Lamar Giles
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Bring Lamar to Your School/Event

May, 2011

What DON’T you have to think about today?

I happened to stumble across this amazing post from one John Scalzi and decided to link to it here. Perhaps it’s lazy posting on my part (I know I’m behind), but it doesn’t make John’s words any less fantastic. Check him out: Things I don’t have to think about.

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Mr. Giles Goes To Washington

I’ll be attending the Go On Girl! Book Club’s Annual Awards Weekend in Washington, D.C. this weekend. The ladies of GoG have selected LIVE AGAIN as there July-December Sci-Fi/Fantasy pick and I couldn’t be happier. I can’t wait to meet them in person.

For those who can’t make it to the capital city, I’ll do my best to make you feel like you’re there by posting pics and tweeting throughout the conference as time permits. In honor of the club’s 20th anniversary, I’ll be using the hashtag: #GoG20

So, follow me on Twitter (@LRGiles) and feel free to join the 140 character conversation.

I’m out. I’ll tell Barack hi for you. 🙂

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Diversify vs. Diversity, Part I: TV

The Preamble

This will not be a popular post. Neither will the three that follow. I plan to write similar posts on films, books, and finally, proposed solutions to what I see as problems.

Those who read this and choose to negatively criticize (as opposed to constructively criticizing) my statements will do at least two things to make their case. They will attack my motives (he wants more people to come to his blog so he decides to be all controversial), or my logic (he’s stating unproven facts, here’s 5 points refuting his claims).

As a bonus, when I get to my third post on books, because it’s the publishing industry I choose to work in, the points of attack will be my personal bitterness, work ethic, and skill. In other words, my motivation for writing such things has to do with the fact that I’ve yet to get a book deal. The real reason that I don’t have a book deal is because I don’t work hard enough, and even if I did work hard, I just don’t have the skills to turn a profit for a publisher so instead of facing THOSE facts, I’ve fallen back on the old Blame-The-Man crutch.

And it’s fine if you think that. It’s a free country, which is why I can say what I’m about to say…

If there’s been an effort to step up diversity (and for the sake of this post I’m defining diversity as the fair representation and humane depiction of America’s many non-white racial groups) across the landscape of television, films, and books, it is a weak and superficial effort at best. Here’s how I see it…

The Diversify Approach

There are several ways to define diversify, and you can easily look them up for yourself. Here, I’ll focus on one definition that I feel is most appropriate:

(v) to add different types of manufactured products, crops, etc., especially to a business.

I find this fitting for a couple of reasons. One, it refers specifically to a business, and entertainment (tv, films, books, music and even sports) is most certainly that. Two, I like the “manufactured products” part. My interest in those two words is going to be more allegorical than etymological . My argument is the corporate approach to the representation of racial groups across various media has been a Diversify Approach as opposed to a Diversity Approach. As defined here, by me, those approaches are very different, and that’s a problem.

Here’s what I admit flat out: many racial groups ARE represented in a number of televisions show. You can easily turn on your television during Primetime and see a number races/ethnicities present and accounted for. I am not denying that.

At this point, someone with an opposing view might say, “Hey, what’s your problem? If you are admitting that races/ethnicities are accounted for, what more do you want? Isn’t that good enough?”

No. It’s not good enough. If you had a child who brought home a report card full of Fs, but then worked hard and made gradual improvements to pull those Fs up to Cs, you recognize that it’s a start, but Cs still shouldn’t be good enough. Cs mean you’re doing just enough to stay in the middle of the road, not failing, but not excelling either. In 2011 I say with all the conviction that I can muster that it is not good enough, not on the report card and certainly not on our TV screens.

That’s where the problem with the Diversify Approach comes in. It’s not about excelling, it’s about being good enough. It’s about adding a product to a business for no other reason than to hedge bets and cover bases. In the realm of entertainment, criticism of diversity issues have been loud and consistent. So, to quiet critics you can count on most new shows being cast with several characters of different races in the mix. But, based on character arcs when compared with their White counterparts, it’s not unreasonable to see the Diversified Roles as the “manufactured product” mentioned above, something to add to the businesses portfolio, but no necessarily the main line of business or even a very high priority.

The Diversity Approach

As mentioned above, I’m looking at Diversity as the fair representation and humane depiction of America’s many non-white racial groups across the landscape of television, films, and books. To be clear, I understand that this is an abstract aspiration. What is fair? Certainly not life itself, so how can I expect a money machine like the entertainment industry to shoot for such a lofty ideal?

Frankly, I don’t. It would be nice if we could ever define fair in quantifiable terms, then institute fairness into as many areas as possible. I’m not foolish, though. So, I’ll shoot for awareness. I’ll make my points, give my examples, and hope that if I, and others like me, continue to bring this up then more and more industry gatekeepers will become aware (or stop claiming false unawareness) and greenlight more projects that showcase faces, cultures, and lifestyles that represent the many faces of America and not just the faces that have been most dominant.

With that in mind, I present the Diversity Approach. This is the approach that is used when various characters of differing race exist as (rough) EQUALS within a shared fictional universe. Let me restate, this is the fair and humane part of my Diversity Approach definition. The non-white characters don’t exist to provide comic relief, add street cred, advance negative stereotypes, or be stepping stones that help the white characters reach their all important goals. This is not a new idea. Spike Lee was vocal about this when he coined the term “Super Duper Magical Negro” and author Steven Barnes writes often about the de-humanization of black males in films. (For the record, I agree with both of their observations, but I’m choosing to write in terms of general non-white representation because this blog post is too condensed to get into micro-specifics.)

I hope I’ve done an acceptable job in setting up the framework in which my next few posts on this subject will exist. Now, I’ll give some examples of both approaches in practice.

The Portfolio

Disclaimer: I have not seen every TV show in the world. Therefore, the shows I mention below should not be considered as any kind of scientific sample. I KNOW they don’t represent the whole of television. However, they are shows that I’m familiar with, therefore I can observe and comment based on first-hand impressions.

Grey’s Anatomy* (ABC)

Obviously, the show’s namesake is the Meredith Gray character, who is a white female. The show is an ensemble (meaning that every character has their own story arc and can be the focus of any given episode), but I would not expect any character to ever become MORE important, or even totally equal to, Meredith. I can’t say I’ve followed the show extensively since the first few seasons (my wife is a fan and I watched with her, she has since released me from that obligation) so maybe that’s an incorrect assumption. Even if it is, that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve always considered this show to be one of the most positive examples of diversity on television. A number of races are represented, and they are written as human beings (meaning they all have real goals, and realistic emotional and sexual relationships) instead of caricatures. Within my framework, this show is a shining example of the Diversity Approach.

*It’s important to note that the show’s creator and executive producer (for us folks in the real world, that means ‘boss’) is Shonda Rimes, an African-American female. I’ll speak more about her when I write my Solutions post.

Undercovers* (NBC)

Married couple Steven and Samantha Bloom run a catering company while assisting the CIA on covert operations. This was super producer JJ Abrams attempt at reversing the formula we’ve grown so accustomed to as Americans (God bless him). Here, two non white characters were the leads while white characters existed in support roles. Strictly speaking, this fell into the Diversify Approach because the White characters were really caricatures (or cliches, really). Grumpy Boss, Goofy Sidekick, and so on…

However, the series should be applauded as an effort to showcase uncharacteristic faces in dramatic roles that we RARELY see in America. It was cancelled after airing only 11 episodes, and rightfully so since it was dull beyond belief.

*Here’s the problem with the cancellation of Undercovers…it is my belief that the assumption will be that the show didn’t catch on because of the Non-White actors as leads. Not that the show had the SAME FATE AS MOST SHOWS. Most television shows DO NOT MAKE IT, even good ones. And, in the case of Undercovers, it just wasn’t good. It wouldn’t have been good if the leads were White. Sadly, losing the show is a blow to Diversity efforts. Because it will be marked in the Non-White Leads Don’t Work column instead of Non-White Actors Can’t Get Cast In The Good Roles column.

Glee (Fox)

When I saw the premier of Glee I couldn’t help but smile. From episode 1 I saw what this show was supposed to be, a showcase for the outcasts. If nothing else, this show would do what so many others fail at, or don’t even try. It would be a true representation of Diversity. Race, Sexuality, Social Status all depicted as varying and acceptable because America is varied, and those variances should be accepted. And, for the most part, I think it’s tried to live up to those expectations.

Except when it comes to African-Americans…

Confession, I’ve probably missed the last 4 to 5 episodes of Glee. So, please correct me if what I’m about to say is wrong, or if the evidence I present has changed.

Exhibit A: The lone African-American Male of the Glee Club (you might remember him as the Other Dancing Guy) is conspicuously absent at the start of season 2. Maybe he left by choice…I don’t know. But I immediately noticed that the Black Guy was gone. I don’t know if they even explained the character’s absence. It was like he never existed.

Exhibit B: At the time of my last viewing, EVERY MEMBER OF THE CLUB had had a significant relationship arc. They’d dated, found love, gotten their heart broken, pined for someone who didn’t notice them, etc. That is, every member except Mercedes (the African-American female with an Aretha Franklin voice). I’ve seen this character have 2 concerns during the life of the show…getting a solo (fair, it is a show about singing and the girl can sing) and having the cafeteria bring back tater tots (WTF?). This translates into caricature, unflattering stereotypes about overweight people, and pretty much a dehumanization of a single character on a show that’s supposed to be about acceptance and self-expression.

So, I have to say that, for the most part, Glee falls under the Diversity approach, but with one glaring Diversify example that I sincerely hope they correct.

The Vampire Diaries (CW)*

I’ve watched this show for a few reasons. The first being that it’s the fledgling network’s most watched show…I like to stay up on trends. The second being I love twisty stories of the supernatural, and when it comes to the writing on this show, they knock it out of the park. The third, it’s set in Virginia (though it’s really shot in Georgia) and it’s kind of neat to see what Hollywood does with my home state (mostly, they get it wrong…but whatever). That being said, I hate myself for liking those aspects of this show because when it comes to Diversity grading, this show deserves an ‘F’…and I mean a huge gasoline soaked ‘F’ drawn in the dirt so large that when you strike a match and set it on fire, it’s visible from space. But, in light of the framework, I’ll just say it subscribes to the Diversify Approach.

Let me explain. First, the protagonist is the lovelorn Elena, stuck between 2 sexy vampires. All three are White (note: someone already pointed out that Nina Dobrev, the lead actress is of Bulgarian descent. True. So let me expound on what I mean by White…she looks White. If that’s not good enough, the US Census defines the White check box as being of European, Middle Eastern, or North African descent. Bulgaria is in Europe, moving on) . This is perfectly fine. I NEVER said any show SHOULD have Non White leads, it would just be cool if more did. Where the show goes heavy into the Diversify Approach is the depiction of All Non White characters. I believe there is only one Non White regular, the Bonnie character played by actress Kat Graham. A couple of things about this character…strictly speaking, Spike Lee might say she falls into the Super Duper Magical Negro category because she’s an all-powerful witch on the series. I’m willing to give her a pass on that part because almost everyone on the show has a supernatural ability. HOWEVER, her motivations (such as a WILLINGNESS TO DIE so the Elena character lives, doesn’t make a lot of sense, which sort of puts her back in the SDMN category). So, I’ll concede and call draw on her. However, EVERY TIME I’ve seen an African-American male with a speaking role or any kind of interaction with the main cast on the show, he’s DIED HORRIBLY. EVERY. TIME. The same can be said about the lone Asian Female I recall from the show’s 2 season run.

Counterpoint: It’s a show about murderous supernatural creatures. A lot of people die.

Counter-Counterpoint: This could be excused if the perpetual victims had representation on the survivorss side of things. As it stands, when you see someone from another race pop up on this show, don’t count on them becoming a new regular.

*As a whole, the CW is terrible when it comes to diversity in their 8-10 EST primetime schedule. If you take away America’s Next Top Model, which we shouldn’t count because it’s not a scripted show, I’m willing to bet that Non-White characters/actors are outnumbered by their White counterparts by margins as high as 5-1 (if not higher). HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE IN 2011? Particularly with a network that is targeted towards the young?

To Be Continued…

There’s something to start a discussion. Think about what I’ve written, and gauge your own reaction. Have you ever noticed any of this? If you have, did it bother you? Do you think I’m off base? Please respond. I’d love to hear different views on the matter.

When I broach this subject again, I plan to talk about the film industry. There are some very telling things there, too.

Until then, later gang. And Happy Mother’s Day to all who meet the criteria.


 

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