The need to fit in pervades most people’s childhoods, but particularly ethnic, religious and racial minorities. This is urged on by a lot of the content on TV — white faces dominate the cast from Friends to Game of Thrones, so even if these characters looked or talked nothing like you, you’re convinced that it’s you who’s the odd one out, the one who needs to change and fit in.
Admittedly, there’s still a lot more work to be done, but TV shows are finally becoming more diverse and representative of people from all backgrounds, and paying attention to real, modern contradictions experienced by people everyday.
Master of None sees Aziz Ansari’s character try to reconcile his guilt of self-indulgence, and the hardship his parents went through in immigrating to the States from India. Insecure tackles a range of contradictions present in any 20 something today, be it to do with identity, race, work, or relationships. In Donald Glover’s brilliant Atlanta, we meet Paper Boi, a gangster rapper who wants to discourage kids in the neighbourhood from the violence he condones in his music.
Contradictions of second-generation immigrant
“Can I just do it later? I gotta go see this X-Men movie and I don’t want to miss the trailers,” Dev, the lead in Master of None tells his father. An ominous look clouds over the parent’s face, as he holds his new iPad that he needs Dev’s help with, and we’re shown (in appropriate sepia-tones) himself making the difficult move to the US from India, enduring racism from his first employers, and finally giving Dev their house’s first ever computer.
The episode ‘Parents’ is filled with scenes just as hilarious and sharp, and rarely has this contradiction, that no doubt resides in every child of an immigrant — living a pampered life, and recognising its disparity to that of their parents’ — been shown in such realistic mundanity. As second-generation immigrant, lines from my daily internal monologues were laughingly repeated back to me, and the burden was undeniably reduced.
Biases in a so-called ‘liberal’ workplace
Like Dev, Issa of HBO’s Insecure also deals with a plate of modern inner contradictions recognisable in many 20 somethings: advocating for gender equality while having different standards for men and women; forgiving yourself but not your friend when you make the same mistakes; struggling to change between two personas, one for work and one for our private lives. But the way she juggles staying true to her identity as a black woman, against the bias negatively attributed to her by her mostly white coworkers, deserves exceptional praise.
Issa works for a nonprofit called We Got Y’all, which helps underprivileged, mostly racial minority kids in LA. She is often pointing out the damaging (and hilariously obvious) stereotypes proposed by her self-proclaimed liberal coworkers — that the kids should develop their sporting potential; that they would enjoy a visit to an exhibition about African art. But her white boss, who brings up James Baldwin at any chance and dresses in traditional Kenyan garb, tells her that she’s not doing enough, while her coworkers disincluded her in an email thread discussing a project she started.
Still, with all her insecurities, Issa succeeds at work by proposing a benefit fundraiser to be at a mansion in their local Baldwin Hills instead of Malibu, so the kids can see that “there’s beauty in their own backyards.” She demonstrates the delicate maneuver between keeping things professional and ‘politically correct’ at work, while standing firm for what’s right, even when no one is on her team.
Gangster rapper as role model
We meet a character just as emotionally intelligent and complex in Donald Glover’s Atlanta. Gangster rapper Paper Boi struggles with issues from mental health to online trolling, but a scene in episode two of season one illustrates his most delicate and puzzling internal contradiction — though he is involved in drug dealing and ‘authentic’ gangster rapper ways, he is overcome with guilt when he sees neighbourhood kids shooting each other with a toy gun, proclaiming to be “just like Paper Boi”.
Their mother tells thems off, while Paper Boi interjects, revealing his true identity to add more weight to his point when he says “Shooting people isn’t cool”. But then the mother, realising that he is a rapper on the radio, switches and asks for a selfie, disregarding the fact that he was the cause of her child’s violent play. This makes Paper Boi even more frustrated, though he can’t help but enjoy the fame. Atlanta triumphs when it gives traditionally stereotyped characters nuanced, sensitive personalities, showing that people, no matter their backgrounds, have relatable experiences.
“Consistency is the playground of dull minds,” Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, wrote when discussing cognitive dissonance as a vital asset of the human psyche. Struggling daily with these internal catch-22s is important, as it makes us who we are, but when they’re reflected on TV shows, it’s a powerful release of a weight we carry around inside.