Opinion: On MTV's 'Washington Heights', a Stylized Image Trumps Authenticity

Where are the chimi trucks and bachata guitar chords?

January 9, 2013, 1:44 PM

Jan. 9, 2013— -- Tonight, MTV premieres its newest reality show, "Washington Heights," a docu-drama following seven 20-something Dominican-Americans in the show's namesake upper Manhattan neighborhood. The new series is one of the network's attempts to fill the void left by its breakout hit "Jersey Shore," which ended last month.

Dominican-American stock has been on the rise in the mainstream, including pop culture, in recent years. In The Heights swept Broadway and the Tonys. Alex Rodriguez, Zoe Saldaña, Junot Diaz, Prince Royce, and Emilio Sosa are names that ring a bell in the collective pop consciousness. In music, we saw Shakira team up with merengue singer El Cata on her last album, Sale El Sol, in 2010 and she went "Loca." Singer Akon signed Dominican singer Omega to his label and the two released the song "El Producto" in 2011. And last year, Usher was featured on Romeo Santos' hit "Promise."

"Washington Heights" might be the first show in MTV's history to exclusively focus on Latinos. In fact, the channel's spotlight on Dominicans has subtly grown in the last couple of years. Julissa Bermudez was a VJ recently. Nany Gonzalez, a Dominican-Cuban upstate New Yorker, formed part of the shows "Real World: Las Vegas" (2011) and "The Challenge: Battle of the Seasons" (2012). In hindsight, the New York Dominican couple featured in last September's "True Life: I'm Giving My Boyfriend an Ultimatum" seems almost like a dry run for "Washington Heights." Dominican women even got a shout out on an episode of the "Jersey Shore."

That doesn't mean that "Washington Heights" is the new "Jersey Shore." Stylistically, the northen Manhattan soap's slick production values and perfectly framed camera shots are more in line with "Laguna Beach" and "The Hills." This cast of aspiring performers, artists, and athletes is much more glossy and self-aware than the guidos were in their debut season too.

Although "Washington Heights" is technically a docu-drama, after two episodes, Jonathan "JP" Perez, the aspiring rapper (and show creator), is the only cast member featured in documentary-style interviews in between scenes. JP's rap gigs at area venues are main plot points and he tends to narrate the others' stories.

The show also lacks the ethnographic dimension that made "Jersey Shore" compelling television, however stereotypical or exaggerated for the show it might have been. The occasional pot full of white rice and Spanish-speaking grandma aside, there seem to be no (sub)cultural aesthetics, rituals, or ethics to learn about with this bunch. No "poofs," "gorilla juiceheads," or "G.T.L" to understand. There's also little in the way of story and character depth, as this Boston Globe review aptly points out.

So far, the biggest storylines are JP's efforts in music and a confusing tiff between his fiery friend Reyna and his best friend Jimmy's girlfriend, Eliza. This one argument--which exploded in a fight after JP's first show--has seemingly dragged on for months, judging by the bubble coats worn at the start of the premiere and the maxi-dresses and short-sleeve shirts toward its end.

But at the heart of what's missing from "Washington Heights" is a true depiction of the rich, bicultural uptown Dominican (-American) culture. That very same truth that makes Dominican-American parodists Juan Bago & O's music videos and "Dominican moms" memes and parodies funny but also real.

Where are the larger-than-life Dominican moms? (We see a peek of one in Jimmy's grandma, who upon learning her grandson made a baseball team, tells him in Spanish that it's because of the rice, beans, and porkchops she's fed him, and her batting with him at age four.) Where are the loud, multi-generational households? Donde 'ta the audible bachata and merengue from other apartments, outside, or mom's stereo? So far, that unique local color is saved for sweeping establishing shots. Stylized imagery trumps authenticity on "Washington Heights."

But maybe the stakes are too high for it to be any other way? Maybe it's even a catch-22? Could too many chimichurri trucks or bachata guitar chords swing the pendulum towards stereotype? Would the bickering female castmembers be perceived like the women sought here?

Lack of positive representation in mainstream culture seems to have weighed on "Washington Heights" producers and the desire to create a positive portrayal to counteract drug-dealing stereotypes in hip-hop songs might've forced their hand. So we end up with a pasteurized version of uptown Dominican-American culture as a result. One that aims to be more palatable, but becomes innocuous and flavorless instead.

And that's the rub, right? No one expects a single show about white people to depict all of white culture. Yet here we have a show—maybe even the first show about Dominicans and Dominican-American culture on mainstream television—and we want them to get it totally right. Now that we've caught a glimpse of our blocks and brown faces on TV, we want to see all of ourselves and our lives on the screen.

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