The Meaning of The Show Within The Show

By  · Published on September 1st, 2017

When representing black culture also means parodying ShondaLand.

2017 has been the best year so far for the representation of people of color on-screen. It goes without saying that with more black artists at the helm of features and shows, there is more room for nuanced portrayals of black culture. And within these portrayals, there is room for both a critique and a homage to the pioneers that came before. People like Shonda Rhimes. The shows within Insecure and Dear White People (DWP) are as much fun parodies as they are voyeuristic commentaries on how people (specifically black people) watch TV. For, if both of those shows are contemporary glimpses into the lives of young, pop culture fluent black people, then the shows they watch (and how they watch them) should offer insight into their lived experiences.

Insecure‘s “Due North” and DWP’s Defamation” are both parody shows. “Due North” is set in pre-Civil War America. Regina Hall (from the Scary Movie franchise) plays a slave in love with her Master, played by Scandal‘s Scott Foley. “Due North” been described as “Empire meets Underground” and “Scandal meets Underground“, but basically it’s what a Shonda Rhimes slavery drama would look like. And Defamation is just an unapologetic parody of Scandal. So, clearly, both shows are positioning Shonda Rhimes as a kind of Godmother of black-run television.

A scene from Scan- I mean ‘Defamation’

In the case of DWP, “Defamation” is a way of connecting with their black audience. In fact, the promo for the Netflix show is a clever ploy, misleading its audiences into thinking the promo is for “Defamation.” The title cards go from saying “Experience the show” to “that knows how you feel,” and cuts to a shot of the DWP characters swearing at the show. Even though the show is called Dear White People, it’s target demographic is black audiences and non-black audiences familiar with black culture. Indeed, one of the main grievances that the characters in the show express is of White America’s appreciation of black culture, but not of black lives. Watching the show then is a kind of re-appropriation of black culture. They might be hate-watching Defamation, but it brings them all together. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the writer/director of the original film and TV show Justin Simien says, “I genuinely love that we get together for these epic viewing parties where we talk to the screen. That’s a part of a young black person’s life. I think what was cool is that I’m seeing a lot of tweets from people saying, ‘I just feel so seen by that scene because it’s me. That’s what I do on Thursday nights.’ That’s really cool.” So, in a show rife with racial tension within the university as well as within the black student body, “Defamation” is what brings them together. Fair representation doesn’t just mean representing black people. It also means representing black people’s experience of black culture.

‘Due North’


“Due North” in Insecure is only introduced in the second season. How the show came about actually says a lot about the making of a show. According to showrunner Prentice Penny in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “Due North” came about because of a running joke in the writer’s room about two writers having an affair because they were seen having lunch together. The joke turned into an actual show, as Ben Cory Jones and Natasha Rothwell were assigned to write an eight-episode story. As if there wasn’t already enough TV to watch…

The first time we see a clip from “Due North”, Issa and Lawrence are both watching, but separately. They have just broken up after 5 years together, but like most break-ups it’s never clean. “Due North” is a beautiful way of showing the changes that do and don’t occur after a break-up. What’s it like to carry on watching the show you used to watch with your ex? What’s it like watching it with someone new? Indeed, the characters’ reactions to the show are always a highlight. There’s a specific kind of pleasure in watching people talk back at their TV. Perhaps, it’s the pleasure of our voyeurism being mirrored back at us.

Finally, all the scenes from “Due North” and “Defamation” have interracial love at their center. One is from pre-Civil War and the other is current day. Even though so much time has passed between those two periods, the shows seem to be commenting on representations of black love on TV. Can the mainstream audience only stomach black love if it’s between a black woman and a white man? Even DWP‘s central love triangle is between Samantha (a black woman), Gabe (a white man) and Reggie (a black man). Insecure is one of the only mainstream shows to represent multiple romantic relationships between people of color.

Although both Insecure and Dear White People are deeply political shows (the latter more than the former) that bear little resemblance to Shonda Rhimes’ work, their characters rapturously (hate) watch her shows. The device of showing characters watch a show (especially one as deeply coded as Scandal) adds both a self-reflexive layer of realism while also distancing themselves from the show. It’s a way for the show creators to position their shows as ‘reality,’ as if to say “the show they’re watching is a show, but our show is real.” Of course, no one watching any of Rhimes’ shows would confuse them for an accurate depiction of reality. So, what Insecure and Dear White People seem to be doing is lightly making fun of ShondaLand, while also acknowledging that she paved the way for TV shows like them

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