The inherent gall of social media is its ability to take something whole and break it up into tiny unrecognizable pieces. Sometimes it’s a gas (Real Housewives woman yells at cat), sometimes abhorrent (Cuties). This is not the case with the 36-second clip from Netflix’s Ginny & Georgia that went viral last week, featuring a no-holds-barred throwdown between two teenage lovers, the titular Ginny (Antonia Gentry) and her boyfriend, Hunter (Mason Temple), in which they fling racial stereotypes at each other in an attempt to injure. Unfortunately for the actors and everyone else involved in this exasperating high-school theater, what you see is what you get. Upon the utterance “Oppression Olympics: Let’s go!” I felt an embarrassment so acute that my spirit snapped away from my body only to realize upon reentry that it’s just a Netflix show. Anyway, seeing is believing:
If you wish to live an unspoiled, decontextualized life, you should stop reading at this point and go forth with those four words “Oppression Olympics: Let’s go!” pinging around merrily inside your skull alongside other lines of contemporary poetry such as “We were all rooting for you!” and “Prostitution whore!” You will not be poorer for not knowing the journey that leads to “Oppression Olympics: Let’s Go!”: one that includes slam poetry and a personal-essay contest. More information will not necessarily yield greater clarity, and in fact may muddy the pure waters of “Oppression! Olympics! Let’s! Go!”
To recap, the scene comes at the climax of episode eight, “Check One, Check Other,” which begins when Ginny and Hunter’s AP English teacher, Mr. Gitten, gives the students an assignment for the National Junior Pulitzer Contest (this does not appear to be a real thing); they must write an essay response to the prompt “Where do you feel you most belong?” Ginny, feeling behind her overachieving friends, wants to win to help fluff up her future college applications. At first, she sets about writing something hokey on how much she loves this Stars Hollow facsimile of a town she and her mother have moved to. Her father, sensing derivative schlock, takes her to a poetry café in Boston to hear some real artists talk about real things. (Also derivative schlock but syncopated.) Ginny course-corrects and writes something in the rhythm of slam poetry. In the end, the racist Mr. Gitten deems her essay “too unconventional,” and Hunter wins.
Narratively, this is fine. After all, I watched three seasons of The Bold Type with the suspended disbelief that Jane Sloan is the feminist writer of her generation. The last line we hear of Hunter’s essay — “That’s the place that most defines me, my home with my family and my guitar” — is absolutely the writing of a simp, so obviously Ginny deserved to win. Anyway, later in the bedroom, Ginny wants Hunter to admit that she was robbed of the award because their teacher is racist. It’s at this point that the conversation begins to veer. Here’s the windup:
Hunter: If you care so much about what he thinks, why are you always causing drama in his class?
Ginny: I have to speak up because I’m a person. I have a voice.
Ginny: You’re an artist, you should get this.
Hunter: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t do a song. It’s all about survival. I keep my head down. I do the thing that’s asked.
Ginny: And you’re proud of that?
Hunter: Why can’t I just be who I am?
Ginny: Because you’re half Taiwanese.
Hunter: Exactly. I’m not full white, so Gitten can’t be full racist.
Ginny: Not in the same way I’m not full white. Asians get to be stereotyped as talented geniuses and prodigies. Black women are stupid, lazy, angry. Brodie doesn’t fist-bump you.
Hunter: Do you know what it means to be Taiwanese? I have to serve in the military when I turn 19 because I’m a guy, or I can relinquish my citizenship because I’m lucky I’m also American but then I’m a draft dodger and just another soft American pussy.
I’m sorry, soft American what? The fight continues to devolve: Each accuses the other of not being Black or Asian enough, including a line in which Hunter says he doesn’t see Ginny “pound back jerk chicken.” The weird specificity of this dialogue catches in the ear. According to Gentry, the ugliest lines of the scene came from the actors themselves. “Mason and I were invited to dinner with Sarah [Lampert, the creator], and we just sat on her couch and talked about our experiences,” she tells TVLine. She shared some of the things white people would say to her because she has a Jamaican mother. “The things that I say to him I wouldn’t know to say to him because I hadn’t experienced that,” she explains. “So he had to give me the material to throw at him, and then I had to give him the material to throw at me.”
The interview frames the scene as a “collaborative” process between the show’s writers and its young actors. But adults should know better. Grafting autobiographical experiences onto larger character arcs with little explanation is not only unearned but exploitative: a fig leaf of authenticity to cover up for bad writing. These actors were not co-writers of the episode, and up until this point, neither Ginny nor Hunter was developed enough as a character to say the things they say. The scene is as out of context on the show as it is on Twitter. Up until this point, Hunter hasn’t done much of anything other than tap-dance for Ginny in the school hallways (yes, this also happens, and it is also embarrassing). As Ginny’s other love interest, Marcus (Felix Mallard), a Skeet Ulrich type, wryly notes, Hunter “has a ponytail instead of a personality.”
In her review, our critic Kathryn VanArendonk compares Ginny & Georgia to Guy Fieri’s “Trash Can Nachos.” Ginny & Georgia tries to be a million shows for a million different people (or, should I say, taste clusters), so much so that its wide tonal swings induce constant emotional nausea. The randomized violence of this scene is indicative of the show’s Frankenstein quality, as are its forays into race and assimilationism. The ideas aren’t baked in so much as tacked on. Hunter and Ginny’s nuclear showdown is mostly a plot device to clear the path for Marcus to become Ginny’s main love interest — a narrative move that highlights the role of one Black character, Bracia (Tameka Griffiths), who exists with the sole purpose of being Ginny’s “Black friend” at school.
“Oppression Olympics: Let’s go!” inadvertently recalls another clip that made the rounds from Tyler Perry’s The Haves and Have Nots, in which a Black woman and an Asian man sling food stereotypes at each other. But while that show at least has the hard-candied gloss of camp to save it, the earnestness of the Ginny & Georgia actors pushes the scene into cringe comedy. In a better world, both characters would have been fully realized beings instead of race-baiting puppets. Until then, “Oppression Olympics: Let’s go!” will live in our hearts forever.
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