In a blog post entitled “Do You Know What Your Employees Are Watching?” from this past Friday, Harvard Business Review writer Grant McCracken isn’t exploring the latest way for employers to monitor what their employees do, he’s using the current television season to highlight business trends in corporations. Sort of.
McCracken’s thesis is that TV shapes corporate culture by exposing and influencing trends, which is a reasonable assumption. His statement about the value of television, “It’s a chance for marketing, HR and the C-suite to get its ears to the ground and eyes to the future,” while not worded exactly as I would have written it, has merit as well. His argument falls all to hell when he gets into the examples. To wit:
The rise of the African American hero continues. J.J. Abrams launched a show called UnderCovers. Both the stars are African-American, a casting decision unthinkable even 10 years ago. The trend: the growing influence of African American culture on American culture.
Well smack my ass and call me cheeky. According to Harvard, black culture isn’t a part of American culture, but thanks to white guy J.J. Abrams non-black Americans can finally understand. I also have a working theory that we’re moving backwards in terms of representing non-white families and individuals on television, wherein it was much more likely to see black characters as regular cast members or even program leads 20-30 years ago (although non-white characters were still severely under-represented) than it is now. No points for this one, McCracken.
Moving on, the post mentions how television is bringing other marginalized people to the mainstream thusly:
TV continues to investigate changes in our culture. A critical and popular success, the comedy Modern Family looks at a gay family and an inter-ethnic one. Mike & Molly features two stars (and characters) who are by most standards markedly overweight. Cougar Town looks at, well, mature women on the prowl. Showtime now acts as a kind of cultural laboratory, imagining what the world would look like if more changes happened (The Big C, and Weeds). The trend: our culture continues to de-stigmatize people it used to stigmatize. TV picks this up and plays it out.
Oh, McCracken. Modern Family has broken a lot of TV taboos, and it does it very well. We’ll give McCracken a point for this one. He loses us with Mike & Molly, which as best I can tell is twenty-two minutes of fat jokes once a week. Fat jokes, contrary to our Harvard man’s theory, actually don’t do anything to de-stigmatize fat people. They de-stigmatize fat jokes. Cougar Town isn’t actually about mature women on the prowl, but the show does allow women over 40 to be funny and real people. I’m not sure at all where he was going with his Big C and Weeds points, I’m pretty sure both cancer and slinging weed have been around for awhile, and we’re not really in the habit in this country of stigmatizing pretty white ladies, even if they have cancer or act as the dope connection.
I believe McCracken’s post was a toss-off, something written in a hurry to fill up blog space. With that in mind it would be easy to dismiss his article as fluff, but I think that’s irresponsible. Fluff pieces may not be framing research papers or fueling massive social change, but the things we say casually can often reflect a lot more of our personal truths than we realize.