Peter Bart: Hollywood Writers, Like The Rest Of Us, Reshuffling Their Lexicons On Race And Sex
Tensions in the town’s writers rooms never have been higher, not only for writers of entertainment shows but also for nonfiction practitioners. The mood of their audience is prickly. Dialogue that once amused viewers today offends them.
The upshot: Writers are busily reshuffling their lexicons, whether creating a film review, a documentary or a segment of The Sex Lives of College Girls (more on that later). Personally, I’ve been readjusting my own lexicon and learning from the process.
The problem: Those who favor dumping archaic expressions can’t always agree on the substitutes.
To be specific, I am faithfully assimilating terms like “microaggression.” I now smoothly pronounce BIPOC (it’s “by-pock”). I regularly add an “I” to LGBTQ. Further, I understand why “unhoused” is more empathetic for homeless people, and why “enslaved persons” is more appropriate than “slaves.”
Further, my new vocabulary pays homage to “Latinx,” and will never again refer to Squaw Peak or Squaw Valley.
I realize that critics may accuse me of semantic bleaching or, like James Carville, might even denounce “stupid wokeness,” but I believe a case should be made for keeping the peace. Every change in the lexicon represents an emotional victory for its constituency.
The acronym BIPOC now is embraced by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, referencing indigenous people of color. The “I” for intersex is applauded as an adjunct to LGBTQ, but I admit to struggling with the mandated “+,” supposedly adding the aura of comprehensiveness.
The lexicons of race and sex entail their own issues. Once a pejorative, the word “queer” now is embraced as affirming, though the older constituency is marginally resistant. The nuances of race have been enhanced by those advocating that “complicit bias” should replace “implicit” or that “systemic” must be an adjunct of “racism. “These adjustments would help define what it means to be an educated white person,” suggests Anne Charity Hudley, a linguistics professor at Stanford, in The New York Times.
That newspaper even started a monthly op-ed column titled “Race Manners,” offering advice to “help resolve personal dilemmas involving race and identity.” After publishing its initial entry, titled “Which Black People Should I Listen To?”, the newspaper retreated from that idea, concluding, “If you actually have a framework for deciding what’s right and wrong, use it.”
Accordingly, John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University, argues that “perhaps Black English will yield a new neutral term for wokeness.” The meaning of “woke,” he suggests, has been lost, similar to “politically correct,” which drifted into confused derision.
The term “Latinx” also has stirred erudite opposition. Noting that it even has “crept into White House press releases,” The Economist pointed out that only 4% of American Hispanics say they prefer the word, suggesting it might in fact reflect “social mobilization.”
Apart from disputes about words, denizens of the writers rooms also are struggling to redefine their characters in line with cultural change. On HBO Max’s Sex Lives of College Girls, co-written by Mindy Kaling, the principal characters at mythical Essex College cheerfully identify themselves as “super sex positive.” A Black girl abruptly informs her white coach “I want to f*ck you so bad,” while another confides that her expertise at “hand jobs” has advanced her success at the campus literary magazine.
Kaling, a writer-comedian who was born Vera Mindy Chokalingam, writes spirited dialogue about being “brown” as well as being “hot.” She’s comfortable with both, and her characters long since have left anything resembling conventional dialogue in the dust.
That might work for the streaming circuit, but journalists – seeking to protect their objectivity – could be left behind, picking up the pieces. And feeling a bit like JOPOCs, perhaps.