Pop Culture

Mansplaining and Nickelodeon’s Diversity “Problem”

This week in White Male Oppression (™) is author Mathew (yes, one “T”) Klickstein who is here to tell us all about the problem with diversity.

Mathew Klickstein has a diversity problem. In his documenting of late 80s, early 90s Nickelodeon nostalgia in Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, Klickstein has identified TV shows that are were groundbreaking in the ways they catered to kids. In a Flavorwire interview that documented the abrupt end (or complete tonal shift) of a publicity run, Klickstein mansplained his way through why The Adventures of Pete and Pete was super underrated, and why no one would ever be nostalgic for shows like Taina because they just weren’t good enough.

To just shove it in there because, “Uh-oh, we need diversity,” is silly and a little disgusting. It needs to be the best people working on the best shows. They happen to be white, that’s a shame. They happen to be all guys, that’s a shame. No one says this about sports — they do sometimes, the owners — but sorry, that most basketball, football players happen to be black. That’s just the way that it is. Publishing, too! You might not like this or care, but it’s very hard to be a man in the publishing world. No one talks about that. My agent: woman. My editor: woman. My publicist: woman. The most successful genre is young adult novels — 85% of which are written by women. That discussion doesn’t really come up when it’s the other way around.  It is 2014 now. It’s not 1995. Political correctness needs to change.

Ah, the old “political correctness” complaint. A favorite for the same people who advocate for traditional values and other coded conservative buzzwords. As anyone who advocates for representation in the media is well aware of, anytime someone starts complaining about diversity, they usually manage to prove exactly why diversity is needed. Flavorwire’s Pilot Viruet bravely attempted to redirect the questions and probe about the popularity of shows like Clarissa Explains it All, to try to complicate Klickstein’s one-track nostalgia train for Pete & Pete, which Klickstein deflected by pointing out that Clarissa was a “girls show,” and TV writing now is done by women. It is very difficult to take these blanket claims even remotely seriously when any person who knows anything about TV knows that this is patently untrue. There are certainly not massive amounts of women writers behind the TV scenes, and the Internet only has as many female writers as it does because hypothetically anyone with Internet access can be a writer on the Internet. However, the dominant voices of pop culture TV blogging (your Buzzfeed, Gawker, Vulture) all have a fairly large majority of male writers, so I wouldn’t yet start ringing the alarm about a crisis in male TV writer representation, Klickstein.

As the interview (which I highly recommend reading) with Klickstein unravels, it exemplifies a crisis in white male identity that is deeply tied to nostalgia. When whiteness is the default for both decades of television and the pioneering 90s kids’ television, why wouldn’t male whiteness be the default? As national demographics shift and the TV landscape slowly diversifies to match, the overall rhetoric and dominance of nostalgia is further complicated by a perceived shift in power and loss of said power by white men. Klickstein and men like him use this nostalgia to refer back to the good ol’ days when whiteness was stably centered as the default for everything, including television representation. These men use diversity as an example of the purported struggle of white men in society, and in doing so, they fail to recognize their own privileges and power in comparison to these diverse groups.

Klickstein is extremely careful in his selection of television shows to be nostalgic of, or rather the shows he is most vocal about in his nostalgia. Klickstein maintains that the quality of the Pete and Pete and You Can’t Do That on Television are just better, though he never explains why. The absurdist comedy that underscored both, and the former’s musical ties, definitely make them shows unlike any before on television. However, the same arguments about the sketch comedy and music collaborations could be applied to All That. How else do you explain these sketches?

All That highlighted a much more diverse cast than its predecessors and the musical guests skewed more Pop and R&B, as opposed to the Indie/Alt Rock stylings of Pete and Pete, which may not have been as celebrated because well… music writing isn’t a very diverse place.

Klickstein’s staunch defense of shows with white male leads and easy, casual criticism of anything different underscores the problem with empathy that comes with centuries of white as default. Klickstein can’t see how white kids (therefore all) could empathize with an Indian character, but he could easily see the reverse. The Hairpin’s Jazmine Hughes touched upon the crux of Klickstein’s problems:

He’s made it despite the odds, so he’s unconcerned with inconsequential matters such as representation. We should all be able to relate to white people: it’s easy! He does it every day!

Unlike Klickstein, I am extremely nostalgic for shows like Taina, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, and All That because the actors looked more like me and had actual complexity and character depth (aka were not a token like Danny on Hey Dude, who Klickstein cites as an example of diversity). It’s not terribly surprising that a white male author remains defiant that the racial and gender diversity led to a supposed decline in quality. The same shows that he laments the loss of, Hey Dude and The Adventures of Pete and Pete, never stuck with me as much as the later shows that had characters who looked like me.

Shows like Taina, and Shelby Woo, and even shows on UPN and WB like Sister, Sister and Smart Guy, appealed more to me because those kids looked like me. They looked like my neighbors. They looked like my friends. Shelby and Taina’s navigating of their home cultures, their individual aspirations, and their immigrant dreams struck a chord with me that likely did not mean anything to Klickstein. I would also like to point out that a bulk of the kids who came of age in the late 90s and early 2000s that Klickstein caters to in his nostalgia trip had to carefully cultivate their TV tastes to find shows that reflected their lives, often venturing out of the Nickelodeon bubble. We flipped between ABC’s Family Matters, UPN’s Moesha, Nick’s The Brothers Garcia, and Hey Arnold just to keep finding (real and animated) faces that looked like ours.

Last year I attended the “Double Dare We Say It – A Nickelodeon Historical Celebration” at the 92nd Y (which is happening again this year). If ever you wanted to know how much was too much nostalgia, it would be about 7 panels and 3 hours worth. I love The Beets as much as the next 90s kid, but there is a line. There were panels about Double Dare, Doug, Ren & Stimpy, Are You Afraid of the Dark, and Clarissa, with producers and cast members from those shows, all moderated by Klickstein. Billy West came out to talk as Doug, and I nearly cried. Everyone in the audience was just excited to be in the same room as Marc Summers that most of them were willing to overlook the awkward misogynistic comments Summers made about his costar. The sheen of nostalgia definitely overshadowed any space for mild criticism. I was definitely one of the people who was overwhelmingly enamored of being in that auditorium, even if at times I internally side-eyed everything around me.

The problem with Klickstein and a great section of nostalgia writing in general is that it is inherently tied to individual experiences. Klickstein’s failure to acknowledge the limitations of his worldview and his ability to empathize is intrinsically tied to his middle class white masculinity, the same middle class white masculinity that underscores all facets of American life. His understanding of “diversity” is tied to his own identity but he doesn’t see that. Klickstein would never have the issues of representation that most children outside the white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual norm face. The relationship between his idea of “quality programming” and of his own identity is essential to understanding how nostalgia is created, and how this whole interview debacle came about. Klickstein will probably never realize that because he doesn’t have to.

Editor’s note: Mathew Klickstein’s event associated with New York Comic Con’s Super Week has now been canceled. Too bad, so sad.

By Karishma

Karishma is a twenty-something living in New York City and is trying her hardest to live out every cliche about Millennials. This involves eating her feelings, drowning in debt and mocking infomercials. She likes sociology so much that she has two degrees in it, and is still warding off her parents' questions about a real career.

3 replies on “Mansplaining and Nickelodeon’s Diversity “Problem””

Normally, I’d eye roll and move on, but I’m NOT in the mood to put up with this bull today. I’m gonna focus on the whole “it’s disrespectful to have a character be a non-WASP male in unless there’s a REASON” thing because seriously-WTF?! I’m not upset that Wallenstein on “Big Band Theory” is Jewish (I’m Jewish )even though there’s no real reason for it and actually, that in NOT how the Jewish mother thing works, you’d think Hollywood would know that, but I digress.

I’m a substitute teacher, so I’ve seen hundreds of kids over the past 3 years and there are plenty of students who look like whatever ethnicity but talk the same, dress the same, read the same books, and eat the same food as the “white” students. The only signifiers that they are Indian/Russian/Central American/whatever are the color of their skin and sometimes their names.

Also, to attribute the popularity of Clarissa to Sabrina? Seriously? Fairly certain that Sabrina was intended to capitalize on the Clarissa fans looking for a more “grown-up” show.

Now I’m going to go ice my eyeballs-I think I pulled something with all the eye rolling I just did.

What a surprise, white male is narrowminded. (I take great pleasure from calling “them” males. Sane men are men).

The sad thing is that this is not a very old man. That I can’t explain to my 84 year old grandfather about feminism, sexism and racism ..okay, a small loss. But this guy can still pick up so many bloody opportunities to learn. But he won’t, because he’s comfortable where he is. Urgh.

Leave a Reply