Race, Sexuality and Brooklyn Nine-Nine: The Importance of Representation in Pop Culture
Grace Joseph explores how inclusive entertainment can have tangible real-life benefits.
In my unbiased opinion, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the best show on the planet. Set in a New York police precinct, it follows the adventures of detective Jake Peralta and his colleagues, who dedicate their lives to protecting the city, and have fun doing it. Since its genesis in 2013, it’s been a go-to for easy laughs and uncomplicated plotlines – perfect for the stressed student who just needs a twenty-minute escape.
But as the seasons go on and the characters grow, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has become my favourite show for a whole new reason. Simplistic punchlines have been replaced with dialogue about real-world issues, making it one of the most progressive shows on television (or Netflix, once they finally make the last season available in Australia). Characters are immensely diverse and representative of what we actually see in the real-world, as opposed to the white-washed, heteronormative discourse that dominates mainstream television. It’s a refreshing and much-needed approach to comedy.
In terms of race, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has wholeheartedly embraced diversity. Sergeant Terry Jeffords and Captain Raymond Holt, who happen to be black, run the whole precinct. Amy and Rosa, both of Latina descent, kick ass on the daily. Of course, we still have white male characters like Charles Boyle, but they go above and beyond their ally duties and always use their privilege to speak out against injustices suffered by their friends. What makes Brooklyn Nine-Nine really special is the fact that it goes beyond tokenistic representation and opens up important conversations surrounding race. In one episode, Terry gets harassed by another cop just for walking alone at night, made especially pertinent in the wake of Black Lives Matter gaining even more traction in the USA. Ultimately, scenes like these increase awareness. As a white Australian woman, I obviously don’t know what it is like to be discriminated against. And although I absolutely do not claim that watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine means that I am an expert on what people of colour go through, I do believe I am more aware of race-based inequalities, which betters my ability to tackle them.
Another reason why Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the bomb is its discourse surrounding sexuality. Although early episodes were simplistic, they definitely weren’t unimportant. We find out in the pilot episode that Captain Holt, in addition to being black, is a proud gay man. Ground-breaking for a mainstream American comedy! It’s such a big deal because it’s not a big deal at all. Holt’s sexuality and relationship status is treated in the exact same way as everyone else’s, normalising homosexuality in ways that are uncommon in most shows or, indeed, in society overall.
As if that wasn’t enough, the latest season of this extraordinary show has revealed Rosa Diaz’s bisexuality, a move that actress Stephanie Beatriz, who is bisexual herself, strongly advocated for. I won’t lie. Her coming-out scene brought me to tears. Bi-erasure is so prevalent within both gay and straight cultures – it is a common bisexual experience to be told to ‘pick a side’, which results in a high prevalence of mental health disorders, such as anxiety, in bisexual-identifying people. But now, my queer friends and I can see our everyday issues broadcast to a wider audience, and I’m hopeful that I won’t have to explain why my sexuality isn’t ‘just a phase’ quite as often.
Pop culture exists to provide entertainment. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine goes well beyond the job description and combines entertainment with meaningful representation and important conversations about our world today. Captain Holt, as always, sums it up well: “Every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place”.
Grace Joseph is a first-year Communications student, majoring in Creative Writing, obviously because she wants to be on Centrelink her whole life. She knows the words to every single song that Lorde has ever released, and plans to move to New Zealand just to be closer to that goddess.