native American. She has since adopted a Black child as well. But in the years that I spent in the system, there was a noticeable dearth of Black foster parents coming into the system.

And Jason, you are 100% correct on Joss - he is a GOD!! Although if you are going to question racial diversity in teen programming, you have to admit that the Scooby Gang was pretty vanilla. Firefly mixed things up a bit more, thankfully.

*Bows his head in memory of Wash*

"I am a leaf on the wind."

I am happy to wallow in the Wash love with you!

Yeah, I very much agree that Buffy suffered the same white-exclusive cast as many other teen dramas, which I tried to allude to with:

Now, 90210 is far from the only television show to exclude non-white folks from their cast lists. Some of my favorite shows have scant mention or appearances of non-white people.

No text, be it TV teen drama, performance art, or novel, is perfect. Everything is problematic... but I'm a firm believer in not throwing out the baby with the bath water. I was discussing Buffy with an acquaintence recently and she asserted that the show was horribly racist, Whedon was racist and classist and the whole thing should be burned.

Whoooaaa... Hold on there sistah! While Buffy might have been lacking in a really ethnically diverse cast, it did a lot of good. Especially with taking sexist conventions in American pulp horror and reversing them, empowering the female victim to become the kickass slayer in all of us.

So, just I'll treat 90210 the same way. Point out the lack of ethnic diversity and wait to see how the rest of the show develops. Although, I don't have high expectations... I mean, I didn't watch the first incarnation of the series, but I don't ever remember anyone telling me about Beverly Hills: 90210 pushing and boundaries where equality was concerned.

I never watched the original 90210, nor am I likely to watch this incarnation. Given the genre and the network, I wouldn't have held high hopes for any sort of racial diversity from it.

As to The-Wonderfulness-That-Is-Buffy, we can at least give Josh a token of credit for inter-species relationships - if you allow for vampires as a separate species! :)

AND... copious amounts of lesbian canoodling. I really loved how Willow and Tara's relationship was the moral and emotional bedrock of the scoobies, especially for Dawn and her Two mommies.

And if it makes anything better, Joss has infused the canonical Buffy Season 8 Comic series with PLENTY of non-white characters... Buffy even has a fling with a japanese fellow slayer!

Jason, were you a fan of the OC while it was on the air? I just LOVED the Cohen!

Sadly, I never got into the whole OC fanwave that rushed through America. I believe, at the time, I was too enamored with Gilmore Girls to care that much about spoiled rich beautiful white kids and their problems. Although, now I watch Gossip Girl... so I have no moral high ground in this category!

A character like that would be great in conjunction with other black characters, like Lynn in Girlfriends (I'm totally the same way you are about teen drama, except about sitcoms!).