Washington Heights follows a group of nine long-time friends who have grown up in the neighborhood and are now at existential crossroads, it would seem. They are mostly of Dominican descent (a demographic that currently makes up well over half of the neighborhood’s population), but it is yet unclear how most of them identify with and are shaped by their ethnic heritage. Their respective ages are also unclear, but the cast members appear to be in their early twenties – done with high school (whether they graduated or not) and each determining which way to go next.
These, then, are the central themes that I’ve gathered from the first three episodes and which I expect will be drawn through the show’s conclusion. As should be expected, there is also relationship drama that is sure to attract MTV’s targeted “tween” audience, but even that seems to be framed within the larger theme of self-actualization – especially where cultural identification and expectations bump against each character’s personal and professional ambitions and individuation.
Lots of critiques have surfaced since the show aired two weeks ago, with people coming at it from all angles. For instance, this Huffington Post Live discussion was well-nuanced – it featured young Latin-American professionals, some of whom had grown up in the Heights. They were all highly critical of the show, its cast, and the representation that the show gives of the neighborhood and its inhabitants. But I happen to like the show myself (all misgivings regarding MTV aside), so – being a young Latin-American professional and Heights resident myself – I would like to share some of my own thoughts on the show and the criticisms that I’ve encountered thus far.
1) I find myself in an impassioned affair with the main character and namesake of the show. I love the Heights and its people, especially those who strive to make it better and better through art and activism. At this point in the series, it’s clear that at least the creators of the show, as well as some of the personalities on the screen, fit this description to a tee.
2) I anticipate that I’ll make an appearance on the show myself, in at least three different scenes. As we’ll hopefully see in coming episodes, two of the cast members visited Word Up as we volunteers packed at our old location on Broadway. I introduced them to the bookshop, a community arts space which was soon to be displaced by rising rent. The cast members later held a successful fund-raising arts event on our behalf at an East Village venue.
So here are the criticisms that I have seen (in bold italics) and what I have to say in response.
The characters don’t represent the Heights well.
By this, the show’s detractors seem to mean that the characters are not diverse enough in terms of ethnicity, nationality, race, age (etc) to accurately depict the neighborhood. Of course these critics are correct, but why would anyone expect a group of only nine kids to represent the diversity of a community like Washington Heights? This is obviously not what the makers of the show had intended to accomplish, so this doesn’t strike me as a basis for faulting it.
I would more readily accept the complaint that it’s simply a poor choice of title for the show; however, it would have to be well argued (I have yet to convince myself) since cast members have said in interviews that the neighborhood itself, with all its life and dynamism, is the main character. And indeed, there seems to be more b-roll footage of people, streets, buildings, parks and bridges than there is of any one character on the show.
The characters don’t represent Dominican or Latino culture well.
Again, I would look at the title of the show. It’s called Washington Heights. Not Dominicans in the Heights; not Uptown Latinos; not Que Lo Que!
And though most of the characters are of Dominican descent, it does not appear that becoming poster children for the Dominican-American experience is their chief aim. From what I can tell, they’re just trying to make the best of their early twenties, for themselves and their families.
Which brings me to the more odious critiques that I’ve encountered. The contributors that took part in the HuffPo discussion dogged the cast for not pursuing education or “professional” jobs. I was stunned by how often they mentioned their own credentials – who has the most advanced diploma? – to counterpoint the supposed delinquency of the MTV cast (finally the moderator chimed in, pointing out that professionals with full-time jobs, like all the people in that very discussion, would never have the time or interest to be followed around by cameras for an MTV reality show).
Apparently they also couldn't be bothered to point out that the graduation rate in NYC hovers at about 60% or that Washington Heights is a low income neighborhood, where many kids can hardly dream of affording a post-secondary education. To make matters far worse, they targeted one of the cast members, Ludwin, who high-fives his buddy in the first episode after hearing that he passed his GED exam. The HuffPo commentators lamented what they perceived as under-achievement. They argued that this sends a poor message to the youth that make up the bulk of the show’s audience.
By contrast, an artist friend of mine who grew up (and still lives and works) in the Heights and was invited to watch the show at an early screening in December blogged “for some, [getting a GED] might not be a big deal, but for many here it is a huge accomplishment for them and their families.”
Indeed. After dropping out of school, Ludwin could have joined a gang or started selling drugs (as many others do); he could have just wasted away at home. Instead, he’s pursuing his education again. And rather than commend this young man for still giving a shit about his education, his future, his family, they chide him for being an underachiever. This, in my opinion, is a far more dangerous message for our youth, especially all those who fall through the cracks. Because – let’s be real – lots of children are being left behind. And one ought to be proud of beating the odds and earning a GED – proud even to the point of the high-five.
The commentators also regret that an ex-convict is among the cast members, an individual whose father is also in prison. Nevermind that this ex-convict has obviously cleaned up his act and is pursuing a better life for himself, to better support his family. And again, let no one be bothered to mention the kinds of social injustices that drive poor people into lives marked by crime, drugs, and gang violence – such critiques would certainly apply to the Heights, just as they would to any other low-income community in the US.
If you want a reality show that will accurately depict Latinos in the Heights, then yes – you will show the people who don’t graduate from high school, the ones who fall into crime and gangs, the ones who don’t know how to navigate their future. Granted, this image doesn’t represent all of the Heights or Latino culture, but neither does it represent all of the TV show. It does, however, represent some of both.
And that shit is indeed real.
There are no hipsters in the Heights.
I read this on facebook, a comment on the inauthenticity of the show. I suppose that the argument would go thusly:
The characters in Washington Heights are hipsters. But there are no hipsters in the Heights. Therefore Washington Heights is inauthentic.
Seems logical enough! The only problem is that – I would argue – both premises are untrue. Perhaps this is a matter of opinion, but please allow me make the point.
First, I don’t believe that hipsters really exist.
Do pretentious people exist? Yes. Artists? Yes. Gentry? Yes. Trust-fund kids? Yes. Mustaches? Yes. Do all of these qualities sometimes manifest themselves in individuals? Yes.
But nobody identifies as a hipster. Hipster is a term that only supposed-non-hipsters use to deride people that they perceive as hipsters. But I have news for all the hipster-haters – there is nothing more hip than to hate hipsters. So if you are one of the many proud hipster-haters, you are nothing more than a self-hating hipster.
The kids in Washington Heights, then, are not hipsters. Even though it seems that most of them aspire to be artists, they mostly seem to come from working class immigrant families. And even though – it’s true – some of them have mustaches, I highly doubt that any of them have trust funds.
The second premise, that there are no hipsters in the Heights, again begs the question, “how do you define hipster?”
Assuming that the comment refers primarily to the fact that most of the cast members are artists – that, in the mind of the commenter, to be an artist is to be a hipster as well – then I must say that the logical ends are also completely untrue.
Does s/he mean to say that there are no artists in the Heights? Because nothing could be farther from the truth! I know a lot of people in this neighborhood, most of whom are writers, artists, musicians, actors, photographers, film-makers, fashion designers, and so on. The arts community and activity in the Heights is burgeoning, to the point that local bloggers have dubbed it the Uptown Renaissance. We have the Word Up Collective, Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, United Palace of Cultural Arts and People’s Theater Project, among many other arts programs and organizations in the neighborhood. We even have a Broadway show inspired and created by the neighborhood!
For those who have not watched the show yet, I recommend that you give it a chance! If you’re not big on catty drama, then I suggest you skip the first two episodes. But you may be pleasantly surprised by what you see in episode 3 (and on? Episode 4 airs tonight - Wednesday - at 10).
I’m including the player below (ep3) for your viewing pleasure. I hope you enjoy the show – and my neighborhood – as much as I have!