Maybe you’ve clicked on or seen the controversy about Clarissa Explains it All and diversity in Flavorwire, Jezebel, The A.V. Club and others. I thought Matthew Klickstein did a great job on Slimed! It would be a shame if people’s enjoyment of these Nickelodeon shows were lessened because of one interview. That said, I was surprised by the comments.
Why compare these great shows? It’s not a wrestling match. All these shows treated kids as more than toy buyers and as smart and articulate people. This is a very sophisticated audience. They’re not just kids. Look at the shows they love - Clarissa, Rugrats, Ren and Stimpy, these aren’t Transformer and She Ra fans. So of course they are going to have political and social concerns about the things that have been said. Diversity is important we need to keep opening doors. Why wouldn’t we want the richest environment creatively in terms of voices and characters and stories? Why eat wonder bread when you can have bread from all over the world. What is threatening about creative richness?
That’s as much as I told to The A.V. Club‘s Marah Eakin for her essay Nick is kids: On the importance of diversity in children’s television
About a week ago, Flavorwire published an interview with Mathew Klickstein, author of Slimed: An Oral History Of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age. The interview, conducted by A.V. Clubcontributor Pilot Viruet, found the ’90s nostalgia apologist likening Nickelodeon’s emphasis on diversity to blackface, attributing Clarissa Explains It All’s retroactive popularity to women bloggers, and insisting that modern Nick shows likeSanjay And Craig are “awkward” because “there’s no reason for [the main character] to be Indian—except for the fact that [Nickelodeon president] Cyma Zarghami and the women who run Nickelodeon now are very obsessed with diversity.” Oof. (Full disclosure: Both associate editor Erik Adams and myself were in talks with Klickstein at one point about writing a Nickelodeon book together. Our concepts and preferences about the then-theoretical book didn’t match up, and so we parted ways, with Klickstein going on to write Slimed.)
While Klickstein is obviously entitled to have any opinion he wants—even a wrong-headed one—lots of culture-obsessed writers have since spoken out against his opinions, snarkily pointing out inaccuracies in his piece or concluding, as Jezebeldid, that “life is really tough for men, OK?” And while Klickstein certainly did deserve “to get his ass handed to him,” as Jezebel puts it—there are major flaws an inaccuracies in his arguments, both theoretically and factually, like how many seasons Dougand Hey Dude got, for example—most of these reaction pieces focus more on how racist or sexist Klickstein sounds rather than on why it matters that he said those things. Yes, saying that the mere act of non-Indian writers penning an Indian character is equivalent to blackface is obviously absurd. But why do we care if children’s television shows are diverse? Does Nickelodeon care? And just how much of a say did the creators of The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, for instance—a show Klickstein said “was made by white people and is about white people”—have in making their show diverse?
…And who is diversity hurting? If Sanjay And Craig’s inclusion of a non-stereotypical Indian character could, in theory, bring Nickelodeon viewers from the Indian subcontinent in addition to all the Indian-American kids in the States, why not make Sanjay Indian? Those kids can see themselves represented on TV, and the network’s market share might get a boost at the same time. It’s not the purest argument for diversity, but at least it’s a realistic one.
A little creative diversity can also give a show’s storyline a boost. As Kriegman told us, “Diversity is inherently richer than just one voice.” He continued: “Why wouldn’t you want the richest environment creatively in terms of voices and characters and stories?… Why eat Wonder Bread when you can have bread from all over the world?”
With Clarissa, Kriegman not only challenged himself to write a central female character that even little boys would like, but to write a female character that could be a good representative of the show’s diverse range of female viewers.