Dear White People
“The characters are remarkably self-absorbed. While it doesn’t make the show any less important, it does keep me from loving it wholeheartedly.”
Title: Dear White People
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creator: Justin Simien 👨🏾🇺🇸🌈
Writers: Justin Simien 👨🏾🇺🇸🌈 (10 eps), Leann Bowen 👩🏽🇺🇸 (10 eps), Njeri Brown 👩🏾🇺🇸 (10 eps), Chuck Hayward 👨🏾🇺🇸 (10 eps), and others
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
A plethora of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic can attest to the strength and timeliness of Dear White People. Black Americans are portrayed as more than Tyler Perry stereotypes or Oscar-bait tragedies; instead, we see the modern duality of having pride in one’s rich culture, even as its people continue to live and breathe discrimination on a daily basis.
Dear White People does fall short in one area: characterization. The majority of the students on this show are remarkably self-absorbed, and while it doesn’t make the show less well-written it does keep me from loving it wholeheartedly as I do series such as Atlanta, with its no-fucks-given guys who feel gritty and real, or Queen Sugar, with its soap opera divas and hunks who truly connect via old-fashioned drama. Overall, the cast of Dear White People are almost caricatures, anti-establishment students such as Sam or Reggie pitted against Clueless-type rich kids Coco and Troy. It’s such a strong show, don’t get me wrong—but it lacks a soul when its characters feel more like tokens than people.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Having a female lead in Samantha White, played by Logan Browning, should give Dear White People more of an edge. However, her characterization is wholly tangled up with her love life; platonic friendships take a backseat, only remembered when she’s in need of comforting from her boy troubles. While it’s believable watching teenagers prioritize flings over friendships, or for a drama to focus on romantic storylines, Dear White People reveals its subconscious bias in the slight differences in how they develop female vs. male characters:
- Sam is the main character who hosts a radio show titled Dear White People. She should be the most complex character; instead, little of her time is shown actually organizing, writing, or working, and much more of it stressing over men. Frustratingly, she prioritizes romance over friendships—a fact that’s painfully obvious in seeing how she treats Joelle’s steady support. Namely, by ditching her when on-again-off-again boyfriend, Gabe, or sidepiece, Reggie, show up to distract her.
- Joelle, relegated to “friend zone” by her crush, Reggie, is one of the most likable characters on the show but is always de-prioritized in screen time and speaking lines in favor of Sam and Coco’s racier storylines.
- Meanwhile, smaller characters such as a female professor who is engaged to another woman is defined only by her role as the older woman or seductress who enjoys an illicit affair with Troy.
A large part of this simplification extends to the male characters as well; however, we do see a bit more depth from them:
- Lionel, the awkward sophomore who works as a journalist for the school newspaper, spends a good deal of his time onscreen being distracted by his crush and roommate, Troy. However, his burgeoning career as a journalist takes center focus.
- Troy, the son of the school’s Dean, is defined as a smooth playboy but he also has major issues with his dad. The show explores the parent-son dynamic, which helps to break up the student squabbles that take center stage in Dear White People.
- However, it’s important to mention that Gabe’s character feels firmly made in the female gaze: he is defined by his relationship with Sam.
In short, the show displays a wide cast of women, reaching parity by numbers. But their complexity is comparatively lacking, with all the young women primarily focused on the men in their lives.
Dear White People is strongest when discussing the topic of its controversial title: racial tension. The show does a wonderful job building flawed individuals who, at the end of the day, just want the freedom to be glib without systemic racism complicating matters every step of the way.
Each character is a powerful allegory for one of the vast forms of discrimination black individuals face every day in this country. A few incidents skillfully allude towards systemic problems such as:
- The valuation of black people as less attractive than the white standard—at a party, Coco is the last to be picked up despite being as beautiful and smart as her white friends. The image of her sitting alone, dressed to the nines but never noticed by the male partygoers, is incredibly effective.
- The perpetual threat of police brutality—in the season’s most powerful episode, directed by Barry Jenkins of Moonlight prestige, shows how a small scrap between two well-meaning teenagers can instantly turn into a life-or-death situation for the black student, even with both parties equally culpable. The rest of the season explores the psychological damage such inequality causes, not just for the victim but the entire community.
- The complications that come from interracial dating—through Sam and Gabe’s relationship, wherein Sam is biracial black and Gabe is white, we get a full picture of both the external and internal forces that make interracial romances so complicated.
Dear White People tackles its LGBTQ characters with the utmost level of maturity and adroitness. Perhaps due to the show creator Justin Simien identifying as gay himself, we see queer characters treated in shades of grey, rather than stereotypes. In addition, the LGBTQ characters are all racial minorities—specifically, the breakdown is 2 gay men in larger roles (one black, one Latino) and in minor roles, we see 1 gay woman (black) and 1 bisexual woman (black).
One of my favorite creative decisions in this category, however, stems with Troy. It’s refreshing to see a straight, masculine, black character having no problem with gay roommates. In fact, Troy confides in Lionel and seeks him out one-on-one just to play video games or watch TV (much to Lionel’s sexual frustration.) Their friendship is such a non-issue and hopefully more shows can follow suit until we get to a point where the idea of “no homo”—where straight men feel the need to verbally assert their heterosexuality—is a laughable and obsolete compulsion.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.38/5
Stylish, engaging, thought-provoking, and an overall success, Dear White People is sitting pretty among Netflix’s lineup of original programming that is pushing the cultural envelope today. Unfortunately, the cast can be frustratingly navel-gazing, students preferring to chase their own personal tragedies while seldom coming together to truly support each other. It seems counter-intuitive for a show centered around students organizing for civil rights...yet, perhaps, wholly realistic given the setting of college students at a prestigious private school.
That being said, the show is still highly effective in its goal of portraying black Americans in multifaceted ways and serves up an an enjoyable show dressed in beautiful, preppy backdrops to boot.