The Newsroom’s Africa Storyline Was Stupid and Offensive

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 5 2013 11:09 AM

The Newsroom’s Stupid, Offensive Storyline About Africa

newsroom_africa
A pretty blond woman helps a little African child on The Newsroom.

HBO

All this season on the Newsroom, characters have been hinting about the terrible thing that happened to Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) in Africa. It’s an incident so upsetting that, according to Will McAvoy, it would be hard for any person to bear, so destabilizing that it turned Maggie into a goth (or at least a girl with a very bad haircut). On last night’s episode, “Unintended Consequences,” we finally found out what happened in Africa, a huge, complicated continent that The Newsroom portrayed as stereotypically as possible: a violent, tragic, traumatic place for blond girls just trying to do their best.

In the episode, Maggie and her colleague Gary Cooper (yes, Gary Cooper) fly to Uganda and immediately head out to an orphanage in the countryside. Cooper spends the last 100 miles of the drive filming from the back of a truck, because the handler told him he might see drug lords. “There were no drug lords, and I didn’t see one animal I haven’t seen in my apartment,” Maggie brusquely recalls about this portion of the trip, and when they arrive the handler makes clear that he was just playing Gary for a fool. “Idiot,” he says, expressing his disdain for naïve Americans who imagine drug lords are so prevalent on the Dark Continent as to be part of the scenery.  Except then the rest of the episode dedicates itself to making a whole host of hackneyed, condescending clichés about dysfunctional, dangerous Africa come true.

Maggie and Gary spend the day at the orphanage, in the company of many adorable children and one particularly shy boy named Daniel, who makes Maggie read him Lyle, Lyle Crocodile over and over again. (It begins, if you haven’t read it aloud in a while, “This is the house on East 88th Street.” Maggie lives on E. 75th Street. The world is flat.) That night, cattle raiders arrive with guns, asking for something in a language no one understands. The adults hustle all of the kids onto a school bus, but Daniel is so terrified he hides under a bed. Maggie and Gary pry him out—Lyle goes flying—he hops onto Maggie’s back and they run for the bus. Maggie initially imagines that all goes well, that they make it to the bus, and sit in a seat and read Lyle together, but it’s a fantasy. Daniel has been shot in the back and died instantly.

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Retelling the story a year later, Maggie explains that when she got home, she translated the cattle raiders’ request: “Give us the camera.” Daniel died taking a bullet that would have hit her, just because she and Gary Cooper were there at all. Little boys die when Americans even visit Africa. Back home, staring at herself in the mirror, Maggie recalls Daniel playing with her blond hair. “It’s called blond, Daniel, “ his teacher explained, “and it’s nothing but trouble,” a then-sweet statement that Maggie now finds unbearably, tragically true. So she cuts it off and dyes it red.

Here is an episode of TV in which Africa is presented as a place full of gentle children used to living amid tragedy and violence, where senseless, needless brutality happens all of the time, and the meaning of all of that—its longterm ramifications and importance—is to instigate an emotional crisis in a white American. “Fridging” is an Internet term of art for fictions that abuse a female character so the male character can experience anguish and growth: Plug in a black child and a white adult and you have last night’s episode of The Newsroom. Call it “Lyle-ing”? The Newsroom keeps on finding new ways to take complicated issue and reduce them to their most facile and simplistic.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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