Grotesque Portrayals Of Racism Are Making Things Worse, Not Better

By Gwen Farrell
·  6 min read
them amazon race in film Grotesque Portrayals Of Racism Are Making Things Worse, Not Better

Lately, entertainment companies have taken it upon themselves to integrate many social themes we encounter in real life into their fictional programming, including depictions and plotlines based on the racial unrest our country has been examining for the past few years. But race depiction in entertainment is making things much worse for us — not better.

At a minimum, these include the stereotypical portrayals of white people, whether in positions as oppressors or in narratives that reinforce savior agendas, but furthermore, these include extremely disturbing depictions of black people, the majority of which use them as exploited devices without any agency. 

These narratives, fictional though they may be, do nothing to encourage healing or unity, but prey more upon vulnerability, weakness, and trauma.

Law and Order SVU Has Lost It

Admittedly, I’ve been a fan of SVU for years, but a catch-up on recently aired episodes did give me the impression that the quality of the show overall has gone down.

SVU famously uses real-life crimes as inspiration for their episodes, but a recent episode from this season entitled “Our Words Will Not Be Heard” seems to be a stark deviation from that mode of writing and more of a look into the twisted mind of someone who’s become altogether obsessed with the mainstream white supremacy narratives which dominate our media — to a terrifying degree.

As Mariska Hargitay’s Det. Olivia Benson simultaneously works with her department’s internal affairs bureau to bring about more justice and acknowledgment of police brutality to the NYPD, a white disabled woman and her black girlfriend are kidnapped by two white men, who livestream their assault on the internet.

law and order svu victims

It’s later revealed that the persons responsible for the kidnap and assault are members of a white supremacist group. As SVU’s detectives and the public watch helplessly, the group livestreams the abduction and “auctions off” the further assault and implied murder of the black woman that they kidnapped to their followers. 

Of course, she’s rescued at the last possible second but that doesn’t seem to be the main takeaway. What kind of mindset are we encouraging if our television content tells us to walk down the street wary of every individual who doesn’t look like us? What kind of message — and a horribly distorted, overblown one at that — do we send when we box in all white people as racists (even our protagonist Olivia is depicted as one whether she likes it or not) and rapists and kidnappers, and black people as completely powerless and vulnerable at their hands? It’s not even a seemingly realistic plot at that, but SVU is just the tip of the iceberg. 

law and order svu nypd

You would think that we as a culture would be talking about a black woman being kidnapped and assaulted by a pair of white nationalists, with her fate held in the hands of their fellow white supremacists. In fact, I’m certain that had something like that actually happened, we’d definitely be talking about it, and rightfully so. But we’re not, because it didn’t happen. In fact, a writer had to intentionally imagine a plot so disturbing — and so devoid of reality — which is only half of why this episode is so ridiculous. 

Amazon’s Them: An Exercise in Black Trauma Porn

From almost the very beginning, Amazon’s series Them, from celebrated black creators Lena Waithe and Little Marvin, was blasted for being too gratuitously violent. But that’s not all. 

Although many viewers in the target audience had genuine concerns about “Hollywood’s obsession with black trauma,” those concerns turned to full-on rage and warranted criticism once people actually saw what kind of plotlines Them had devised.

them the family reading together

The series, meant to be season one of an anthology, focuses on the Emory family, who move from rural North Carolina to Compton, Los Angeles in 1953. But that’s where all historical accuracy begins to deviate from the show. The family encounters subtle and overt examples of racism in their white-dominated neighborhood, coupled with supernatural forces at work in their own house.

Once viewers finished the series, the real criticism began in earnest. The general consensus was that the show takes its portrayals of racism and violence way, way too far. Further criticism has branded the series as one of the most overt examples of “black trauma porn.” Trauma porn is a ploy often utilized by writers and content creators (like Waithe and Marvin) which serves to exploit a vulnerable group and subject them to inhuman, unrealistic, and often debasing and exploitative treatment for the purpose of “entertainment.”

them sitting in the car

The most blatant example of this occurs in Them’s episode five where we learn why the Emory family left North Carolina. Show creator Little Marvin admits this plot point — where wife and mother Lucky Emory is raped while her child is murdered in the next room by a group of white home invaders — is in no way based on real life or real historic events. But he felt he had to include it anyway.

I’ll spare you a description of what actually takes place in the episode. Critic Brandon Keith Avery calls it “nauseating” (and I wholeheartedly recommend watching his review on the series to gain his valuable perspective), and it’s probably the most twisted, disturbing thing we as viewers could ever experience. And what purpose does it actually serve? 

them through the glass door

Is This the Best We Can Do?

To be fair, shows or movies portraying seamless racial reconciliation would probably be blasted as unrealistic or gross misrepresentations of reality. But are these narratives really the best we can do?

Them and SVU may have themes somewhat taken from reality. But overall, these plots are the entirely fictional machinations of content creators and writers with an agenda. But that agenda isn’t for empowerment, unity, growth, or any genuine, lasting form of progress. 

These shows, and other content like them, are as low as we can possibly get. They’re not for black audiences or even for white audiences. They’re exploitative, and in nearly all situations, remove agency and empowerment from the black subjects, who are portrayed not even as protagonists but rather as eternal victims. Meanwhile, the white antagonists are not just the bad guys or even complex characters. They’re purveyors of destruction and the most disgusting embodiment of violence imaginable. And there’s no deviation in either category. We’re boxed in and forced to play an unrealistic part for audiences. 

They’re exploitative, and in nearly all situations, remove agency and empowerment from the black subjects.

While the aesthetics may seem appealing (and there’s commentary out there on race and racism that’s inarguably well done — Get Out, for example) these kinds of productions are merely poor caricatures of the stereotypes which have long been employed by our culture to our own detriment.

Closing Thoughts 

There’s nothing entertaining whatsoever about trauma. Aside from that glaring issue, there’s also nothing entertaining about narratives that rely on tired, exhausted tropes for that matter.

We remove To Kill a Mockingbird and other classic novels from elementary schools for portraying accurate, historical depictions of racism... then we turn around and sit on our couches for hours of content like the aforementioned examples. 

Gratuitous violence, paired with gross exaggerations and hyperbolic stereotypes of race should not be deemed “entertainment” but should always be called out as what they actually are — lazy, exploitative tropes with nothing of genuine substance to communicate to our already fractured, damaged culture. 

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