As someone who studies southern culture, I’ve recently written a lot about depictions of the South in television and film. Usually I’m arguing that outsiders get a skewed perspective of the South. But now it’s time to turn the tables and admit that most of my perceptions of New York City come from television. I’ve only just started thinking about New York in terms of popular media, and I know my views here are limited because I haven’t searched for films or series about the city in the ways that I sometimes seek out popular media about the South. But generally speaking, what kind of skewed perception has this outsider consumed?
It started when I was a teenager with the movie Kids and the television show Friends—two very different depictions of the city. Kids’ bleak narrative charts destructive teen behavior and the dire consequences of that life; the city is portrayed as a place that nurtures the corruption of youth. On the other hand, Friends portrays the city as a lovely meeting place for twenty-somethings to imbibe giant cups of coffee and laugh about their misadventures. For me, NYC on the screen seems to be “either/or”: either beloved portraits like Party Girl, Sex and the City, or How I Met Your Mother or slightly darker (and perhaps deeper) depictions like Mad Men or the new HBO series Girls. However, one thing that all of these series or films have in common (at least for the most part, perhaps Kids excepted): they focus on mostly privileged white people. If I were only judging from what I saw on television (and I’m purposefully leaving out Spike Lee here), I’d believe New York to be a haven for rich, hip, young white people who occasionally get into serious life troubles. Maybe this is reality?
But of course the opposite is true when you’re visiting: the diversity is incredible—diversity in ethnicities, classes, ages, sexualities (much like my home region, which on screen is often portrayed as dumb, poor, and white). New York City is not filled with only Don Drapers, Caspers, or Hannahs, which makes it a true global melting pot, a city identity full of varying identities. While the big screen often makes this city look like either a friend-filled utopia OR a haven for destructive types, the reality is much more diverse and complex, as is often the case when considering fiction v. reality. Still, I’m left wondering: why can’t we build a little more of this complexity into our entertainment? Does mainstream pop culture have to be flat and “either/or”?