What Does Television Really Say About Race?

From Trippedmedia.com

Usually when we digest our daily amount of media consumption, we expect some semblance of reality in what we watch. Sure, there’s the matter of suspending ones disbelief—the cinematic world is one of fiction and not like our own—but a level of realism allows us to remain enthralled in whatever we watch, which is why even fantasy-laden superhero films such as The Dark Knight or even The Amazing Spiderman operate on some level of reality—even if they’re about individuals who make the conscious decision of donning tights and punching bad guys repeatedly in the face. When entertainment becomes “unrealistic,” it’s jarring; it becomes noticeable and can potentially take us right out of the film.

Even television, in all its artificial, studio-mandated glory, attempts to operate on an acceptable level of realism.  But discussion routinely arises to question that reality: If we expect some level of realism in the way television characters act or the settings that these series take place, should we not expect it in its portrayal of race?

Stereotypes—whether you like or not—are an almost fundamental part of fiction: specific character traits that allow us to recognize where characters place within the structure of the story. If a female character is portrayed with glasses and conservative clothing, then odds are she’s the shy, innocent bookworm of the group; if a male is portrayed as slightly overweight, messy, and otherwise the complete opposite of the main character, then he’s typically the “best friend” who provides much of the comedic relief.  From a superficial point, it’s relatively harmless and part of a series of tropes that has been around since the dawn of fiction. But it becomes a bit troubling when we look much deeper into the tropes and clichés of modern television—especially in regards to race. It might seem humorous to see the classic “black friend” trope or even the loud and sassy “latina,” in a comedy but what does it say about our expectations of race, especially when it finds a way to keep showing up in our media?  Anything that is produced by a human being all comes from a specific ideology, and in this case, an American one. What does that ideology say about our culture when we pride ourselves in being a “melting pot” of various ethnic backgrounds, yet that diversity we’re so proud of is almost non-existent in our media?

In a perfect world, the idea of non-white actors at the forefront of television (or any entertainment medium for that matter) wouldn’t be much of a surprise; it would be a thing that just happens. More often than not, however, you’re likely to see a cast of smiling white faces mugging it for the camera then you probably ever would a diverse cast of characters.  A show like The Walking Dead, despite being a hit for AMC, is largely faulted for having a token black (T-Dog) and even Breaking Bad focuses mainly on the trials and tribulations of white people. In shows skewed for a younger demographic, even ABC Family’s seemingly harmless Bunheads couldn’t escape controversy when Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Shonda Rhimes called out the show’s lack of ethnic characters. With tragedies such as Treyvon Martin’s death stoking the flames of America’s perceived racism, it only makes sense for some of that outrage to reach our television sets.

It’s rather unrealistic that in settings that typically breed a multi-cultural environment, that whites are the only ones television seems to focus on—even if it is a work of fiction. It’s a problem that Lena Dunham of Girls ran into when critics and viewers pointed out how “white” the show is. Despite the generalness of its title, Girls focuses entirely on a group of post-collegiate, white hipsters, and critics noticed the complete lack of any substantial ethnic presence. Considering that show takes place in Brooklyn, it’s easy to see why so many people were upset with what they saw as Dunham leaving out minorities.

But aren’t there shows that are made specifically for minorities like Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and TV Land’s The Soul Man?  As a black film/TV enthusiast, nothing infuriates me more than the notion of the “ethnic” show, programming that is made in mind for an ethnic audience-you know, people like me. The problem is that despite being marketed towards an “ethnic” audience, they are often guilty of indulging in the same negative stereotypes that are found in shows that are “whitewashed.”  Aside from the fact that this creates the implication that this is how people of a certain race act or that this is what they exclusively find hilarious, it also implies that while non-white viewers need their own TV shows, that shows featuring whites are for everyone: they are the default race.

Of course there’s a flip side to this conversation: forced political correction doesn’t really help, and is just as bad as tokenism. Shonda Rhimes’ argument that Bunshead should have included black ballerinas so she “could feel good about her kid watching the show” implies this sort of attitude that every show should include an ethnic character so that those people could “relate to them.” As much as I’m in favor of seeing more non-whites play prominent roles on television, I don’t necessarily want to see them shoehorned in just to make me feel better.  In defense of Girls, I don’t believe that show would get any better (or worse) if it suddenly had a couple of Indian or Asian girls to complain about their lives and wear trendy clothing. Obviously context is important and I’m not about to go after a show like Arrested Development just because it has a predominantly white cast or even Mad Men since, you know, it takes place during the 1960s. And no one, reasonable at least , is claiming that white actors should be fired so that a Black or a Latino actors may get a role; ultimately, good acting is good acting regardless of the race, but when so many shows seem to have this problem, perhaps there are some issues regarding casting.

One of the most common arguments I’ve heard against claims of whitewashing is that TV creators shouldn’t be held accountable for appeasing to every single demographic—which is somewhat true. Despite the supposed whiteness of Girls, it’s a show that feels intensely personal and is noted for mainly coming from Dunham’s own experiences, so I can understand the argument that Dunham doesn’t necessarily have to appeal to everyone. BUT, I also understand that when you’re producing a show for a popular network, one that is watched regularly by a wide variety of people, you inherit a set of responsibilities in which it might be wise to be conscious of the people that are watching your show. If NBC’s Community can successfully portray diversity in a school setting without resorting to tokenism or the campy “rainbow effect,” where a group is comprised of nearly every single race, could it not be expected of all shows?

The whole point  of shedding light on this “problem,” is to create a conversation; to educate and to fight back against all forms of ignorance .The assertion that this doesn’t matter because no one gets hurt if a couple of characters aren’t “minorities” is a rather apathetic one. Racism is still a brutal reality, one that knocked people on their asses recently during the Treyvon Martin. But racism, or hatred, doesn’t occur in a box; it doesn’t just happen, and while I’m certainly not going to try to explain a causal connection betweenThe Big Bang Theory’s usage of Indian stereotypes and hate crimes, I will say that it’s a factor, albeit a small one, but a factor all the same.

I don’t want to seem like I’m standing on a soapbox and I’m well aware that there are a growing number of television comedies and sitcoms that are reacting to this problem, among them Shonda Rhime’s ownScandal which stars Kerry Washington as the main protagonist in a role typical of Rhime’s trademark “color-blind” roles. But the fact that Washington, who is black, brings attention to the show simply by being the lead star speaks volumes of a climate in which minorities get the shaft—whether it be due to ratings or the unfortunate truth that racism and discrimination still has a place in America. It’s true that the situation is getting better and that many of the shows that are guilty of this problem are ones that I regularly enjoy myself; but it’s frustrating knowing that as a minority, most of those heroes that grace both the big and silver screen mostly come in one color.

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