New Girl is, in many ways, one of the freshest, funniest sitcoms on TV right now — it has even been called the millennial generation’s Friends. And while that comparison is fairly apt, one big difference between the two shows is that New Girl features two principal characters — Cece and Winston — who are not white.
You’d think that having two characters of color on a mainstream sitcom would be a positive thing when it comes to portraying the real experiences of most members of our generation, who certainly do not live in the whitewashed world portrayed on Friends and other shows of its time. However, as Raj on The Big Bang Theory has taught us in spades, having a non-white character does not keep a show from being pretty darn racist. And while it’s refreshing to see a more accurate depiction of the diversity of real friend groups, especially in a major metropolis like Los Angeles, New Girl falls prey to all kinds of racist, essentialist tropes.
First, there’s Winston. Setting aside the fact that the show’s creators just replaced one black character with another when Damon Wayans, Jr. bowed out to continue his role on Happy Endings, there are all kinds of issues with Winston’s character. Winston is a former competitive basketball player (because of course, black men are good at sports and not much else) who, in the first season and a half or so, has trouble finding his way after realizing he’ll never go pro in the United States. The biggest issue with Winston is that, while the other, whiter characters have well-developed relationship and career arcs, as well as identifiable and defining characteristics, Winston just sort of flits around in the background, getting into zany scrapes while the rest of the loft-dwellers live their much more finely drawn lives.
I’ll give the show’s writers the benefit of the doubt, to an extent — maybe Winston’s aimlessness as a character has nothing to do with his race. But the few times his blackness has been addressed, as in the episode where Schmidt tries to help Winston be his “blackest self” (and agrees to smoke crack in the process) the plot line is so absurd, so over-the-top, and indeed so white-centric (Schmidt becomes the centerpiece, rather than Winston) that the show never comes close to having a genuine, frank, or remotely enlightening discussion of race. It’s all just silliness, and Schmidt, other than a couple of moments of entirely racist fear, never learns his lesson. He is allowed to continue to be “charmingly” racially insensitive with few, if any, consequences.
The show’s writers seem ham-fisted when it comes to writing nuanced, emotionally real plot lines for a black man. Instead, while the other characters love and lose and generally engage in the business of being human, Winston has hijinks that don’t connect episode to episode. And maybe that’s not exactly racist, but it does seem to be motivated by a general inability to craft story lines for a character outside the white, 30-something experience.
And then there’s Cece. Oh, Cece. You have the double whammy of being a woman of color on a mainstream network show, and what a whammy it is.
To talk about the incredibly problematic dual racialization and sexualization of Cece, let’s look at the episode, “Table 34.” In this episode, if you can believe it, Cece attends an Indian marriage convention. At this point in Cece’s arc, she’s realized that if she wants to get married and have children, she needs to start right away, because her reproductive health is less than perfect (we learn this in “Eggs,” which is one of the better episodes in the season, especially when it comes to the very real fears many women have about their ability to conceive). Schmidt, who is still in love with Cece, follows her to the convention, wearing, of course, a jeweled turban, and enlists the rest of the loft to come along. So here we are — three white roommates and one black one at an Indian marriage convention. No way could this be a racial land mine, right?
To its mild credit, the show pokes fun at Schmidt for his racism — the more ostentatious touches, like the turban and Schmidt calling another man at the convention “M. Night Shyamalan” are clearly tongue-in-cheek. What is less funny even than those fairly un-funny race jokes is the fact that Cece, in this and pretty much every episode of the show, is treated as an “exotic” sex object rather than a full-fledged woman.
She is smitten, against her better judgment and, I'd argue, against her agency, with a man who calls her things like “brown angel” (I’m not kidding) and makes speeches defending her honor about how her whole country is full of idiots. At the end of the episode, when Schmidt makes said speech to the whole convention, complete with references to Kal Penn and Indians sitting on the roofs of buses, does Cece react with disgust to his absurd, over-the-top, totally unforgivable racism? No. She thinks it’s sweet, and she sleeps with him.
Since Cece is not a real person, we can’t blame her for her actions. Who we can blame are the idiots who thought that, in 2013, it was still funny to use race as a punch line and get away with it. There are times when racial humor can be edgy and even funny, getting at the meat of a tough issue in ways that more scholarly and serious approaches just can’t achieve. But New Girl isn't doing any breaking of ground here. It’s just giving us another sexy brown girl to congratulate ourselves for fantasizing about. “I can’t be racist — I think Hannah Simone is totally hot,” we tell ourselves. “They’re just jokes,” we tell ourselves. “It’s stupid and oversensitive to be offended.”
Well, I’m a white woman, and so I obviously have no place telling people who are not white women what to be offended by (actually, I have no business telling anybody what should offend them — that’s the individual’s call). But I can tell you that I squirm every time Schmidt describes his and Cece’s sex as “1,000 years of colonial suffering all released in one moment of pure ecstasy.”
I feel uncomfortable when Cece is treated as a pretty, exotic plaything by her lover. I feel affronted when both Winston and Cece are either sidelined or made the butt of “edgy” jokes, while the white characters get the bulk of the emotional heft of the show. And I feel like, in 2013, we should be able to do better than this.