Why Shows Like Grown-ish & Dear White People Are Terrible Depiction Of College Life

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If you’ve been following HBCU Pulse on Instagram, you know that I’m not the biggest fan of “Grownish”. I used to be, as I’ve always been a huge supporter of “Blackish” and I thought season 2 of the college series was pretty good. However, the show has devolved into a sappy late night soap opera that is a shell of what we all expected. I thought I was alone in this sentiment. Maybe I was being the Squidward of this situation, killing everyone’s favorite show because I didn’t feel as if it was good enough. But, clearly, I’m not alone. I’ve seen a bunch of YouTubers and TikTokers panning the show, going even deeper than me into perceived colorism and how the show just isn’t realistic. We even called for “Grownish” to get cancelled one we heard “Blackish” was ending it’s run with this last season.

However, the issue that I have with the media landscape is bigger than “Grownish”. We see an overall lack of college based media projects but an influx of series about high school on network television, cable and streaming services. Why is that? Is our reality in college not good enough to be seen on screen? Variety writer Natalie Oganesyan penned the article “Where Are All The College-Set TV Series?” and sought to answer this question. She spoke to several Hollywood creatives that work on young adult coming-of-age shows like “Grownish” and “Dear White People”. The article was well-written and well sourced. However, the quotes in this article is the prime example of my point that shows such as “Grown-ish” and “Dear White People” (as Ms. Oganeysan points out that these are the lone college shows in the market) are shabby depictions of what college life is.

In the article: Ms. Oganeysan speaks to “Grownish” showrunner “Julie Bean”.

Additionally, “Grown-ish” showrunner Julie Bean says college-age adults often experience internal conflict, based on ideological growth and existential reckoning, which can be difficult to portray on screen in an accurate and compelling manner. In high school settings, however, visually interesting drama is ripe for the picking.

“It’s very easy to do a fish-out-of-water story in high school,” Bean says. There’s a “protected bubble of college, sort of this utopia that you live in for those four years, that people just think, ‘Well, there’s not enough conflict there’ or, ‘What are the stories you’re going to tell besides the love stories or the partying? College is going to class, drinking, partying and having sex.’”

The quote above is LITERALLY the reason why Grownish has devolved into a terrible late night teen soap opera that tries to to sprinkled daily social issues on their episodes like seasoning salt on food. Take Aaron’s storyline in Grownish this past season. They tried to take on the Prison Industrial Complex and do a satirical take on an institutions such as Cal U funding Private Prisons. They could’ve really done a lot with this storyline and gave us depth. They decided to make it trivial though. Instead of giving Aaron serious character development from this story, they decided to go totally against the grain and find a way to insert Zoey into the story for a classic love triangle. It made ZERO sense. I mean really, wearing prison jumpsuits in protest at graduation is what’s going to get the school to divest from private prisions? Not any other substantive action could have been shown or dramatized?

I know that Mrs. Bean was speaking on the widely held belief that folks have about college life but “Grownish” plays right into this steryotype. We begged for more nuance from Zoey and these characters. But, at every turn, they cut corners to fulfill this relationship narrative that they swear this A18-34 audience lives for. But, things get even deeper what Ms. Oganeysan speaks with Daniel Barnz co-creator of teenage dark comedy “Generation”.

“The reason that we keep getting drawn back to these narratives is because people feel that they fundamentally became who they were in high school,” he says. “In a way, we all want to go back to who we were in high school. But we also want to go back and change the story, a little bit, of who we were in high school.”

I just feel as if this viewpoint is so limited. Sure, high school is adventurous to certain points but college is your official introduction into the world! College is where you become the person that you’ll be for the rest of your life. You’re exposed to freedom of expression and choice that can determine the path of your life. How is that narrative not gripping? Ms. Oganeysan gives context to his comments by saying,

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But coming of age isn’t truly relegated to the younger set. College “is where you find your people, and you really discover who you are as a person,” Bean says. So it can be “the most amazing age to watch people go through. The experience is unique to everyone and maybe that’s the thing that people have to remember.”

Mr. Barnz is correct in this sentiment. However, I also feel that people forget the defining show of this genre of television. “A Different World” is one of the best shows in television history and smashed through the glass ceiling for us to have a “Grownish” or “Dear White People”. “A Different World” touched on the social issues of the day, made it funny and started intelligent conversations at the same time. It touched on rape, Apartied, the AIDS epidemic and even saw the growth of the players from underclassmen to alumni that work for Hillman. Even Ron, who was TV’s original super senior, experienced a level of growth.

This formula is totally opposite from Zoey’s story in Grownish, as she hasn’t grown in four seasons. If you just swear up and down that there’s nothing to college but smoking, drinking, going to class and having sex do you. That’s your alternate reality. But, why don’t the characters EVER grow? Why don’t the characters ever do anything different? Why don’t they get different experiences?

I know that I’m the HBCU guy but I wrote out a couple of topics that could be touched on in college shows. Maybe some writers or researchers for these networks will stumble across this article and take note.

Topics that would be great in a college show:

  • The Hardships of Financial Aid
  • Relationships in a real way (manipulation, cheating, unplanned pregnancy the abortion issue, the exploration of sexuality in a more well written way than what they did with Nomi)
  • Politics & Black Lives Matter
  • Marching Bands
  • Sports (Specifically Basketball & Football)
  • Joining a Fraternity or Sorority
  • Student Election Season (Royal Court, Student Government Association, Black Student Union, Pageantry, etc)

The heart of the issue is this: there’s no representation of the life these writers are trying to depict or shoot down because “it isn’t proven”. How are you creating a show for the exact 18-49 demographic you’re going after and not talking to the members of the audience about what’s really going on.
Why don’t you create an associate or consulting producer position for students at UCLA or HBCUs with thriving communications programs like Howard and Clark Atlanta (Kenya Barris is a CAU alumnus) where you can speak with folks in college to get their view of how to tell their story? This would increase opportunities for these students and gives them well needed Hollywood experience. The on-screen experience would be better too. Imagine the PR win for Freeform if they posted the headline:

Freeform To Create Consulting Producer Role For College Students On “Grownish”

These creatives would rather be lazy though. They don’t want to go the extra mile. They’d rather write a story about the mean girl cheerleader making the main character cry in high school instead of the college student juggling a relationship, joining a Greek organization and running for an on campus position. That high school story line about the 9th grader trying drugs for the first time will for sure get you that Emmy! Go for it! 

We have to do better. Maybe it’s time for our generation to tell our own stories. Let’s take the frustration we have for “Grownish” and shows like it and fill the void in college-based media ourselves.

 

Make sure to follow our podcasts “Read The Room” & “The Mallory Moore Show”! This is us walking it like we talk it as “Read The Room” is hosted by Miss FAMU Christelle Haygood and “The Mallory Moore Show” is a narrative podcast based around the life of former collegiate cheerleader and Miss Tennessee State University Mallory Moore! 

 

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