A Million Dollars Worth of Irony

Back in June, I mentioned a reality show called “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” in which three white, self-described "Christian" families in Texas got to pick their new neighbors from among a group of minority families, including an African-American family, a Korean family, a Latino family, a gay family, one family in which husband and wife were heavily tattooed, and another in which the parents were Wiccans. The very premise was rather stomach-turning; the families who were selected to choose their new neighbors were making shockingly biased generalizations and hateful statements about the families competing for the nearly million-dollar prize in the Austin suburb. It seemed rife with the potential to be exploitative, minimizing the realities of very serious issues like racism, homophobia, and housing discrimination.

Nonetheless, the show went on, and after four weeks of filming, the Wrights, a gay couple, won. The show was scheduled to air in July, but it never showed up.

ABC cites “protests by the National Fair Housing Alliance, which had expressed concern about a competition in which race, religion and sexual orientation were discussed as factors in the awarding of a house.” Funny, but back in June, when I wrote about it, similar concerns being raised were being dismissed by ABC, who promised that they had both legal standing to give away the house under the stated premise and that the subject would be treated with dignity. Prejudice would not be exploited for laughs, but used to educate, etc. But then, when that actually happened, and some of the formerly homophobic couples “pronounced themselves newly open-minded about gays and other groups,” the show got axed.

[T]he neighbor who was the Wrights' earliest on-camera antagonist - Jim Stewart, 53, who is heard in an early episode saying, "I would not tolerate a homosexual couple moving into this neighborhood" - has confided to the producers that the series changed him far more than even they were aware.

No one involved in the show, Mr. Stewart said, knew he had a 25-year-old gay son. Only after participating in the series, Mr. Stewart said, was he able to broach his son's sexuality with him for the first time.

"I'd say to ABC, 'Start showing this right now,' " Mr. Stewart said in an interview at his oak kitchen table. "It has a message that needs to be heard by everyone."
So what’s the story? Why would a show that ostensibly existed specifically to prove that prejudices could be overcome be cancelled when it fulfilled its mission? ABC says they were worried that some of the overt intolerance expressed by the white Christians toward the competitors, whose fates they held in their hands, may have turned off viewers before their evolutions into being, you know, nice. But if that was the entire premise of the show, and ABC was still defending the show and their decision to air it in June, well after they knew the scope of intolerance expressed, such an abrupt about-face seems awfully peculiar.

Bill Kennedy, a co-executive producer of the show, thinks there was something more sinister at work, and dismisses ABC’s cited concerns as a diversion. Instead, Kennedy believes that the Walt Disney Company, ABC’s owner, scrapped airing the completed project because it:

could have interfered with a much bigger enterprise: the courting of evangelical Christian audiences for "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Disney hoped that the film, widely viewed as a parable of the Resurrection, would be the first in a profitable movie franchise.

In the months and weeks before "Welcome to the Neighborhood" was to have its premiere, as Disney sought to build church support for "Narnia," four religious groups lifted longtime boycotts of the company that had been largely prompted by Disney's tolerance of periodic gatherings by gay tourists at its theme parks. Representatives for two of those groups now say that broadcasting "Neighborhood" could have complicated their support for "Narnia." One, the Southern Baptist Convention, with more than 16 million members, lifted the last of the boycotts against Disney on June 22, a week before ABC announced it was pulling the series…

Richard Land, an official with the Southern Baptist Convention involved in the negotiations with Disney last year to end the group's boycott of the company, said he did not recall any mention of "Neighborhood." He added, however, that had the show been broadcast - particularly with an ending that showed Christians literally embracing their gay neighbors - it could have scuttled the Southern Baptists' support for "Narnia."

"I would have considered it a retrograde step," Mr. Land said of the network's plans to broadcast the reality series. "Aside from any moral considerations, it would have been a pretty stupid marketing move."

Paul McCusker, a vice president of Focus on the Family, which had supported the Southern Baptist boycott and reaches millions of evangelical listeners through the daily radio broadcasts of Dr. James Dobson, expressed similar views.

"It would have been a huge misstep for Disney to aggressively do things that would disenfranchise the very people they wanted to go see 'Narnia,' " he said.
ABC denies the charges. Kennedy, who has no definitive proof of the connection between their decision to preempt the show and Narnia, notes, however, that “ABC's stated reasons for canceling the series unconvincing,” (an assertion with which I have to agree), and says, “I don't believe in coincidences.”

What can be said about such irony? Develop a show about overcoming bias, defend it against those who worry it might perpetuate bias, then cave to those who worry it won’t. Nicely done.

(Crossposted at Ezra’s place.)

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus