Hollywood award shows are unbearable to watch. For hours on end, a parade of attractive people who make their living on camera and equally unattractive people who make their living behind cameras mawkishly preen in feigned humility. Yet, watch we do.
We want to think that these folks are like us; we invite them into our living rooms and see them jumbo-sized onscreen at the local cinemaplex. Not unlike the homecoming queen and football captain we admired from afar as teenagers, up close our matinee idols are so much smaller, dumber and usually meaner. They don’t respect us. They often hold us in contempt. Ask Julianne Moore and Jimmy Kimmel who at the Emmy’s cackled as they derided Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney and by inference the viewers who support them.
This year’s Emmy Awards showcased dramas, comedies, mini-series and talk shows, many sharing a common narrative. There is only one acceptable vision of America and if you don’t buy in, to paraphrase Sally Field, they don’t like you; they really, really, really, really don’t like you.
Without a doubt, television alienates the half of its audience who hold traditional views. But here’s the irony: In its zeal to be culturally correct, Hollywood has cynically labeled its idealized groups. For those who are hopelessly square—that is, hold nine-to-five jobs, have functional families, love handles and wrinkles, mortgage payments, and maybe attend religious services—television offers “American Idol,” “The Voice,” “Dancing with the Stars,” or demeaning trash like “Honey Boo Boo.” Gee, thanks. Lest you think all is rosy for minorities d’jour, think again. African-Americans, gays, Latinos or poor people fall prey to television’s “Julia” syndrome.
What is the “Julia” syndrome? Back in the bad old days, television shows gave us whitebread middle-class nuclear families with the occasional ethnic side-kick. In 1968, NBC introduced a light comedy starring Diahann Carroll as a pretty African-American professional woman—summarily tearing down the asexual servant profile that had existed up to that time. It was, along with Bill Cosby’s “I Spy,” a true breakthrough. Critics, however, lambasted “Julia” for its unrealistic image of black women, as Carroll herself acknowledged at the time, “We’re presenting the white Negro. And he has very little Negroness.”
Fast forward to 2012. As you would expect, conservatives are uniformly devalued as humorless small-minded bigots or in the case of the Emmy-winning Palin hatchet job “Game Change,” shrieking narcissists. Republican-hating numbskull Ellen Barkin plays a character on the show “The New Normal” that is—wink wink—a humorless small-minded bigoted Republican.
Yet “The New Normal” and others like “Modern Family,” “Glee” and “Partners” are quick to steep in two-dimensional representations of gays and Latinos. As gay fitness celebrity Davey Wavey said in 2010, “We’re not all white, not all flamboyant, not all catty, not all fashionable and not all ‘fabulous.’ But watching mainstream television, you’d be hard-pressed to know otherwise.”
“Modern Family’s” Colombian-born star Sofia Vergara sees no problem with being typecast. “We are yellers, we’re pretty, we’re sexy, and we’re scandalous,” she said in a Daily Beast interview. “I am not scared of the stereotypes.”
Maybe she should be. Forty-five years after “Julia,” television execs are still feeding us a junk-food diet of erudite urban gays, bombastic Latinos, repressed suburban women, and nerdy Asians. Meanwhile, the industry’s overt hatred of Middle-American culture goes unabated. Remember that the next time you’re inclined to endure another awards exhibition of self-congratulatory excess. Other than the craven winners mugging onstage, we all lose.