There appears to be some confusion among uninformed opponents1 of the We Need Diverse Books campaign. It’s the same confusion expressed each and every time anyone (usually an author, agent, or editor) points out a fact about diversity in the publishing industry (woefully low) and expresses a desire for more variety.
See this Confused People Example:
As part of the Common Sense portion of our program, I must make the following announcement:
The commentators in the above example think (incorrectly) that the campaign is about forcing writers to create and feature more diverse characters. Let’s be clear, these particular commentators are concerned with making white/cis/straight/able-bodied writers write about The Other.
So many things wrong here. Where to start?
“These people should write their own books”
Who are they talking about? The 20,000+ participants of the campaign who reached 43 MILLION people with over 150 MILLION impressions worldwide? They should all write books because their opinions don’t matter unless they do? Maybe it’s the children who only want to see heroes who look like them. They should shut their pieholes until they’re in a position to publish? Heaven forbid someone has an opinion–a want–related to a field they aren’t affiliated with professionally. Sports fan, cut out your tongues now! Voters, stop wasting time at the polls and just run for President. Because that’s logical.
The campaign was STARTED BY PROFESSIONAL WRITERS AND PUBLISHERS. The supporters represent an under served segment of the book buying public. There are many people–in both of those groups–who have and can write their own books. That’s not the point! This is about systemic neglect that has allowed statistical stagnation for years, and for reasons that don’t make total sense when we look at the make up of our country–or the world. The campaign is a rally reminding publishing’s gatekeepers that WE do, indeed, matter.
Of course everyone who supports the campaign isn’t going to write their own books. But, such expressions by detractors are telling. They reveal, at best, common internet contrarians who must be the voice of dissension. At worst, prejudicial dimwits who can’t FATHOM writers of different races/sexual orientation/levels of physical abilities/etc. actually existing, thus triggering protests for beloved mainstream writers not to succumb to Political Correctness.
I wish these guys many sleepless nights fretting over the issue. Moving on…
This is a good one:
Okay, first…Dude, look up “Racist.” You know what, I’ll do it for you:
Racist (n): A person who believes a particular race is superior to another. (Courtesy of the New American Oxford Dictionary)
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s examine this statement: “No one should be forced to read.”
Yes. You’re absolutely right. Strange you should bring it up when ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT THIS CAMPAIGN involves forcing anyone to read anything. Let’s dissect this, though. This person obviously interpreted the hashtag to mean “You, and others like you, should read and support more books about people who aren’t like you.” Now, as a general rule, that’s probably not a bad idea. If this person read more outside the comfort zone, s/he might have a better idea of what racism means, OR understand hashtags aren’t beamed directly into the brain, thus forcing involuntary expansions of horizons. Just sayin’.
Again, we’ve got someone skating the thin line between ignorance and outright prejudice. Their reasoning: a campaign for more diverse books is about forcing readers to indulge in material that doesn’t interest them. There CAN’T be a population out there that actually desires more diverse authors and characters. That’s just crazy talk.
Also, his fixation on Americans isn’t lost on me. This map of the campaign’s worldwide reach must’ve been faked, then. Like the Moon Landing, Global Warming, and Integration. Keep sippin’ the homemade shine, buddy.
Actually, I can’t put this one on the campaign. This is just me. See below:
This bit of commentary came directly to me. As you can tell, the sender clearly didn’t click my name for they would’ve seen one of the diverse books (FAKE ID) I did write. Look at me all “being the change.”
Yet another situation where a person just…can’t…grasp that there are indeed authors with the ability to write the kinds of books we’re lobbying for. It’s not “We Need (YOU To Write) Diverse Books.”
I calmly addressed the sender’s criticism, and never got another message from the person. That “be the change” statement wasn’t about the sender becoming informed (something s/he could’ve done on their own), though. It was a challenge, one I wasn’t supposed to be able to meet. It’s “there aren’t diverse books because none of you [insert expletive/slur here] can write them.” Which is BS.
[Spoiler alert] Had the conversation with this party continued, this is likely how it would’ve gone: sender makes some statement implying diverse books would be everywhere if they sold better. Publishers have to worry about the bottom line. There’s SOME truth to this. Publishing IS a business after all. That argument ignores a couple of big things…distribution and discoverability.
Example: This past Saturday was the #DiversifyYourShelves portion of the campaign. I went to a bookstore with 3 books by diverse authors on my list. The store had none of them on the shelves despite the books being recent releases.
I did see MULTIPLE copies and stand up displays for a bunch of other books that AREN’T diverse. If I was a shopper looking for a quick, impulse buy…well, my options weren’t just limited, they were manipulated in a “pick me up, look how well stocked I am” kind of way. THIS IS THE PROBLEM we’re trying to work on.
There’s so much talk of “the market” –what it will support, what it wants–that we’ve come to think of it as this Tazmanian Devil that spins unpredictably from vampires to dystopias to teens on a road trip. Unexpected things do happen, I’m sure. Hits out of nowhere. Besides those rare blockbusters, what makes it into the brick and mortars probably has more to do with store buyer’s preference and past trends. Don’t you see, if the trend has been to ignore huge segments of the populace for decades, how can there be a reasonable expectation for a breakthrough diverse hit to drive the market our way when the damned books aren’t anywhere to be found?
Can a bookstore shelve every book that’s published? No. Do books on the shelves have a better chance of selling than books that must be requested, and shipped within 3-5 business days? What do you think?
If decades of neglect tells us anything, it’s that people in favor of diverse authors and characters can’t sit back and wait for publishing’s gatekeepers to see solutions on their own. They haven’t. And they won’t.
#WeNeedDiverseBooks was a partial antidote. An outcry for variety that can’t be ignored. At least not this week.
More activism is required. More campaigns and initiatives, silly Twitter combatant. So be careful who you challenge next time, as I’ll be less inclined to wield my 140 characters in such a polite manner.
Here’s the hard reality…every week isn’t going to be #WeNeedDiverseBooks popping on 40 Million screens. Myself and the other organizers know this, and we’re taking great care to not let this become one of those “Remember that time when we…” kind of deals. I’m not at liberty to discuss what’s next for our merry band of marauders, but we’re not going on hiatus just yet. Protectors of the status quo, put on your Ignorance Armor and prepare yourselves.
We are the change.
And we’re coming.
Today we’re revealing part three of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, a project that’s near and dear to my heart!
Part three is called “Diversify Your Shelves,” and it’s all about taking a personal approach to promoting diversity in literature.
does that mean? Is this maybe something we’ll do for a week and then go back to
buying books by old white guys?
Well, no. “Diversify Your Shelves” is a continual
celebration of fabulous diverse literature, by fabulous diverse authors.
Checking out what books we have on our shelves, and seeing how we might
diversify them, is just a jumping off point.
There’s also going to be a “Diversify Your Shelves” chat on
Saturday, May 3rd at 2PM EST to discuss our favorite diverse books
and authors! Use the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag to join in!
But wait! Why is
this so important?
Because, at every conference I or my writer friends attend,
there are kids asking why they can’t find books with characters who look like
them, either on the cover or in the pages.
Because the same thing happens at book signings, except
there the kids are saying they’ve always wanted to get into writing, but don’t
think they’ll be successful because they’re people of color.
Because queer kids are still killing themselves over being
different (or being told that they’re
different) and the greater representation they have in books, the less alone
Because awesome genres like YA wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t
moved away from the old, white dude model of literature and started reading
stories written by ladies. Diversify Your Shelves is a continuation of that
principle—hearing all stories from all voices.
Because it’s 2014, but we still keep seeing all-white panels
at book festivals, or even all-white male panels (in genres vastly dominated by
women!) and that’s kind of insane to me. Diversity shouldn’t be the exception.
It should be the norm.
And because, at the end of the day, when I look at my
shelves, I think:
I can be better.
I can do more.
And I’d love for you to join me.
So, without further ado . . .
Here’s how it works: this weekend, May 3rd and 4th, we’re all going to head out to our local bookstores* to pick up books by fabulous diverse authors. (Need recommendations? Check out the May 3rd #WeNeedDiverseBooks chat!) Then, once you’ve returned home, snap a photo of your new diverse book(s)** and post it as a comment below! And if you want to get really creative, you can take Before and After photos of your bookshelves: Before, when they weren’t too diversified, and After, when you’ve added in books by fabulous PoC authors, queer authors, and authors with disabilities! Woot!
This Monday, May 5th, one lucky winner is going to win FIVE BOOKS OF THEIR CHOOSING out of the choices below!!! And every Monday throughout the spring, a new winner will be chosen to receive two fabulous diverse books! Woot!
But wait, it doesn’t stop there. Remember when I said “Diversify Your Shelves” was a continual celebration? That means any time you buy a book from a diverse author, or featuring a diverse
character, snap a picture of that book and post it to Twitter with the
#WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag! We’ll retweet you, and help spread the word about
what diverse books people are buying! And by participating in the “Diversify
Your Shelves” movement, you’ll be showing publishers the kinds of books you
want them to buy, showing conference organizers which authors you want to see on
panels, and helping tweens and teens find representation in books! Which,
really, is the awesomest prize of all!
REMEMBER: THE WINNER OF THE PRIZE PACK WILL BE CHOSEN MAY 5TH!
This week cnn.com writer Ashely Strickland published an article titled “Where’s the African-American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss,” revisiting the topic of diversity–or the lack thereof–in young adult books. Referring specifically to the almost total absence of protagonists/main characters of color in YA books despite notable writers bringing attention to the issue while creating compelling characters of color. 1
With demands for increased diversity in YA (and ALL forms of media) becoming more prominent in recent years, sites like Cindy Pon’s and Malinda Lo’s Diversity in YA, or Racebending.com promote works that present diverse perspectives and/or expose missed opportunities to diversify in natural ways. Check them out when you can. Additionally, my good friends Ellen Oh and Meg Medina address Diversity in YA beautifully and often on their own sites.
Here, I want to discuss a harsher side to the topic. The non-existent progress and outright opposition to diversifying YA (or anything). To even discuss the topic attracts accusations of “race-baiting” or “playing the race card.” 2 21st Century rhetoric for striking down uppity minorities or supporters who DARE challenge continued exclusion. Because that’s what we’re talking about when you look at nearly twenty years of data showing minority main characters outnumbered by their white counterparts 9 to 1 (and it’s possible that I’m rounding up in favor of minorities; in 2012 the CCBC conducted a survey of 3,600 books and showed minority main characters accounted for 7-8% of all main characters in that year). This, in spite of expressed commitments to diversity from publishing’s gatekeepers.
In other words, nothing new.
Sites, articles, panels (like the one I’ll be participating in at this summer’s SCBWI conference in Los Angeles) receive all sorts of overt support. Adamant readers, writers, and representatives can seem as numerous as detractors if you’re inside the publishing industry like I am. Yet statistics remain unchanged.
There’s a popular saying,”Be the change.” I propose an alternative motto for the Diversify YA movement. “Don’t BS the change.”
Mission statements are great. So is continued discussion. But it’s time to move beyond examining this from a thousand different angles and start asking folks in power for answers and solutions.
1) Only 8% of main characters are non-white year after year. Is that acceptable to you? If you say yes, well, at least you’re being honest. No need to go further. I suspect most will say no, and some percentage of those people might mean it.
2) If you answered “no” to question 1, and you mean it, what do YOU plan to do about it? This one I direct mostly towards the gatekeepers who select books for publication (though readers can certainly help by seeking diverse titles to read and discuss with others). We’ve quantified the numbers, to change them, there must be an active plan. Devise one. If that requires too much effort see the next question.
3)Editors, what percentage of last year’s acquisitions were books with diverse main characters? Whatever that number is, I bet it’s low. Dismally. You probably don’t want the public to know about it. So, let’s institute a plan to increase that number by 2% each year. 3 (Cue pained cries of affirmative action and how America has fallen apart. Whatever.)
4) Did you scoff at that 2% annual increase? Reconsider your answer to question 1.
5) Are you concerned that books featuring non-white main characters will sell poorly? If you said yes, it’s okay that you’re concerned. But, keep in mind that you have books on your list featuring white main characters that sell poorly. Which means your concern shows bias. All books run the risk of not finding an audience and there has never been a time when you considered excluding white characters due to poor sales.
6) Have you not seen much pro-level material from writers of color/featuring characters of color? You say yes, and think this let’s you off the hook. Ha! Change where/how you look. Consider hosting contests, or asking current writers on your list for referrals, or requesting sympathetic writers on your list brainstorm ideas for introducing diverse leads to the market (including white writers…though not with the intent of continued exclusion of writers of color).
7) Are you marketing diverse writers/characters in the same manner you market books you EXPECT to do well in the marketplace? The keyword is “expect.” To make any of the above proposed steps with an expectation of failure, and marketing efforts that reflect negative notions creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Effective marketing doesn’t mean framing campaigns in a manner that presents the writer/character as an OTHER. A cool, diverse space opera should be marketed to “fans of STAR WARS!” not Black/Latino/Asian or some other subset of STAR WARS fans. Diverse books should be presented as if they have universal appeal BECAUSE THEY DO!
Enough for now. I’m not done, but I’m tired of typing (and you’re likely tired of reading). I might work this into a flowchart for easy viewing. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, if this touched you, remember, don’t BS the change. Question lack of progress. Don’t accept garbage answers.
Hafsah at IceyBooks just gave the world its first look at the cover for my upcoming Young Adult debut, FAKE ID, which is out in January. Get thee over to IceyBooks for a glimpse of what’s coming, and enter to win an Advanced Reader Copy of the book (Yes, that means you get to read it before most of the world…NICE!)
In case you missed the other two links in this post, here’s another: http://www.iceybooks.com/2013/06/fake-id-by-lamar-giles-cover-reveal-and.html
Take a look and help spread the word!
I have not seen PROMETHEUS, the latest sci-fi film from Ridley Scott, the director of the classic ALIEN (to which PROMETHEUS is a prequel). Nothing I say here will spoil the movie for you because it is simply conjecture. However, I am basing the thesis of this post on things I’ve observed in the film’s promotional material. And I will be referring to major plot points in ALIEN and its sequels, which could be considered spoilers if you’re the rare person who cares enough to read this and HASN’T seen the film (which came out in 1979…if you claim I spoiled a 32 year old film for you, you really had it coming. Also, in THE SIXTH SENSE, Bruce Willis is actually dead the whole time). Moving on…
So, the question: could Idris Elba be the secret hero in PROMETHEUS? I have no idea, but I think it’d be cool for a few reasons, which I’ll get to in a moment. First, why even ask this question? At best, he’s a blip in the trailer. Blink and you miss him.
In trailer 2 he gets a bit more screen time and we get to hear some line readings, but everything we’ve seen so far leads one to believe that Noomi Rapace is the heroine. She’s top billed*, is the one featured prominently in all the trailers, and she even has a passing resemblance to Sigourney Weaver. Surely, she’s the one who will save us all from whatever threat exists in this film. If not her, then Charlize Theron, or Michael Fassbender, or Guy Pearce, all of whom have played top billed, kick-ass heroes in films before. How in the world does Idris Elba–most noted for his role as Russell “Stringer” Bell on HBO’s The Wire–jump to the head of THAT pack?
Sigourney Weaver was NOT the star of ALIEN in 1979 – Ripley was. While featured prominently (though with little context) in the trailer, Sigourney Weaver was not the talent we now know her to be. ALIEN was her first major role. Tom Skerritt, who played Dallas in the film, was top-billed. And, until his unfortunate demise in the film’s second act, was presented as the hero. He’s what audiences of the 70’s would’ve been comfortable with in their sci-fi saviors. The rugged, handsome white guy. In a sense, Ripley was a bait-and-switch. If not for the necessity of a trailer, audiences would’ve been blind to the role this unknown actress would play. Ripley being the one to defeat the alien in the end would’ve been considered a twist. † Given the similarities in the ALIEN and PROMETHEUS promotional materials, I think another bait-and-switch could be in the making. What better twist than for the Ripley-like character to not be as Ripley-like as we’ve been led to believe?
Idris Elba seems to be a non-dumbass in the film, one of the few – Though along for the ride, for whatever reason, Idris’s character is not the one initiating the foolhardy mission of searching for alien life on what looks like a hostile world. In ALIEN and ALIENS, the first two films of the franchise (and the only two I’m willing to discuss because the other two stunk), those insisting on going places they shouldn’t have gone for less than admirable reasons (money, glory, to be ultimate bad asses), turned out to be either villains or casualties. Sometimes both. In both films, Ripley was the cautious individual. The voice of reason. Because of that, she was the only one suited to be hero (also by process of elimination…meaning the aliens eliminating everyone else). Based on the snippets available in the PROMETHEUS trailers and TV spots, Idris plays this same role. He’s the one concerned with contamination, and giving threats access to safe havens. This makes him Ripley-like, more so than Noomi’s character, who seems to be the driving force of this stupid mission.
Because it would mean Ridley Scott’s still got a mean curveball -In a world where whole scripts can leak to the public two years before a movie screens, it’s nice when a director can still surprise us (unless of course you’re reading this, and I’m right, in which case…well…damn it!)
Because Idris Elba is an awesome actor – But Lamar, there are a lot of awesome actors in this movie. Why him?
Because someone scoffed at the idea that Idris Elba might be the secret hero in PROMETHEUS – Before reading one word of my argument, someone out there will see his name and/or picture, and immediately have a negative reaction to the possibility that this actor might be more than Victim #1, 2, or 3 in this film. I’m not saying it’s you. But, is it? There’s so little diversity in entertainment. So few solid roles for minority actors and actresses. Particularly in science-fiction or fantasy films. Hmmm….it reminds me of a time when kick-ass female characters were the exception, not the rule, in those very same genres. That changed when a certain director launched a certain franchise and blew us out of the air lock with a concept that would become normal, then cliche. The Female Action Hero. Is it so hard to fathom that that same director might do something similar when returning to the franchise? I hope so. Because, just as a generation of girls grew up idolizing a female hero who wasn’t scared to face off with a space demon, it would be nice if a generation of boys, who are IGNORED by Hollywood, could cheer for a fearless alien fighter who, for a change, happens to look like them.‡
I grew up watching movies where the guys who look like me often died horribly. Heck, I still watch movies like that. To avoid them would mean avoiding the stories that speak to me more than any others. So I make concessions, and sit through what could be considered genre genocide. We’ve all heard the jokes. ‘The black guy dies first’. That’s not always the case, but (too) often, in situations of peril, a guy with brown skin is no different than a Starship Enterprise crew member in a Red Shirt. I wasn’t always aware of it, but once it came to my attention, it made me sad in ways most people can’t understand (Or, in cases of extreme insensitivity, they write off as an overreaction). I’ve long dreamed of a day when the hero who saves the world, survives the conflict, and gets the girl§ resembles somebody I might see at a family reunion. I don’t really think it plays out the way I would like it to in PROMETHEUS, but I’d settle for Idris Elba getting a Ripley moment, if only for one film. He’s got his whole career to get his due. Sigourney Weaver went on to lead many films with nary an alien in them. I hope the same fate lies ahead for Mr. Elba, who is a fine actor. And if he gets to kick an alien out of an airlock, I hope we see the old trope of “black guy = cannon fodder” go out right along with it.
If you enjoyed this commentary, please share this post through the social media outlet of your choosing and be sure to LIKE my fan page on Facebook. I’m a writer and I need the buzz. Thank you kindly.
*Billing refers to the order in which actors names appear in the credits. The person whose name appears first is top-billed, the star of the production. In situations where a number of big
egos stars appear in the same film, credits might be listed alphabetically to avoid any dust ups about who is the bigger prima donna should be billed first.
† I think it was considered a twist. The movie premiered the year I was born, only coming to my attention after Sigourney Weaver was pop-culture icon and “Get away from her you bitch” was one of the most famous lines in the history of cinema. So any opinions/analysis on my part is retrospective. That being said, I can’t think of many other kick-ass female characters from 30+ year old mainstream studio flicks. Thus, this would’ve been surprising in ’79, while we’re all too used to Buffy, and Black Widow, and Trinity here in the 21st century.
‡ If anyone points out Will Smith in the comments, I’m coming to your house and plucking you in the forehead.
§ You may think these three events (wins, survives, gets the girl) happen a lot for minority actors/characters. I could write a whole series of articles on how you’re probably wrong. That’s another discussion.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.