For years, almost everyone I ran into told me to watch "The Office," "Parks and Recreation" or "New Girl." This trifecta of early 2000s sitcoms loomed over my shoulder — and my Netflix queue. Having never been interested in sitcoms, I was determined not to watch. Over quarantine, however, my resolve to avoid these shows fell apart (along with seemingly everything else).
After watching all of "New Girl," most of "The Office" and a few episodes of everything in between, I finally understood the appeal. The shows are addicting with their humorous dialogue, lovable characterizations and comfortably predictable plots. But they are not without their problems.
These shows feature harmful rhetoric against marginalized groups, and not infrequently. Characters of color are routinely underdeveloped compared to white counterparts. "New Girl" includes jokes about sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. "The Office" also includes jokes about racism, pedophilia, sexual harassment, ableism and fatphobia. "Parks and Recreation" has been accused of making jokes about homophobia and transphobia. If you can’t find at least one microaggression in each episode, you’re not looking hard enough.
News flash: these targeted jokes are not benign. They perpetuate a system of inequality. They can cause emotional harm to those they target. They normalize toxic thinking and behavior, and teach viewers that microaggressions are acceptable or even humorous.
These shows' popularity and relevance makes them especially powerful. To stay current with American culture and conversation, and to avoid the feeling of missing out, people watch the shows. In doing so, they witness and potentially internalize the damaging ideology.
Although the audience of these programs may be diverse, the filmmakers who create the shows are unfortunately not. An overwhelming lack of representation in the industry results in poor representation of diverse groups. However, when marginalized groups are represented in the writing and production process, the product is a much better portrayal of diversity.
For example, when Lamorne Morris’ "New Girl" character became a cop, Morris, a Black actor, said he felt he was “betraying” the Black community. After Morris was granted creative control for writing an episode, he changed its focus to the realities of systematic racism and racial profiling. The episode still has the characteristic "New Girl" humor, but with Morris in charge, it became more realistic for his character, and likely more relatable for viewers who identified with it.
These sitcoms are enjoyed by so many. Their funny escapes from reality and the nostalgia they evoke for some viewers is priceless. However, the value of these shows doesn’t erase the harm they cause. To denounce racism, homophobia, sexism and other forms of discrimination in one’s personal life, but passively consume media filled with microaggressions that perpetuate those systems without at least acknowledging the problem, is hypocritical.
At the very least, watch these shows with a critical eye, acknowledge where they are problematic, call them out and be conscious of our society's collective ideology beyond the screen. Furthermore, choose programming and movies with better representations of marginalized groups. Sitcoms like "Black-ish" have that "New Girl"-esque humor you’re craving, while "Always Be My Maybe" and "Crazy Rich Asians" rival even Pam and Jim’s love story.
Sitcoms are made to make us feel good, and it’s easy to want to defend that — especially in 2020, when most any semblance of comfort seems to have been taken from us. But microaggressive humor comes at a cost. We need to call out the issues in these shows, and hold them (and ourselves) accountable.
With so much humorous content out there today, joking at the expense of others is a cheap way to get a laugh. Let’s face it: hurting people isn’t funny.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.